You’re likely to come across the terms “upskilling” and “reskilling” in the context of workplace learning. Most learning and development (L&D) teams already understand that these are tactics that can help address the skills gap. This, by the way, is a significant concern for businesses — 87% of companies say they have a skills gap or expect to within a few years. 

But it can be tricky to tell the difference between these two terms. Upskilling and reskilling are often used interchangeably. But they shouldn’t be. 

Upskilling and reskilling are different, and understanding this distinction is important. Read on to find out which one is right for your organization.

Preview of upskilling and reskilling article

Defining the terms: Upskilling vs. reskilling

Until relatively recently, the working world was more predictable. People could learn a set of skills early on and continue to apply them throughout their entire careers.

That’s not the case anymore. Now companies and employees must continually learn new skills to keep up with change. Seventy-eight percent of learning and development leaders say their top challenge is keeping employees’ skills up to speed with the pace of change. Upskilling and reskilling describe the approach leaders can take to address this issue. 

Upskilling, according to Merriam-Webster, means to provide (someone, such as an employee) with more advanced skills through additional education and training. Or, as Chief Learning Officer puts it, “An individual who has been upskilled is doing the same job, only better.” 

Reskilling, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is the process of learning new skills so you can do a different job, or of training people to do a different job. 

Now that you know the difference between these two terms, it’s time to determine whether your employees need to upskill or reskill.

To upskill or reskill? Which is right for your organization?

To determine which approach is right for your organization, start by taking stock of your current roles. Are they changing dramatically? Or do people in those positions simply need to enhance their skills?

Reskilling prepares employees for major change

If you have many jobs becoming obsolete and employees need to learn entirely new skill sets, you’ll need to reskill. 

Management and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton offers a case study in reskilling. “At Booz Allen Hamilton, we strive to be game-changers in the data science field. We want to innovate and change the conversation around data to help our clients use data in ways they’ve never used it before,” says Senior Learning Associate Jim Hemgen. “That’s why we set a goal to employ 5,000 data scientists. We saw this as a challenge to both hire and train our existing analysts to be data scientists.”

Booz Allen Hamilton’s data science reskilling program involves several tactics. Analysts start with an initial skills assessment, and then they gain access to personalized online learning pathways. The program includes blended learning with classroom instruction and time to focus on independent projects. Mentors also provide support and accountability to participants. The pilot program’s results were impressive — 93.5% of graduates scored proficient or better in their data science skills.

In this case, employees needed to learn an entirely new set of skills to transition from traditional analysts to data scientists. But what if your employees aren’t taking on a new role? 

Upskilling enhances existing skills

If you have many jobs where employees need to expand or deepen their knowledge and abilities (while still doing more or less the same role), upskilling is the right approach.

[24] is a company that led a large upskilling effort. Mel Dolera, Head of Organization Transformation Team at [24], explains, “My L&D team recently helped our organization undergo a game-changing digital transformation. [24] reinvented our call center customer service solution into an artificial intelligence (AI)-based customer experience.”

The team of 5,000 customer service agents and managers at [24] continued to hold the same roles. But they also needed new skills to adapt to the changes in their organization. They learned new technical skills, like how to use the AI tool. But they also focused on soft skills like growth mindset and positive psychology. “Since our new AI tool handles all the simple customer requests, our customer service agents trained in vital soft skills as well as stress management to tackle more complex customer calls,” says Mel.

Upskilling or reskilling your workforce? Help is here!

A quick recap: upskilling and reskilling are related but different tactics for overcoming the skills gap. Upskilling is most relevant when roles are not changing dramatically, and employees simply need to build upon their skills. Reskilling happens when roles are becoming obsolete, and you want to prepare employees to take on new jobs.

If either of these situations applies to your company, you’re not alone. Forty-three percent of organizations are experiencing skills gaps today, and 22% expect to in the next two years.

Udemy is here to help you navigate these challenges. Find out why thousands of organizations like Unilever and Prudential trust us to support their learning objectives. Speak with one of our workplace learning experts to create a plan for upskilling and reskilling your employees.