Upskilling and reskilling: What’s the difference?

Though the terms are close cousins, there are significant differences between upskilling and reskilling.

While upskilling means learning new skills and competencies, reskilling involves a shift in career trajectory. Organisations are now being urged to consider a hybrid approach between the two based on employees’ expectations, needs, and skills gaps and the rate at which it plans to grow.

“HR often focuses on improving or upskilling to maximise internal talent and reduce turnover. But reskilling is just as crucial for long-term business success, as it gives you the opportunity to fill positions with your top performers and adapt to industry changes at a winning pace,” suggests Michael Gullan, CEO of G&G Advocacy.

Here are eight key differences and how they can contribute to a culture of continuous development.

  1. Employee promotion: An example of upskilling is when a top performer is promoted and needs to be prepared for whatever challenges might come their way in their new role. The employee already possesses the foundational skills, and is most likely why they were selected for the promotion in the first place.
  2. New developments in the organisation: Reskilling is also required when employees, who already have core competencies, require some additional skills to keep up with industry or organisational changes. For example, all staff need to learn new processes or protocols for a transition to remote working.
  3. Employees need to master new skills: Additional tasks for an employee or department can require new skills. In most cases, a reskilling e-learning programme will assist, especially when new tasks have some overlap with the existing, such as new follow-up procedures or additional steps to their existing processes.
  4. Compliance policies change: Fresh compliance regulations or company policies are other areas that highlight the reskilling and upskilling difference. Employees need to review related skills to avoid breaches. If these new rules involve significant change, and the need to break old habits, then reskilling is the best strategy. Should new competences or responsibilities be required that fall outside their current professional purview, then upskilling is required.
  5. Deploying employees to other departments: Sometimes an employee’s expertise is not aligned with their current responsibilities, in which case, a reskilling programme can shift their professional focus to another related department. Such employees may still be valuable, but their experience and insights can be of greater benefit in other areas. These employees will need to reskill and take a new course on your e-learning programme.
  6. Automation shakes things up: Upskilling assists with infrastructural or procedural changes, such as when advances in technology force a rethink to the current approach and adopt new software or tools to streamline productivity. When manual work is reduced, employees will be required to learn and adjust their skills and competencies. This may involve a steep learning curve, such as figuring out how to use new tech platforms or operate new machinery to stay compliant.
  7. Downsizing can widen the talent gap: Downsizing means that others have to fill in the gaps of employees who are no longer with the company. This calls for both reskilling and upskilling, as some employees may have to learn new skills or cross-train in other departments. Likewise, employees with strong leadership capabilities need to learn new skills to bolster their current expertise and continue to lead the way.
  8. New recruits need new skills: Sometimes new employees lack certain experience that would make them an even more valued member of the team. Their existing skills can be improved with upskilling.