Reskilling and Upskilling: It’s a Joint Responsibility

Today’s speed of change means a greater demand for upskilling and reskilling. Here’s how employees, managers, organizations, and the community can partner together to stay nimble.
Rose Minichiello
January 14, 2020

As the speed of workplace change gets faster, the need for upskilling or reskilling is becoming a reality for more and more individuals and organizations. So what is the best path forward? In this blog post, we look at the benefits of a joint approach to developing skill capabilities, in which individuals, managers, organizations, and the community play a role.

The reality of today’s jobs and skills

In 2017, the World Economic Forum put out a report on reskilling that presented an alarming statistic: by 2020, 35% of the skills that were needed by jobs in 2017 would change. Organizations and individuals are now living this reality, facing a mismatch between the skills that organizations need and the skills that individuals have. This misalignment comes both from the decline in some existing skill areas and from the emergence of new skill areas.

Looking at updates to Canada’s National Occupational Classification (NOC) can provide very real examples of this. For instance, in the 2011 update, blacksmiths and die-cutters were reclassified from a dedicated category into “other trades”, likely reflecting a decline in demand for that set of skills. In contrast, the 2016 NOC update included, among other things, the new occupation of “video game tester”.

Reskilling or upskilling: What’s the difference?

Because new skill demands are emerging regularly and existing skills are becoming obsolete, the need to constantly update one’s skills is the new normal. In some cases, this might mean upskilling, or learning more advanced skills within one’s profession. In other cases, it may mean reskilling, or learning an entirely new set of skills for a different profession. For example, an employee who already works as a bank software tester may need to upskill and learn some additional testing skills to become a video game tester. In contrast, someone who has been a blacksmith would need to reskill and learn an entirely new set of skills to move into video game testing.

Reskilling and upskilling are a joint responsibility

So whose responsibility is it to close this gap between the skills that are needed and the skills that are available? The reality is that keeping skills up to date is not the sole responsibility of any one party, it is a shared task. This is a task that requires ownership from individual employees, their managers, the broader organization, and even the broader community. When all parties take ownership over their piece of the puzzle, keeping skills updated can become a regular component of the way we work, not an isolated initiative that we must engage in when things get too dire.

What organizations can do

When the skills an organization needs and the skills of its current workforce do not match, the organization faces a choice: support existing team members in acquiring the skills that are necessary, or replace them with new team members that already have those skills. Although the cost of training can feel steep, we often underestimate the cost of replacing talent, which, in many cases, will be much steeper. How can organizations stay on top of their skill needs?

First, organizations need to think about reskilling and upskilling when they are engaged in strategic planning. Organizational leaders need to ask themselves – how will our strategy impact the existing skills and jobs in our company? Which jobs might no longer be required? Which jobs might change in their nature? Which new jobs might we need? Stakeholders from the organization’s talent development team should be part of this conversation to connect skill needs to a development plan that can meet those needs.

Second, organizations need to increase transparency. Many leaders fear that being honest about future skill needs and job prospects will drive employees away. However, according to focus groups conducted with individuals whose jobs are under threat from automation, many employees welcome the change that automation brings because it frees up time from repetitive tasks, allows them to focus on the more mentally-challenging aspects of their role, and encourages them to develop new skills. Increased transparency also helps to ease anxiety: employees know that changes are happening, but might not have a full understanding of how those changes might impact them, or what their options are. Equipped with more information, employees can gain clarity and take more ownership over getting their skills to where they need to be.

What managers can do

Through regular coaching conversations, managers can help link individual team member potential to the organization’s skill needs. As a manager, be on the lookout for cases where your team members are ready to learn new skills and tackle more advanced responsibilities. Are they raising their hand when new projects come up? Getting a little bored in their current role? Consider stretch assignments or cross-functional projects that they can take on to broaden their skills and contribute to the organization in new ways.

Managers can also become powerful champions of upskilling if they lead by example. As a manager, share your own learning goals with your team to send an implicit message that building in time for learning is important at all levels of your organization.

What employees can do

At the end of the day, as an employee, you need to be invested in your own career. In today’s market you need to keep your skills up to date and stay prepared. Most importantly, you need to be proactive and cannot simply rely on your company to tell you when your skills should be updated.

How to stay ahead? For one, raise your hand when learning opportunities come up in your company. Take on stretch assignments that will challenge your skills, engage in internal learning or networking groups, and take advantage of tuition reimbursements that your company may offer.

Also, after you have been in a given role for a year or more, check current job postings for that same role, not in the interest of switching jobs, but to learn about any new skills that are now in-demand for your position. Doing so regularly will help you spot any emerging trends in the skills that are required, allowing you to be proactive in acquiring those skills.

Finally, shift how you think about your capabilities. Move away from thinking about yourself as someone with a specific job title. Instead, think of yourself as someone with a set of skills, a set that is transferable and expandable. This mindset shift will make you more nimble in your career path. If the future prospects of your current occupation are uncertain, you will be able to think creatively about other areas where your skills can apply and be empowered to acquire new skills to make the transition.

How the broader community can help

Organizations, managers, and individuals operate within a broader community, which can provide additional support for upskilling and reskilling efforts. For example, in an age where the need for updating one’s skills is constant, academic institutions should consider how they can prepare their graduates to be lifelong learners. Students should emerge with that nimble mindset we discussed above – not just prepared for a career within a single occupational vertical, but prepared to apply their skills flexibly in different areas and acquire new skills on an ongoing basis.

The government can also play a role in supporting reskilling and upskilling, both at the organization and at the individual level. For example, the Canadian government offers the Canada Job Grant program through individual provinces to support organizations in developing their team members. And in Ontario, the Second Career program allows individuals who have lost their job to apply for financial support that would cover the cost of learning new skills.

Partnering together to face the challenge

Organizations recognize the challenge they are facing when it comes to skills – in a 2019 survey, 88% of Canadian CEOs reported that they were concerned about the availability of key skills in their industry – and there are signs that organizations are investing in closing the gap. Just take a look at the 2020 best places to work in the GTA: nearly every organization on the list offers some form of tuition reimbursement to upgrade skills. Several organizations even offer reimbursement for courses that are not directly related to the employee’s current job, signaling their support not only for upskilling, but for reskilling as well.

However, to be successful, organizations cannot be the only ones responsible. We need to team up to address the challenge and make the transition to ongoing skill development. That requires broad ownership, from the community, down through all levels of the organization, to the individual employee.

Four puzzle pieces fitting together showing the four groups responsible for reskilling and upskilling: individuals, managers, organizations, and the community.

Rose Minichiello is a Managing Director at Verity, overseeing all aspects of our career transition practice. She is a career management expert with more than 30 years of experience supporting organizations during large scale restructurings, working with leaders to help facilitate change and partnering with executives in transition. Rose has a fundamental commitment to delivering service excellence to corporations and individuals going through change.

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