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You Need to Know What Upskilling Is (And Why it Matters)

No one knows what the workplace of the future will look like. Will machines completely automate assembly lines, warehousing, and logistics? Will artificial intelligence (AI) manage machines, serve as mentors, or even develop strategy? What tasks will be performed by humans? This inability to predict the kind of skills sets required in the workplace of the future is causing anxiety in human resource departments around the world. How can employers anticipate the skills sets required to succeed in a reality that doesn’t exist yet?

The fact is, they can’t. No one knows what the workplace of the future will be like, but that doesn’t matter. Human resources and talent acquisition teams just need to ensure their organizations are made up of highly-adaptable employees with a basic skill foundation that allows them to learn and adapt to whatever is asked of them in the future—and they can develop those skills through upskilling.

What is upskilling?

Upskilling is the process of teaching your employees new skills so they are better prepared to compete in a highly-automated workplace. Upskilling has been happening for centuries. We no longer employ as many ferriers, animal trainers, or farmhands. The people who used to do these jobs are now mechanics and machine operators. It’s reasonable to assume that one day, we likely won’t employ as many assembly line workers or long-haul drivers as these jobs are transitioning to machines. People in these roles will transition to industries that likely don’t exist today.

Research from McKinsey indicates that millions of jobs with a high share of automatable tasks could be phased out in the next ten years. The reason for this is simple: machines are better suited for rote and manual tasks. Machines can work 24/7 without breaks or sick days and with great precision, increasing both productivity and efficiency.

However, before we start envisioning a sci-fi movie where robots take over the world, let’s look at the good news: while some jobs will disappear, others will be created, more than making up for the losses. There will always be a demand for human-like thinking in the workplace. Workers will be challenged to adapt, and employers will be tasked with providing the necessary training to make this evolution possible.

The economics of upskilling bear this out

According to Business Insider, the estimated real cost of recruiting a new employee is upwards of 50% of a person’s salary. And making a mistake in the recruitment process that leads to resignation or firing can cost an employer between half and two-thirds of the employee’s annual salary. Hiring involves advertising costs, recruitment fees, interview time, human resources, and training expenses.

Developing the necessary skills sets for the future among existing employees is a much better option. Companies that choose to upskill and train their existing workforce can expect to improve productivity, enhance equity and build a company culture of continuous learning and self-improvement that leads to low turnover and high retention.

3 tips to upskill and reskill your workforce

It’s not too late to start upskilling. Here are three tips your organization can use to retrain your workforce:

1. Focus on teaching skills outside your employees’ immediate job roles

While you might not have a crystal ball, you may have data that will give your organization insights into future demand. If robotics and automation are standard in your industry, now is the time to turn your workforce into experts in that technology.

By offering training and development on the job, and then issuing digital credentials as proof of that learning, you’ll have a network of qualified workers ready to fill open positions when the time comes. You can also send your employees to take classes and get certifications from third-party entities such as a local community college, trades group, or a software vendor.

Giving employees the opportunity to brush up their skills and progress in their careers is a great way to keep your organization’s skills sets up-to-date and future-ready. One thing to keep in mind is to focus on building soft skills such as project management, writing, and presenting. It’s these human skills that will be toughest for machines to master, so focusing your human workforce on these skills is a great way to make sure all your bases are covered. These skills can allow a software developer to transition to a manager or a product engineer to find a second career with you as a content developer.

2. Start issuing digital credentials

Recognizing your employees for the skills they’ve learned on the job with digital credentials is an effective way to encourage them to keep growing and show initiative. These credentials can be shared through learning portals and professional social networks like LinkedIn, and can even encourage healthy competition. Badges also look great on a resume. And don’t forget to badge for competencies that include soft skills, as well as technical skills, for a full range of qualified workers.

3. Make learning easy and accessible for you and employees

Starting a learning and development program from scratch is no small feat. If your organization isn’t equipped to train employees at the pace that is required for future-proofing their jobs, then look to automated solutions that allow you to upskill at scale. Build a learning management system (LMS) that makes learning easily accessible across multiple screens and awards a badge upon completion of a course eliminates manual tasks, streamlines upskilling, and removes overhead for the learning team. It also increases adoption among employees. According to a PwC survey, people want to learn new skills—as long as it isn’t an impediment to their regular responsibilities. It’s up to the learning team to make the process easy and accessible.

No one knows what skills will be needed in the future workplace, but it’s important to build a basic skill foundation that allows them to learn and adapt to whatever jobs are needed. Upskilling and reskilling allow organizations to start now. Just make sure you focus on both hard and soft skills, reward employees for the new skills they develop, and automate much of the backend overhead of your learning and employee recognition program, so you can roll out upskilling at scale across the organization.

In the meantime, check out how IBM has implemented an upskilling program to better prepare for the workplace of the future.