Upskilling: A Full Guide (incl. 7 ways to upskill your workforce)

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Upskilling: A Full Guide (incl. 7 ways to upskill your workforce)

When it comes to future-proofing your people, upskilling is the way to go. In this article, we take a thorough look at upskilling; what it is, how you can upskill your people, what courses there are available, and we share three real-life upskill projects.

Contents 
What is upskilling? A definition
Why upskilling is key for the future of work 
7 ways to upskill your workforce 
Digital upskilling
Upskill courses
Upskill project examples (case study)
Conclusion
FAQ

What is upskilling? A definition

Upskilling is the process of acquiring new and relevant competencies needed today and in the near future. Common examples of upskilling efforts include digital skills, analytics skills, and organizational transformation skills.

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Why upskilling is key for the future of work

Upskilling has become increasingly relevant over the past years. There are several reasons for this but the most important one is the growing (digital) skills gap many companies are facing; the difference between what employers want or need their employees to be able to do and what those employees can actually do. The main causes of the current skills gap are: 

  • Skills gap due to an aging workforce. The baby boom generation has been – and will be – retiring for a while now. Naturally, this creates a gap, both in terms of open positions that are hard to fill, and in terms of skills and knowledge that get lost in the process. 
  • Skills gap due to digitalization. We’re currently in the midst of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Developments in fields like artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies are happening faster and faster, hence changing the nature of the jobs that need to be done – and, by extension, the skills needed to do those jobs. 

In the section below, we’ll look at 7 different strategies to upskill your people.  

7 Ways to upskill your workforce

There are various ways to upskill your workforce. Depending on your organization’s needs (based on a skills gap analysis), one method may be more suitable than another. Oftentimes, a combination of different upskilling techniques will be what works best.  

1. Learning and development 

Upskilling your workforce via your learning and development (L&D) program is probably the most obvious way to go. The L&D program, however, is the result of a learning and development strategy. Depending on the model you use to create such a strategy, there are four phases required:

  1. An analysis of training needs (for instance through a skills gap analysis)
  2. Specification of learning objectives
  3. Design of training content and method
  4. Monitoring and evaluation 

Every organization will end up with a (slightly) different L&D strategy – and program. Naturally, this means that the learning methods a company chooses to upskill its workforce will vary as well. Some organizations will prefer online courses in combination with real-life lectures and seminars, while others will go for peer coaching and an ‘upskill track’ on their LMS (Learning Management System).   

2. Job rotation

Job rotation is a key technique in job redesign. It is the practice of moving employees between jobs in an organization – can be an excellent way to transfer specific skills, knowledge, and competencies. These rotations are mostly lateral, this means that they take place between jobs on the same level. They are also often temporary so people tend to move back to their original job after a certain period.  

For example, managers may need to gain experience in different departments before they’re ready for a senior leadership position in which they need this experience. Similarly, HR professionals sometimes lack business skills. A good way to build these skills is by rotating them outside the HR department.

3. Job enlargement 

Job enlargement involves including additional activities within the same level to an existing role. Put simply, this means that an employee will do more, different activities in their current job.    

Job enlargement teaches people a variety of skills and helps their career growth. Additional job responsibilities require training and help in building additional experience. In other words, it can be a way to upskill your workforce. 

4. Job enrichment 

Job enrichment is a process that is characterized by adding extra dimensions to existing jobs. Examples include increasing skill variety, creating more autonomy, and giving feedback. 

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While the main goal of job enrichment is to make jobs more motivating, it can have the ‘bonus’ advantage of upskilling people at the same time; the simple fact of increasing skill variety implies that employees will have to expand their abilities.

Upskilling employees

5. Peer coaching 

Peer coaching is another way to go about upskilling employees. Two or more colleagues work together to, among other things, expand, refine, and build new skills, teach one another, and solve problems in the workplace. 

Peer coaching exposes employees to a bigger range of workplace skills. What’s attractive about this form of upskilling is that it has a more informal side to it: people have a peer they can talk to directly, ask questions when they come up, and learn from by watching them during their work.  

If, for example, you pair up a marketeer with a content creator, this will create mutual opportunities for learning new skills and increasing each other’s basic knowledge of their respective field of expertise.  

And there’s more. Peer coaching offers people the opportunity to build leadership skills such as active listening, effective feedback, timely communication and the ability to teach and mentor. As such, it can be a great way for upskilling the soft skills of your employees.

6. Peer mentoring 

While peer mentoring and peer coaching certainly have similarities, they’re not the same. With peer mentoring, a more experienced employee teaches knowledge and skills to a less experienced worker. The mentor also provides guidance. 

Peer mentoring can be a valuable (and often underestimated) way of upskilling. A lot of the taken-for-granted knowledge of employees comes from their personal experience and interactions with colleagues. This kind of tacit knowledge is hard to transfer since it often isn’t recorded in a database, standard operating procedure, or formal training program.

7. Hire external experts/specialists (outsourcing) 

Sometimes, you need to upskill people but you don’t have the in-house capacity to do so. Either because you need employees with certain skills as soon as possible and training them would simply take too long. Or perhaps because the skills you need are so new that you don’t have the knowledge and experience to start upskilling people. 

In the current context, this can, for instance, be the case regarding digital skills and technical skills like programming and app development. A solution might be to hire freelance specialists or contractors. These people can bring the exact skills, competencies, and experience you need to get started on a new project. 

By teaming these external experts up with the right people from within the company, you create an upskilling opportunity. Ideally, by the time the project is done, you will have built the capability you previously lacked in-house or had time to create an L&D strategy that will do so in the not too distant future.       

Digital upskilling

Digital upskilling will become increasingly important over the next few years. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2022, almost half of the global workforce will need to either expand or replace their current skills. 

A recent report in the Netherlands found that 50% of workers in the country need to be upskilled on digital skills. These skills depend on the role, of course, but could include:

  • blind typing
  • using software like MS Office
  • being able to properly use computers
  • being able to use social media
  • (basic) programming

The findings from the Dutch report are expected to hold true for all developed nations.

Now, how to go about the digital upskilling of your workforce? By choosing one or more of the methods we described above. While you can use all of them, there are probably a few techniques that are better suited when it comes to digital upskilling due to the nature of digital skills; they tend to ‘expire’ and evolve faster which means that, for instance, peer coaching and mentoring, job rotation, and hiring external specialists will work better than a more long-term training course.    

Upskill courses 

Upskilling can happen, as we’ve seen, in many different ways. You can find an upskill course for virtually every single (existing) job and industry out there to keep your skillset on point. 

To give you an idea of the wide variety of upskill courses out there, we thought we’d include a (very) small selection below. And since we’re all about HR here at AIHR, we also added an option for HR professionals.

1. The Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR)

Starting with, of course, our very own Academy. At AIHR, it is our mission to make HR future-proof by offering world-class, online education programs, available anywhere, anytime. Any HR professional who is committed to life-long learning can expand their skill set with relevant and in-demand skills. 

You can upskill with courses covering People Analytics and Digital HR by developing relevant, practical skills, industry-leading expertise, and hands-on experience. 

2. Udacity

Udacity is an excellent example of a platform that offers its students ample possibilities to (digitally) upskill. They’ve partnered with leading technology companies and teach critical tech skills that organizations are looking for in their workforce.

Udacity’s curriculum covers (emerging) fields like artificial intelligence, data science, cloud computing, programming and development, and more. Within each of these main subjects, students can choose a more specialized topic they want to upskill on. Think for instance of AI for Healthcare, AI for Business Leaders, Deep Learning, and AI Programming with Python.

3. Kokoroe

Kokoroe is another great example of a company that offers highly relevant upskill courses. Their platform is filled with content that allows people to develop the skills of tomorrow in a simple and fun way. Think of soft skills as well as professional and technological skills. 

While the courses from Kokoroe aren’t specifically for HR professionals, many of them are super valuable for HR since they cover themes that affect the world of work. Think of courses such as: 

  • Inclusion: Why it matters
  • Giving good feedback at work
  • How to deal with conflict? 
Upskilling via peer mentoring

Upskill project examples

To give you an idea of the variety of upskill projects that exists, we’ll take a look at three examples in this section. 

1. Arla Foods Denmark 

Arla Foods is a farmer-owned dairy company in Denmark. The organization recognized the need to invest in the skill development of its entire workforce in order to remain competitive. As such, the company launched an upskill project to enable its employees to gain competencies that could help them in the future. 

As a result, 3500 people participated in Danish and maths courses hence ‘taking them out of the Stone Age into the modern age of communication’ as one of them said. A key success factor was the positive image of training among the Arla workforce.  

The purpose of Arla Food’s upskill project was to make people aware that personal upskilling is necessary to keep yourself in the workforce; since automation is increasing in the dairy industry and job profiles are changing, the need for unskilled labor is diminishing. 

2. A large advertising company

A form of upskilling you might not immediately think of is that of skilling up a sales team on, for instance,  the release of a range of new products and systems they’ll need to sell. 

At Skilled Up, a company specialized in product training and skills development programs, they worked on such a case involving no less than 600 sales consultants that needed to be brought up to speed in a week. This is how they went about upskilling them: 

  • They developed a face-to-face training solution to upskill all sales consultant within 1 week on how the new products were to be incorporated into the existing product suite, including key messages, questions, and language. 
  • The developed a series of 1 hour product training workshops to provide rerfresher training where necessary. Account managers were trained to deliver these short workshops in team meetings. 
  • Developed e-learning product training to support and provide refresher training for the sales force once on the road. The e-learning was also posted on the LMS. 

This combination of several upskill methods proved to be successful since by the end of the week, the entire sales team was upskilled. 

3. PwC

At PwC, they’ve developed a workforce upskilling strategy to build the ‘digital fitness’ as they call it, of all their people. The company aims to equip its people with a broad base of knowledge across various domains that they believe are critical for all business people today including: 

  • Data
  • Analytics 
  • AI and automation 
  • Blockchain
  • Design thinking 

PwC’s upskilling strategy is one of the company’s core business priorities and sponsored by their chairman (as it should be). 

To upskill its employees, the company uses various tools such as podcasts, gamification techniques, immersive skill building, and quizzes. They’ve also developed a Digital Fitness app that gives employees a custom assessment of their digital acumen and guides them to the tools and resources they need to improve and close gaps.  

One of the key learning that came out of the digital upskill project at PwC is the importance of building a growth mindset culture and the commitment, both from the organization and the employees to lifelong learning. 

Conclusion

Upskilling will be one of the most important ways for companies to equip their people with the (digital) skills and competencies they need to be future-proof. How you go about the upskilling of employees depends on your specific needs, both from an organizational as well as an employee perspective. Often, a combination of one or more of the upskilling techniques listed in this article will work best.

FAQ

What is upskilling?

Upskilling is the process of acquiring new and relevant competencies needed today and in the near future. Common examples of upskilling efforts include digital skills, analytics skills, and organizational transformation skills.

How can you upskill your workforce?

There are various ways to upskill your workforce including learning and development, job rotation, job enlargement, job enrichment, peer coaching, peer mentoring, and outsourcing.

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