Upskilling Revisited: What Strategy Makes the Most Sense?

In last month’s blog I shared my skepticism about some of the current upskilling initiatives. I have been thinking more about it since then. In fact, it is hard not to given the near daily references to the need for upskilling. Just this morning I saw a reference to a World Economic Forum study on the future of jobs which indicated that 54% of employees will require significant reskilling or upskilling by 2022.

Several things come to mind. First, I wonder about the terminology. How should we define these two terms? The term “upskilling” seems to suggest providing a higher level of skill while “reskilling” suggests a different skill, which may be higher, lower, or the same in terms of competency. Is that what we mean? And how does this differ from what we have been doing in the past? Haven’t you been reskilling and upskilling your employees for years? Isn’t that what the term training means? (Unless you have been “downskilling” your employees!) Is “reskilling” just the new term for “training”? Don’t get me wrong. If you can get a larger budget by retiring the term “training” and emphasizing “reskilling or upskilling”, then go for it. But let’s be careful about how we use the terms.

Second, I wonder about the methodology being used to conclude that upskilling is needed. As I mentioned last month, one of my worries is that we are not doing a needs analysis to confirm this need or identify precisely what the need is. I know some organizations are hiring management consultants to tell them what skills will be needed in the future but how do the consultants know what your needs will be? I know other L&D departments are asking their own organization leaders the same question, but how good is the knowledge of your own leaders? My concern is that this methodology will generate the type of common, somewhat vague, needs we now hear about all the time like digital literacy or fluency.

Third, what exactly do we do once we have identified these vague needs? A traditional needs analysis would identify the performance that needs to be improved and then, assuming learning does have a role to play in improving that performance, recommend training specifically designed to close the gap. If we were to provide training to improve digital fluency, exactly what will be improved? Are we back to increasing competency simply to increase competency? Training for training’s sake? So, my concern here is that even if we increase competency in these areas of “need”, nothing of measurable value will improve.

Fourth, what is the time frame? Put another way, how exactly is the question being asked of leaders about future skills? Is it about “future skills” with no time period specified, or is it about skills that will be needed in one year, five years, or ten years? When does the “future” start? It seems to me that the further out we go, the more likely we are to mis-identify the actual needs, especially given the rapid pace of change. Even if we could identify a need one or two years in the future, do you really want to develop a course today to address it, given that the need may evolve? Moreover, if you begin upskilling employees today, they are not going to have an opportunity to apply the new skill for one or two years, by which time they will have forgotten what they learned.

Here is my suggestion for discussion. Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the skills needed today and in the very near-future and to deploy the learning at the time of need rather than months or years ahead of time? Ask leaders what skills their employees need today or will need in the very near-future, and then follow up with a proper needs analysis to confirm or reject their suggestions. If we can do a better job meeting the current and very near-future needs of the workforce, won’t our employees always be well positioned for the future? And isn’t a reskilling/upskilling initiative tailored to specific employees and delivered at the time of need likely to be far more impactful than an approach based on vague needs for a large population delivered months or years before the new skills will actually be used?

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