Upskilling employees: why investing in your people matters and how to get started

Upskilling employees: why investing in your people matters and how to get started
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As hiring managers and recruiters, we’re always searching for that elusive creature: the Perfect Hire.

They have all the skills we need and will need in the future, their values perfectly match our company’s, and they laugh at all our jokes. They are unquestionably the right person for the job.

They’re also, sorry to say, a figment of our imagination.

We know this sounds scary. The cost of a bad hire is huge, and we all want to believe we’ll find exactly what we’re looking for. But every candidate comes with a set of pros and cons.

One challenge you face is to constantly upskill employees and enable them to evolve with the demands of their role.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss what upskilling employees means and how you can do it in your organization.

What do we mean when we talk about upskilling employees?

Upskilling is when you help employees gain skills that either complement their current skill set or prepare them to take on additional responsibilities. This is different from simply providing training programs for their current job because the emphasis is on additional learning, not meeting a baseline skills requirement.

For example, when onboarding a new social media manager, the baseline requirement might be understanding social analytics and how to use Facebook ads. 

During onboarding, you teach them how to use your organization’s reporting frameworks and write for your brand persona. You then upskill them by giving them training that will help them expand their role, for instance, in influencer marketing.

Upskilling is good for employees because it enables them to challenge themselves and provides them with avenues for professional development. And it’s good for your organization because your employees will put their knowledge into new initiatives.

Let’s get clear: upskilling vs. reskilling

As we’ve just discussed, upskilling is when you supply your workforce with additional training to help them expand their roles or take on more responsibility. Reskilling is slightly different.

Reskilling refers to teaching employees an all-new set of skills so that they can take on a new role in your company.

 Let’s take the example of a junior sales associate in a SaaS business. 

You can upskill this person by training them to develop sales strategies. This will help them perform better in their current role and ultimately move up to a senior sales role.

On the other hand, if you reskill them, you’ll give them customer service training to move them into a role in customer services, away from sales.

Why is employee upskilling a vital activity in today’s environment?

Why is employee upskilling a vital activity in today's environment

So far, upskilling sounds like something that’s nice to have but not necessary for running a business, like a dog-friendly office or a moss wall. Would you even notice the detriments to your company of not having upskilling plans in place?

Chances are you already do – you just think of these drawbacks as par for the course of running a team. 

Here are the benefits of upskilling employees.

1. It addresses skills gaps

A skills gap is a type of skills mismatch that refers to the missing skills a person needs to complete a given task or project.

If a skills gap is present across a whole geographical region, it is known as a skills shortage and means new hires with that skill are in high demand. In other words, upskilling your workforce may be your only option.

Skills gap

Skills shortage

Skills mismatch


The lack of a required skill, whether in an individual or a team

When the demand for a skill set exceeds its supply in a specific region

An umbrella term referring to all problems related to the demand and supply of skills


A programmer not knowing a required programming language

The teacher shortage in the US

Skills gaps, skills shortages, overeducation, undereducation, overqualification, and underqualification

According to McKinsey & Company, 87% of organizations worldwide are aware of having a skills gap or expect to have one within the next five years.

When skill gaps are expected to occur within organizations

This comes at a huge cost: By 2030, the worldwide talent shortage and skills gap is expected to result in a loss of $8.5tn ($162bn in the US alone).

By conducting a skills gap analysis and upskilling your workforce to plug the holes, you can minimize costs for your business and use your employees’ new skills to pursue growth.

2. It sets you apart from other employers

Promising upskilling opportunities also makes you attractive to top talent. A Gallup study reports that 65% of workers believe employer-provided upskilling is very important when evaluating a potential new job. This translates to better employee retention.

3. It makes you more innovative

Innovation isn’t just about having the latest tech in your office – the most brilliant tech tool is irrelevant if you’re not skilled enough to use it. In fact, the Harvard Business Review recommends upskilling as a direct method for improving organizational agility.

4. It helps you retain your employees

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the same Gallup study cited above found that 61% of workers consider upskilling “extremely” or “very” important when weighing the decision to remain at their current job. This means that upskilling will save you money on hiring and help promote a cohesive company culture.

Upskilling employees: 8 ways to get started in your organization

Now you know:

  • What upskilling is 

  • How it differs from training and reskilling

  • What benefits it brings to your organization

It’s time to talk about how you can create an upskilling strategy.

The following eight tips are all actions you can take to bring upskilling to your workforce.

1. Identify current priority skills and skills gaps

One of the first things you need to do when creating a strategy for upskilling employees is to identify priority skills for each team and role. One way to do this is by assessing your existing team’s skills using methods such as:

  • Standardized testing

  • 360-degree feedback

  • Customer feedback

Once you know what skills are already available on your team, you can look for gaps. You can do this by consulting industry benchmarks or looking at your business development goals and reviewing whether you have the necessary resources.

Here are some examples of the most important soft skills for different industries:


Priority soft skills

Business development and sales

Communication, Persuasion, Responsibility, Confidence, Resilience

Creative and digital media

Collaboration, Feedback, Time management, Lifelong learning


Humility, Teamwork, Lifelong learning, Leadership, Self-motivation

Identifying the core skills required for each role will help you see where you fall short. It’s necessary not only to inform a skills-based hiring approach but also to identify the highest-value opportunities for upskilling in your team.

2. Forecast future skills gaps with talent mapping

Patching the gaps in your current workforce is only the beginning – more gaps will open as your organization grows. If you wait until they pose a problem before you act, you will see:

  • Employees burning out from taking on too many extra responsibilities

  • A suffering company culture since employees feel unsupported

  • Higher turnover and associated hiring costs

One solution to this is talent mapping: creating a forecast for your business’s growth that roughly predicts where and when skills gaps will occur and how you’ll fill them.

Startups are a good example.

Startups usually begin life as teams of only one or two people, slowly growing as the business picks up speed. As a startup leader, you have to use talent mapping to predict when you’ll need to make new hires and when a new hire isn’t yet feasible. You’ll need to upskill your existing team in a way that accommodates these constraints.

The HR function is also a good example: As you approach the point of taking on more junior employees, your senior team members will need to invest in upskilling through hiring training. Then, as you start to scale hiring, you’ll progress to taking on an HR manager and, eventually, an entire HR team. 

Talent mapping is an essential part of overall talent optimization – the tailoring of your workforce toward your overall business goals.

3. Hire for growth potential, not just current skills

We know what you’re thinking: “Why are you talking about hiring new people – isn’t this about upskilling employees you already have?”

Well, yes. But your hiring process needs to deliver employees who are ripe for upskilling.

Pre-interview testing is a great way to ensure your current needs are met. Skills assessments are better than almost any other measure at predicting job performance – they’re proven to be a better evaluation method than looking at a candidate’s work experience, references, and even interview performance.

But they’re also great for testing candidates’ learnability. A study by Gartner revealed that 58% of the workforce needs new skills to do their jobs successfully. Therefore, it’s essential for new hires to be lifelong learners.

ManpowerGroup’s hiring process has a dual focus on potential for soft skills and knowledge for hard skills. It emphasizes the importance of what the company calls a “hungry mind” – although technical skills may become outmoded, candidates’ curiosity will drive them to update their knowledge.

By making multipotentiality hires like this, you’ll assemble a workforce that will give you a great return on your investment through their development. If you miss this step, you may find yourself wasting resources on candidates who aren’t open to learning.

4. Provide a roadmap for employee development

Once you’ve established:

  • The key skills required in each team and role

  • The critical points for skills acquisition in your overall business plan 

  • Your methods for hiring candidates who are amenable to upskilling

…then it’s time to create a strategy for upskilling employees that you can roll out across all roles. Here are some ideas for how you could do this:

  • Assign a dedicated employee development budget to make space for upskilling employees on an ongoing basis 

  • Implement regular development-focused one-to-ones between employees and supervisors so that employees can outline areas they want to receive upskilling training in

  • Create standard development tracks for different roles, for instance, graduate schemes or apprentices

  • Identify clear employee skills criteria for each level of promotion so that everyone knows what they need to progress

You could generalize this strategy across large portions of your workforce. For example, PwC offers employees digital skills training through a Digital Fitness app.

You can also tailor it to individual roles. For example, let’s say you hire a dedicated content writer to write your company blog and establish your brand persona under the supervision of your head of marketing.

At this point, your content writer has the skills necessary to succeed: written communication skills and a clear understanding of analytics and SEO. However, as the role develops, you might also plan for upskilling in areas such as:

  • Content strategy: to reduce the burden on your head of marketing

  • Editorial skills: to take greater ownership of the blog and begin delegating to freelancers

  • Leadership and collaboration skills: to work with a team as you expand your in-house content team

  • Additional technical skills: to adapt as the content marketing landscape develops

As long as these upskilling opportunities are clearly tied to the content writer’s key performance goals, this will set out a clear roadmap to promotion for them.

5. Invest in knowledge sharing and formal training

So far, we’ve spoken a lot about identifying what you should upskill your employees in and when to do this. But how can you actually start upskilling employees?

One of the most valuable tools you already have in your arsenal is your existing team’s knowledge. Where possible, get knowledgeable employees to lead training initiatives or appoint them as subject-matter experts within their respective divisions.

This works particularly well for digital skills. For example, you could identify “digital skills disseminators” to teach colleagues about key technologies – you can find an ideal candidate by checking if they:

  • Have the desire to learn and teach

  • Are open to new opportunities

  • Hold influence in their local network

Knowledge sharing has the advantage of creating a strong sense of community and teamwork: It’s been proven to result in higher satisfaction rates and time savings

Make sure you capture this institutional knowledge, too – for instance, by recording video training materials, writing up documents, or conducting webinars. Failure to do so will cost you money in the long run:

Total annual productivity lost due to inefficient knowledge sharing, for large US businesses

When your employees’ upskilling needs exceed the resources you already have in-house – whether in terms of your current employees’ skills or the time available to share them – you should consider outside training.

External training is a great way to promote individual development and a culture of learning. You prove that you’re invested in your employees’ progression when you provide them with individual training – for example, through training days and short courses.

Additionally, “away days” where teams are sent to train together in new concepts, or whole-company training days where employees are mixed into unfamiliar teams, can promote a cohesive and collaborative culture.

6. Develop a skills inventory for your workforce

It’s important to have a clear overview of the skills and experience in your organization to achieve a culture of healthy skills sharing and ongoing organizational learning.

Using the information you’ve gained from your skills gap assessment and any pre-employment or employee testing, create a skills inventory of your current organization.

A skills inventory takes in all elements of employee competency, from soft skills to educational qualifications, and usually draws on:

  • Pre-employment tests 

  • Employee testing

  • Self-reporting 

  • 360-degree feedback

Skills Inventory


We know what this sounds like at first: just more unnecessary admin work for you. But this isn’t just documentation without demand – it’s a strategic tool that you can use for many purposes, including:

  • Identifying potential candidates for promotion 

  • Spotting and predicting skills gaps

  • Succession planning

  • Setting company-wide development objectives

You can create a skills inventory manually, for example, in an Excel document. 

Alternatively, you can use skill management software that will automatically harvest data from relevant sources and automate many key processes in talent optimization, such as alerting you to skills deficits.

7. Implement stretch assignments

We’ve already covered how you can upskill employees by giving them knowledge they don’t already have, but another effective strategy is to provide them with opportunities for self-testing/evaluation and encourage them to go beyond their comfort zones.

Setting stretch assignments is one way to do this.

Stretch assignments are tasks that lie just outside an employee’s usual remit and require them to take the initiative, test new skills, and seek out unexplored areas of knowledge.

Here are some examples:


Example stretch assignments

Junior sales manager

Write and pitch a service to a VIP client; Take on responsibility as an account manager for a long-standing customer

Mid-level content writer

Assume editorial responsibility for junior content writers; Create a content strategy for an important client; Learn to use new technologies to streamline the content creation process

Marketing manager

Become a mentor to a new hire, including training responsibilities; Lead a team meeting

This tactic is particularly useful for developing leadership skills.

The 70-20-10 framework for leadership development suggests that leaders learn from three types of experiences:

  1. 70% challenging experiences and assignments

  2. 20% developmental relationships

  3. 10% coursework and training

Stretch assignments are a great way to maximize the effectiveness of your other upskilling initiatives and get a great return on investment for any formal training.

8. Measure your outcomes

The final step of any initiative to upskill your employees is measuring your outcomes using clear metrics.

A PwC survey shows that 93% of chief executive officers who introduce upskilling programs see increased productivity, improved talent acquisition and retention, and a more resilient workforce.

There are many ways to measure your outcomes:


Potential metrics

Better talent acquisition

Lower cost per hire; Shorter timeline to hire

Improved retention

Lower turnover; Fewer mentions of stagnation or lack of career development opportunities in exit interviews

Greater employee satisfaction

Positive responses to employee surveys and in employee one-to-ones; Positive reviews on Glassdoor and other job-related websites

Increased efficiency and innovation

Number of new initiatives; Positive customer feedback; Key performance metrics

When budgeting for employee development programs, keeping track of metrics like these will help sell the idea to senior leadership, particularly compared with the high costs of hiring someone new.

And it’s not just senior leadership you need to show outcomes to. Upskilling employees requires more than the effort of leadership or the human resources team. Ultimately, it comes down to the effort of the employee.

You need to be able to show them what they’re getting for this extra investment – that means keeping track of:

  • Manager feedback on stretch assignments

  • Trends in their individual performance metrics

  • Where their ideas are being implemented

  • How this is impacting the business

How to upskill employees: summary table

How to upskill your employees


Identify priority skills

Assess the skills of your existing team using standardized testing, 360-degree feedback, and customer feedback, and identify gaps.

Forecast future skills gaps

Use talent mapping and consult your business plan to notice when you’ll need to upskill your team.

Hire for growth potential

Use pre-interview testing to measure candidates’ learnability and make multipotentiality hires.

Provide an employee development roadmap

Create standard upskilling procedures to roll out across the whole business, as well as for individual hires.

Invest in knowledge sharing and formal training

Identify “skills disseminators” in each team who can share their knowledge, capture it in videos and documents, and invest in formal training.

Develop a skills inventory

Create a system for keeping track of employees’ existing skills and training administered.

Implement stretch assignments

Challenge employees, particularly leaders, with assignments that push them out of their comfort zones.

Measure your outcomes

Define clear metrics by which to measure all of your upskilling targets – and actually track them.

Build upskilling employees into a holistic L&D strategy

Now you know everything you need to know about upskilling employees, including: 

  • What upskilling is – and how it’s different from other types of training

  • Its benefits for your company

  • How you can build it into your overall business strategy

  • Where to start with upskilling your current workforce

  • How to leverage skills testing for hiring lifelong learners

Suddenly, the pressure to find the “Perfect Hire” doesn’t feel so crushing, right?

After all, who needs a perfect stranger when you already have real talent in your team? You just need to help them reach their full potential.

To complement your upskilling efforts and help you stay ahead of the future of work, we suggest reading about creating an overall learning and development strategy and improving organizational health.

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