The way we work looks quite different than it did 10, five and even one year ago. For some, it may even look different than it did, well, yesterday. Digital transformation, a rise in human-centric work and, perhaps most notably, a global health crisis, have driven the need for employees to develop an entirely new skill set to be successful in their roles.

A McKinsey survey explains, “The rapid rise of digitization and remote work has placed new demands on employees who, in many instances, now require different skills to support significant changes to how work gets done and to the business priorities their companies are setting.” While addressing skills gaps was on many companies’ radars before COVID-19, the survey found that skill building is more prevalent now than it was prior to the pandemic, with 69% of organizations “doing more skill building” now than they did before COVID-19.

Dean Pichee, chief executive officer of BizLibrary, says that upskilling and reskilling “are table stakes at this point.” The question isn’t whether companies need to upskill or reskill their people, he says. “They have to do it” if they want to develop employees with the skills the business needs to remain competitive. The alternative, of bringing in outside talent with job-ready skills, simply “doesn’t exist anymore.”

Dr. Kate Hixon, a Training Industry Courses instructor, speaker, podcaster and entrepreneur, echoes this idea. She explains that, as the career landscape continues to evolve, “We’re still seeing staggering numbers of resignations, job transfers and outright career changes.” Rather than trying to hire externally, organizations are now promoting from within, which means employees need to develop new skill sets to be successful.

The case for upskilling and reskilling is clear. But it’s “extremely challenging” to deliver a program that is personalized and truly will make an impact, Pichee says. Here are five tips that can help.

1. Conduct a Robust Needs Assessment

Before you can begin upskilling, you need to know what skills gaps you’re looking to close — and what gaps lie ahead. Don Jones, vice president of developer skills at Pluralsight, a technology workforce development company, says that a key challenge when it comes to upskilling the workforce is a lack of data. “Without concrete data in the form of assessments and surveys, it’s easy to gloss over the potential skills gaps that may exist,” he says.

Thus, a needs assessment is “absolutely critical” in helping learning leaders identify skills gaps, Hixon says. “An effectively performed needs analysis will pinpoint the precise knowledge and skills that are critical at the task, individual, program and organizational level.” This allows learning leaders to then “deduce the gap” with targeted training and development.

Hixon offers the following tips for conducting an effective needs assessment:

  • Identify and understand which level of a needs analysis you are performing: There are “distinct and critical” differences amongst each level of needs analysis, which will directly impact the strategies you need to use.
  • Use a variety of data sources when “digging deep” on an area of focus. “Drawing upon different data sources ensures that you are getting a fair, balanced and accurate view on the situation, program or person,” Hixon says.

2.) Create Internal Career Pathways

Companies across industries are facing unprecedented turnover, with a recent survey finding that 55% of people in the workforce (people currently working or actively seeking employment) anticipate looking for a new job within the next 12 months.

Erin Pinkowski, vice president of product at BizLibrary, says that creating personalized learning pathways (also referred to as “career pathing”) can “help learners feel like they have a path forward” in their current organization. Career pathways show learners which skills they currently have and which skills they need to develop to move into another position in the company.

Learning pathways are essentially a “GPS” for employees, providing them with clear direction on how to go from where they are now to where they want to be, says Ike Bennion, director of product marketing, innovation and strategy at Cornerstone OnDemand. For instance, a learning path for an entry-level information technology (IT) specialist looking to move into a software developer position might include courses on in-demand programming languages like Python, R and C++. A learning path for a retail sales clerk looking to assume a managerial role, on the other hand, might include courses on topics like communication, conflict management and other leadership skills.

To attract and retain top talent, companies must “provide robust learning and development programs,” Hixon says, to help employees achieve their career goals — in house.

3.) Consider Automation

Identifying and bridging skills gaps at scale isn’t a walk in the park. It takes time and energy that many learning leaders don’t have. Automation can take some of the “grunt work” out of the process, Pinkowski says.

For example, BizSkills, a recently-released upskilling platform from BizLibrary, automatically maps content to support companies’ most-needed competencies and skills, providing learners with a personalized plan to close those gaps.

Another new solution on the market, Cornerstone Xplor, uses natural language processing to curate personalized recommendations and career paths to learners based on data about their current skills, job history, learning preferences and future goals.

It’s important to remember that artificial intelligence (AI) is still getting to its “perfected state,” Bennion says. While AI-enabled skills pathing tools can do the “connective work,” learning leaders should still assess and manage these technologies to ensure they are meeting the “detailed, granular needs” of their organization. In other words, upskilling is a team effort between AI and the humans using it.

4.) Make it Quick

Today’s learners don’t have time to step away from their jobs to complete a three-hour course. The average learner, Pichee says, has just 10 minutes to spare for learning each day. While delivering four- to six-minute lessons may seem inconsequential, microlearning ensures that learners stick to their learning paths.

Jones agrees, adding that employees must commit to developing their “daily learning muscle.” Making “constant, incremental progress” toward closing skills gaps is more valuable than trying to learn everything at once, only to burn out your learners and find that their knowledge is dated in a year’s time, he says.

5.) Iterate as Needed

The skill sets needed for almost all job roles are in flux. For instance, people who were sent to work from home during COVID-19 needed to become their own cybersecurity experts, as they could no longer rely on their company’s firewall to stave off phishing attempts and other online threats, Pichee says. Nearly every industry, he says, is experiencing significant change. Therefore, upskilling and reskilling isn’t a one-and-done process. It’s a continuous one.

It’s important to adapt your upskilling strategy alongside changing business needs. If your organization is resuming in-person operations after the pandemic, consider rolling out a reboarding program. If you’re adopting a new technology or system, assess your employees’ digital literacy to make sure they can use it effectively and deliver training as needed. By remaining agile and adaptive, your upskilling efforts are more likely to be successful.

In the past, compliance training was considered a “must-have” while professional development was considered a “nice-to-have,” Pichee says. But times have changed: In today’s business environment, they are both mission-critical. With turnover skyrocketing, skills gaps widening and business needs shifting, upskilling “isn’t something you can ignore.”