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In 2023, AI burst onto the professional scene, threatening to disrupt everything from the shipping industry to financial analysis and telehealth. While many of these fears have yet to materialize, the technology continues to evolve and expand, with employees and employers alike scrambling for ways to stay relevant and ahead of the game in their respective fields.
It's no surprise, then, that the practice of "upskilling" has become an outright necessity for companies looking to maintain a competitive advantage in an uncertain professional landscape. But what are upskilling programs, and how can you take advantage of them to level up your career?
What Is Upskilling?
Having first entered the dictionary in 1983, the term "upskilling" has existed for decades—but the concept behind it is far older. At its core, upskilling is simply a way for employers to invest in their employees by helping them build new skills, improve upon their existing skill set, or adapt in more general ways to changing technology and demands.
Recently, this term has enjoyed renewed popularity as more and more employers begin to recognize that investing in their employees is one of the only reliable ways to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving world. Still, many companies remain behind the curve, which may explain why employee engagement numbers dropped to only 31% in 2023.
If your company offers upskilling programs, it's well worth your time to speak with a manager about participating. And if it doesn't? It may be time to start looking for a job that's willing to invest in your growth.
Upskilling and Reskilling: What's the Difference?
When people or companies come to us for help with upskilling initiatives, one of the most common questions is how "reskilling" factors in.
Simply put, upskilling involves the practice of expanding an existing skill set with new, related skills, whereas reskilling involves learning a set of entirely new skills that may or may not relate to what the person was doing previously.
Why Is Upskilling Important in 2024?
Historically, upskilling has been used in every area of professional development, from leadership skills to soft skills. In 2024 specifically, the practice is arguably most important for developing the technical skills needed to master technologies such as ChatGPT and machine learning.
For businesses, building a tech-literate workforce can massively increase productivity, boost employee retention rates, and pave the way for future success. These benefits are so widely recognized, in fact, that recent studies indicate that employers are willing to pay up to 40% more for employees with AI expertise.
For individuals, upskilling is, essentially, a set of training and development opportunities that allows you to increase your value in the job market, perform your job more skillfully and confidently, and build toward promotions and career advancement. Even better, upskilling is often paid for by the employer, meaning you get the chance to improve your skills without paying a dime from your own pocket.
How to Upskill Effectively
Whether your employer has already offered upskilling opportunities or you're planning to pitch the idea yourself, there are a few steps you can take to make sure you get the most out of it.
Target Specific Skills
While any type of continuous learning is great (and you'll likely score points with your boss for pursuing it), taking the time to identify specific skill gaps that you want to fill with upskilling can make your argument much more persuasive. To start, identify what types of skills you want to learn, such as:
- Leadership skills: Conflict resolution, active delegation, team building, time management, and how to give valuable feedback can all make you a more effective leader.
- Technical skills: Proficiency in specific tools, such as a programming language, piece of machinery, or web application, can make you more productive.
- Soft skills: Emotional intelligence, active listening, public speaking, and creative problem-solving can make you better at interpersonal relationships, such as when trying to promote customer satisfaction.
If you're having trouble identifying specific skills to target, consider taking a look at job descriptions for positions you might want to hold in the future. Typically, those descriptions will have a complete list of the skills and experience needed to excel in the role.
Additionally, a high-quality career test can provide invaluable insights into your current skills and how they might be improved.
Set Achievable Goals
Part of any good upskilling strategy is to break the process down into reasonable, achievable steps and goals. If you're working directly with your manager on one of these training programs, the two of you can do this part together.
Alternatively, you might choose to work with a career coach to receive extra expertise and guidance while you navigate this critical period. Keep in mind that many employers are happy to pay for career coaching for high-potential employees, so don't be afraid to pitch them on the prospect.
Often, it helps to invest in one career coaching session on your own so that you can better communicate the value it would add to your employer.
Choose the Right Learning Resources
For most people, the bulk of upskilling efforts will be performed via online learning. And while there are countless websites and organizations promising to help with professional growth, it's incredibly important to choose the right learning resources before investing your time and money.
Sometimes, companies will offer in-house training resources to promote specific skills. More often, you'll be directed to an outside company, technical expert, or career coach to facilitate your learning. Regardless of which is true for you, always take the time to research and evaluate a learning resource based on these three parameters:
- Trustworthiness: First and foremost, any learning resource needs to be trustworthy. To verify this quality, check for customer feedback such as reviews or testimonials.
- Expertise: If interacting with another person to improve your skills, always check their credentials and experience. A history of working with other professionals in your field is an especially strong plus.
- Affiliations: Any resource with which you interact should prioritize your growth above anything else. If, for example, a service regularly reports back with details about your private sessions to your employer (without your consent), it may be wise to seek other options.
Balance Work, Learning, and Home Life
Learning new skills is hard—especially with how quickly demands are changing in the modern job market. When undertaking a period of upskilling, remember to prioritize a healthy balance of all three areas of your life: work, learning, and your life outside of either.
It may be tempting to dive headfirst into this kind of learning opportunity and forgo any kind of work-life harmony, but burning yourself out by trying to do too much will only worsen results in the long run.
Part of this also means taking the time to recognize your achievements. As you learn each new skill (or each part of a new skill), give yourself the credit you deserve. The more you allow yourself to feel pride or satisfaction for the work you're putting in, the more likely you are to build lifelong learning habits that make you an even more formidable expert.
Upskilling for Every Step of Your Career Path
No matter where you are on your career path, upskilling is an investment worth considering. Here are some of the ways it can help at three different points along your journey.
A good education goes a long way, but it's safe to say that most recent graduates will find they need far more technical or hard skills than they expected when going into their first job. Rather than struggling to keep your head above water, consider reaching out to your manager in an honest, respectful way and saying that you'd like the chance to upskill.
By doing so, you show them that you're serious about performing your job well and that you're thinking about long-term success.
Whether you want to master a new piece of technology or progress to a management position, upskilling for mid-career professionals is a virtual necessity. By this point in your career, you likely have a good grasp of your strengths and weaknesses—insights that will serve you well when designing an upskilling strategy.
Still, those looking to get renewed insights into their professional values, skills, and aptitudes might consider taking a high-quality career test. Armed with your results, you can invest your time in upskilling the areas that matter most.
No matter how established you are in your position, there's always room to level up. With the rate of technological change we're seeing in recent years, this is more true than ever. For veterans in a field, upskilling offers a way to modernize your skillset and make sure that your resume remains as relevant as ever.
For some, this will also mean leadership training. While it's tempting to believe that true leadership skills are timeless, the truth is that how you lead often changes with who you lead. As new generations enter the workplace and join your team, dedicating time to learn how they respond to different types of leadership tactics can greatly improve your teamwork and overall relationships.
Measuring the Impact of Upskilling
As you continue to grow and learn new skills, make sure to keep track of what impact the upskilling has had. By doing so, you encourage your employer to continue investing in you. This kind of tracking takes two main forms, which are:
When you set your goals, it's crucial that you include objective, factual metrics by which you can gauge whether or not they've been reached. This could be tracking your productivity throughout the day, how long it takes you to perform a certain task, or whether a project is having the intended results.
With each goal you accomplish, make sure to record the details—both as a way to stay motivated and to prove to your boss that the upskilling is working.
Evaluating Career Growth
Once you've established that your skills are progressing and you're seeing the achievements roll in, it's important to make sure that your career is growing alongside those skills. If left to their own devices, it's all too common that employers will keep you in the same role, just with additional duties.
Don't sit by and let this happen.
As you become a more valuable, productive employee, you're well within your rights to negotiate for a raise or promotion to match the skills you've gained. Still, remember that this kind of negotiation should always be done in a professional, respectful manner.
Common Upskilling Challenges and How to Overcome Them
Exciting though it may be, upskilling is not without its share of challenges. Here are a few of the most common and what you can do to conquer them when they arise.
Between your normal job duties and maintaining a healthy private life, adding upskilling to the mix may put a strain on your schedule. If this happens to you, there are two primary ways to help free up more time.
The first is making time management one of the first skills you level up. By focusing on this early, you can greatly increase the value you get from other learning efforts later on. While some people may already have good time management skills, those who struggle with scheduling, task productivity, or deadlines would reap significant benefits.
The second way to mitigate time constraints is to talk to your boss. Since they're already investing money into helping you improve your skills, it's reasonable to ask that they be flexible with your time, as well. Simply approach your boss or manager with a well-thought-out, fact-driven argument for why you need to dedicate some of your work time to upskilling, remind them of the value the process will bring, and have a professional conversation about the subject.
Depending on the type of skills you're looking to develop and how ambitious you are, upskilling can take a considerable amount of money to do well. Fortunately, upskilling is an effort that can and should be supported by your employer—which means funding, as well.
If you followed our suggested steps earlier, you'll already have a list of the skills you want to acquire and how they would make you a more valuable employee. All that's left, then, is to communicate those facts to your boss in a compelling, reasonable way. For that, running your pitch by a career coach or mentor can help prepare you for the conversation to come.
Lack of Motivation
Continuous learning is a worthy endeavor, but the concept of "endless" improvement can quickly tap even the healthiest reserves of motivation if not handled carefully. When you begin feeling demotivated or overwhelmed, take the time to reassess your goals and whether or not you've been acknowledging the progress you're making.
If necessary, break your path down into even smaller steps and focus on accomplishing one step each day or week. And again, make sure that you're properly rewarding yourself for your accomplishments.
Finally, if possible, seek out and join networks of professionals in situations similar to yours. By surrounding yourself with like-minded people, you can hold each other accountable and give support when personal motivation starts to falter.
How to Get Started
So now that you know what upskilling is, how it works, and why you should strongly consider it in 2024, the next step is yours. For you, that might mean building a proposal and approaching your boss about why they should invest in your growth. If you already have a good feel for what you want and how to get it, go for it! Your growth as an individual and a professional should never take a backseat to anything else.
If, however, you feel that you'd like a little help arranging your thoughts and figuring out the most compelling way to ask your boss for upskilling, a coaching session with one of our expert career coaches can help. Throughout the course of your one-on-one session, your coach will help you outline your strengths, goals, and the areas of your skill set most ripe for improvement.
And for those wanting something in between the two options? Our affordable AI-based career test gives you all of the information you need to put together a stunning pitch. Whichever you choose, make sure to give your career growth the attention it deserves in 2024.