Employee Engagement Series: Upskilling the Workforce

Employee engagement

By: Susan Walsh, SHRM-SCP

As we enter the second year of the Great Resignation, organizations need to harness the power of employee engagement to retain their existing workforce. Companies that truly care about their employees by ensuring they have the skills and tools to do their job, contribute in meaningful ways, and are ready for future work have a greater chance of retaining their workforce. As organizations flex and adjust to external forces, new skills may be required of the workforce. While hiring for specific skills may have been a past solution for a skill gap, HR professionals need to be armed with multiple means of meeting new organizational skill requirements. In short, this pathway to new skills and career growth can boost engagement and retention.


The term has been around for nearly half a century and was used to describe the process of retraining employees and providing them new skills. The definition has evolved somewhat as the pace of technology has picked up and facilitated the need for rapid, scaled change. Upskilling can generally be viewed from two perspectives:

1) The more narrow view of upskilling includes the process of learning new skills for a specific purpose or role. This is closely related to more traditional learning and development.

2) The wider view of upskilling refers to a major shift in how an organization uses technology and tools to gain strategic advantage and how to prepare the organization to use new competencies required for this change. This is closely related to organizational effectiveness and development.

An organization that focuses on upskilling moves from being one that practices organizational learning to being a learning organization. The key difference between organizational learning and a learning organization is that organizational learning focuses on learning by experience and knowledge gathered from day-to-day activities whereas a learning organization focuses on learning designed to ensure employees are prepared to thrive in a future role or state of work.

Benefits of Upskilling:

● Prepares existing workforce for future opportunities.

● Often just-in-time development results in immediate skill use and efficient use of the development budget.

● Accelerates the change process within a team, function or organization.

● Increases employee satisfaction and engagement which can result in lower turnover and lower hiring costs.

Examples of Upskilling:

1. An accounting firm gains efficiencies by ensuring all functions are skilled in the use of new productivity software

2. A professional services firm uses technology to assess employees’ digital knowledge and creates customized learning plans.

3. A consulting firm uses a connected learning platform that guides employees through the process of connecting, collaborating, and practicing for the scenarios they will encounter in their work with clients.

4. A digital agency improves software time-to-market by ensuring team members have the knowledge and skills to use agile principles in development.

Past results with upskilling indicate that larger organizations have had more success due to the investment required in development. However, as costs associated with hiring increase, upskilling is a viable option for any size company, department, or team. With a good understanding of the strategic direction of the organization and the external and internal forces working for or against this direction, the savvy HR professional can create a quantifiable business case for upskilling. Upskilling creates multiple wins, for both the company and employees. By ensuring the organization (department or team) is ready for the future and creating new paths for existing employees to develop and grow, HR hits a home run!

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