In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, training initiatives once considered prudent are now essential. Even before, there was a clear need for investment in ongoing employee development to meet the demands of rapidly evolving industries. In January 2020, just months before the full scope of the health crisis was understood, The World Economic Forum projected more than 1 billion people globally would have to be reskilled by 2030 to meet the needs of jobs transformed by technologies.

The pandemic has accelerated this demand, compounding preexisting pressures. In the months ahead, many organizations will find they must rapidly develop a more agile workforce that is mentally and emotionally prepared to succeed in the transforming market.

Learning and development (L&D) professionals will continue to play an indispensable role across industries in driving responses to the pandemic and, eventually, its aftermath. To succeed, they must reevaluate which pre-pandemic strategies can best be applied in a training landscape reshaped by the health crisis. What’s clear is that resilient organizations must have highly adaptable workers, and swiftly upskilling and reskilling employees is an effective solution to meet this need.

Upskilling vs. Reskilling

To appreciate the benefits of upskilling and reskilling, it’s key to first understand their differences:

  • Upskilling occurs when staff learn new skills or enhance current ones to adapt to changes within their current role; for example, when a sales rep learns how to use online conferencing tools to meet with customers virtually.
  • Reskilling involves equipping employees with new knowledge and skills, so they can work in another part of the business; for example, teaching a sales rep social media skills, so they can move into a position on the marketing team.

Benefits of Upskilling and Reskilling 

There are clear advantages to investing in upskilling and reskilling initiatives over new hire training. These initiatives can:

Open doors to new roles. Perhaps the biggest benefit of upskilling and reskilling is that they each create opportunities for valued existing employees to take on new roles and functions. 

Future-proof against disruption. Training plans for upskilling and reskilling begin with an evaluation of industry skill gaps. Such forward-thinking analysis builds resilience and ensures preparation for the next disruption. 

Increase collaboration. Both upskilling and reskilling often involve job shadowing, cross-functional collaboration and collaborative learning — all of which forge stronger teams and strengthen shared goals. 

Boost productivity, confidence and job satisfaction. Upskilling and reskilling initiatives equip employees with the knowledge and skills they need to be productive members of the organization. By extension, this training can boost employee retention by increasing workers’ confidence, motivation and job satisfaction. 

Lower hiring costs over time. As employees engage in upskilling and reskilling, the need to hire new employees or fill vacancies decreases. According to Gallup, the cost of replacing a salaried employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary.

Valuable Post-pandemic Skills and Attitudes

When developing upskilling and reskilling programs, it’s important for trainers to focus on skills and attitudes best suited for post-pandemic realities. No matter the organization, the following are sure to be part of any effective training plan:

A flexible, growth mindset. To adapt to the new normal, employees must be open to change and growth. By helping them establish this mindset, L&D professionals can enable employees to learn a wide variety of skills, improve self-motivation and cultivate habits of flexible, lifelong learners. 

Emotional intelligence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the pandemic is having a significant psychological impact across demographics. Trainers have an opportunity to help employees recognize and express their feelings, as well as support their colleagues. Emotional intelligence can generate stronger collaboration, greater team cohesion and increased job satisfaction. 

Ability to master a wide variety of skills. As organizations adapt to post-pandemic realities, they may need to quickly shift roles and responsibilities — often while short-staffed. Employees who have mastered a variety of skills will have the role flexibility required to meet this demand. Some of the most critical skills for these times are:

  • Communication: Strong communication creates stability in the face of uncertainty by keeping teams and managers on the same page, uncovering barriers, and encouraging team members to contribute their insights and solutions.
  • Critical and creative thinking: Employees that remain curious, have a high tolerance for ambiguity and are able to view problems from multiple angles will be well equipped to tackle the challenges of the post-pandemic workplace.
  • Well-being: Training that improves the physical, mental, emotional and occupational wellness of employees can decrease stress levels, prevent burnout, strengthen resilience, and boost creativity and productivity.
  • Technology use: The transition to remote work and online business has made technologies, such as automated systems, artificial intelligence and information security, more important than ever. Helping employees become more tech savvy is one of the most important ways training can ensure they are prepared for the future.

Strategies and Best Practices

Whether planning to upskill or reskill their workforce, it’s essential that L&D professionals begin with a clear program strategy. The following five steps can be tailored to the specific needs of any team, group or industry:

1. Conduct an analysis to

  • Determine the budget, timeline and scope to place parameters on the project.
  • Identify critical roles and responsibilities, performance benchmarks and core skills.
  • Focus on the most valuable skills and attitudes that key groups will require to be successful both now and in the future – such as technology use, rapid learning and emotional intelligence.
  • Take stock of current skill levels and existing resources and technology. Not having to start from scratch saves time, money and energy.

The data gathered in the analysis phase feeds into other aspects of the upskilling and reskilling mission. Having more information up front provides meaningful insights needed to plan and execute successfully, which can foster a sense of certainty in an otherwise new and uncertain endeavor.

2. Set learning objectives and define how they’ll be measured and assessed. Employee performance will ultimately be the evaluative focus and lead to the achievement of business goals. With this in mind, start all reskilling and upskilling initiatives with clear, performance-based objectives. Doing so will align the entire process from design to evaluation. Moreover, it will ensure that the instructional focus remains on learner behaviors and application of skills – not just content.

3. Prioritize training deliverables based on immediate need, potential impact and ease of delivery, and build them. Accurately identifying what matters most can be difficult in times of rapid change. To overcome this challenge, begin by differentiating which deliverables are most urgent. Then, assess which of these urgent tasks will have the greatest impact on employee needs and business goals. Finally, estimate which of the most urgent tasks will require heavy lifting and which can be developed and delivered with ease. As you set your priorities, keep in mind that it’s often most productive and efficient to tackle the difficult work first.

4. Consider a beta test or pilot program, and modify your plans as needed based on the results. Conducting a small-scale launch of reskilling and upskilling programs provides valuable data about their feasibility and efficacy before implementing on a large scale. Think of it as a dress rehearsal or soft opening. By revising your plans based on your beta test data, you’ll increase the chances of employee adoption and the project’s overall success.

5. Deploy training and evaluate for refinements. Once upskilling and reskilling initiatives are launched, conduct evaluations and generate a lessons learned report. Remember that training evaluation should focus on multiple outcomes. To do so, be sure to use an established evaluation training model. Though the Kirkpatrick Model is one of the most common, there are many good models to choose from. Whichever model you choose, the data gathered during evaluation will enable you to finesse your program and ensure it’s best-in-class.

A Final Consideration – Collaboration! 

As trainers develop, design and deploy their upskilling and reskilling programs, it’s a good idea to forge cross-functional partnerships. As the pandemic fundamentally and continuously shifts industries, solutions will require ongoing communication and collaboration across teams. When employees work together to solve problems, it fosters engagement and teamwork, increases proposed solutions, distributes the workload, and enhances a commitment to continuous improvement — all of which increase the chances the initiative will be a success!