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Reskilling: What is it and why is it important?


When your business needs to pivot fast because of changes in your industry or the economy (or both), how do you fill the new roles?

If your organization has laid the foundation for reskilling, you can retrain your current employees to take on those new roles. That can keep your company viable during times of major change – without the additional time and expense of hiring brand-new employees.

However, reskilling isn’t just a way to save time and money when your company needs employees with new skills quickly. Over the long term, reskilling can help you keep your talent, attract motivated candidates and support expertise and innovation that benefit your whole organization.

What is reskilling?

The definition varies depending on the source, but in general, reskilling happens when you help your employees learn the skills they need for a new role within your organization.

For example, a retailer might reskill its in-store salespeople to work as remote customer service agents to support a change in focus from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce sales.

A subset of reskilling, called upskilling, can help prepare your people for major changes in their current roles. For example, the retailer that’s putting more resources into e-commerce might upskill some of its managers with training in data analysis for better inventory planning, logistics and digital marketing performance.

What are the benefits of reskilling your employees?

When you reskill or upskill your people to take on new tasks or roles, you can save time and money in the short term.

You can also build a stronger employer brand, a deeper bench of talent and a wellspring of innovation over the longer term.

1. Reskilling can reduce the cost of filling new roles.

Recruiting, interviewing, vetting and hiring new employees is expensive and time-consuming, even before you get to onboarding. And even with a solid hiring process, there’s always a chance that a hire might not work out.

When you reskill your current employees, you avoid the costs and the long timeline of hiring and onboarding a new person. That frees your resources to help your existing people get up to speed for their next role in your company.

2. Reskilling can help you attract new talent.

A company that’s dedicated to helping its employees build new skills has an advantage when it comes to recruiting. Candidates who want to feel valued at work will often seek out employers with a culture of professional growth that includes reskilling and upskilling opportunities.

What’s more, employees who experience the benefits of ongoing training and development are usually enthusiastic about sharing their experience with others. So, a culture of reskilling can strengthen your employer brand and bring in more candidates who are motivated to keep learning and growing.

3. Reskilling can help you retain your best talent.

There’s a great example of the benefits of reskilling in the life story of Dorothy Vaughan, depicted in the film “Hidden Figures.” She managed a group of women mathematicians working as “human computers” for the U.S. space program in the 1950s.

When she learned that NASA had bought a new IBM electronic computer that had the potential to replace her team, she got a library book on IBM’s programming language, called FORTRAN, and she taught herself and her team.

By reskilling herself and her employees, she saved their jobs. She then became an expert programmer, worked on NASA’s Scout Launch Vehicle Program and stayed with the agency until she retired.

Dorothy Vaughan’s story is inspiring, but it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been motivated to do the reskilling herself. Think about how much talent, expertise and innovation organizations can unlock and retain when they’re proactive about helping their people develop new skills.

How long does reskilling take?

In “Hidden Figures,” it doesn’t seem to take long at all for Dorothy Vaughan and her team to learn FORTRAN. Off the big screen, the amount of time it takes to reskill an employee depends on the kind of training that’s available and the time available for the employee to train.

The best-case scenario is that you see a need for new skills on the horizon and you start training your people early, so that when it’s time to adopt that new technology or practice your people are ready.

The worst-case scenario is clinging to technology or practices that are outmoded, without updating your employees’ skills, until you’re forced to adopt new ways of doing things. Then you may end up having to hire new people with the skills you need, and you may not be able to keep and retrain all of your current employees.

To avoid this kind of crunch, think of reskilling as an ongoing process rather than a short-term project. As a manager or leader, you can make reskilling easier by always keeping an eye out for the next roles your people will need to fill as your business and industry evolve.

How can your organization build a reskilling program?

Like any program, your company’s reskilling efforts will be most effective if they are part of your culture. So, the first step is to embrace a learning culture.

How can you do this? Consider creating a yearly program that you and your employees use to set goals for learning and skill development.

For example, a developer on your team might be watching a new technology that you’re not using yet, but they think it’s on the horizon. They might ask to make learning about that technology part of their growth plan for the year.

To help your employees follow through on their learning goals, your reskilling program will also need some specific resources.

1. Adopt a skills development platform

If there’s an online educational or certification platform for the skills your business needs, you can use it to help your people identify skill gaps and set learning goals for their current role or a new one they’re preparing to take on.

A platform can track employees’ progress toward their goals. It can also save you time collecting the training resources you need to reskill multiple employees quickly for new roles if you’re making a quick pivot.

2. Seek out specific skills trainings

A single platform, even a comprehensive one, may not have all the resources you need for a particular reskilling effort. And you may have employees who want training that’s not on your platform’s menu. This is when it makes sense to invest in other employee trainings.

For example, if your industry is senior care, your skills platform might focus on clinical knowledge and certifications for your certified nurse assistants.

However, if you have a nurse who wants to learn data analytics to help improve resident outcomes across your facility, you may need to find nurse informatics resources to support their reskilling goals and innovative plans.

3. Encourage job shadowing

Many times, we think of shadowing as something that helps interns or new hires get a sense of what a particular role is really like. However, there are at least two ways that shadowing among current employees can help with reskilling and upskilling:

  • An employee from one team can shadow another team to learn how they do their work. Then that employee can share their findings with their current team, which helps build the entire groups skills and knowledge base.
  • An employee who wants to transition into a new role may want to shadow a co-worker who’s doing that work now. For example, a quality assurance tester who wants to work as a developer could shadow a developer to see which skills they’ll need to build and how those skills are used.

4. Help employees leverage their expertise

Sometimes, employees already have the knowledge and skills they need to transition into a new role, based on the work they’re doing now. For example, a payroll expert who handles several of your company’s client accounts may have insights that also make them valuable as a consultant for other clients.

Keep in mind that the evolution doesn’t have to be either-or: stay in the current role or move to the new one. The payroll expert might be able to consult while still keeping a hand in payroll, to keep their knowledge and skills up to date.

Summing it all up

You can build a workforce that’s ready to take on whatever changes your business faces when you:

  • Create a culture of learning.
  • Keep an eye on new trends.
  • Make skills development part of each employee’s routine.
  • Stay open to employees’ expertise.

For more ideas on employee training and talent development, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to learning and development.