What Is Reskilling and Why Does It Matter?

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Houston, we have a talent problem. It’s no secret that leaders have been struggling to fill skills gaps since the onset of the digital revolution.

But the pandemic and subsequent Great Resignation have sent that trend into hyperdrive: According to a 2021 report from Gartner, a third of job skills that were in-demand just a few short years ago are now obsolete.

Meanwhile, once-futuristic technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and blockchain are quickly becoming essential aspects of modern business—but the job market hasn’t caught up.

Finding available, affordable talent with those skillsets is like looking for a needle in a haystack. What’s a hiring manager, HR leader, or executive to do?

In this article we’re going to suggest that reskilling—rather than hiring or upskilling—is a powerful strategy for addressing these challenges. 

But first, a story. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one was stepping foot on a plane. As a result, Scandinavian Airlines had to temporarily lay off 90% of its cabin staff.

However, as the need for airline employees was declining, the need for healthcare workers was—for obvious reasons—on the rise. This gave board member Oscar Stege Unger an idea. 

“As I’d worked with reskilling before, I thought that we could establish a short training program that would prepare the [furloughed workers] to support nurses and doctors, freeing them up to attend to the most important matters,” he tells Harvard Business Review.

The company designed a three-and-a-half-day training program to reskill cabin staff as assistant nurses, and offered the opportunity to team members who already had rudimentary medical training (a.k.a relevant skills).

Trainees were able to rapidly join Sweden’s healthcare industry and contribute to the escalating needs of the pandemic. It was a win-win for all.

The moral of the story?

Unprecedented challenges call for unprecedented thinking. And reskilling enables just such creative problem-solving—it’s all about looking at existing resources in fresh ways.

The difference between upskilling and reskilling

The two sound alike, but they’re very different.

As the name implies, upskilling is when an employee learns new skills to move them upward in their current career path. An example might be an individual contributor who gains data skills to level up to a management role.

Reskilling is about learning new skills to do an entirely different job. 

However, at its best, reskilling is strategic. Meaning there’s a common skills thread connecting the new job with the old one.

For example, an accountant who is proficient with numbers may be reskilled as a data scientist. Hard skills aren’t the only important skills to consider when reskilling. Businesses should consider important soft skills like determination, motivation and commitment.

Connecting the dots between old roles and new roles is what a strong reskilling program is all about.

The benefits of reskilling

Reskilling brings benefits to both organizations and their candidates. For organizations, in many cases it makes sense to make the most of the talent you have currently.

Hiring is expensive: Companies spend $4,000 or more per job candidate. Your current employees understand the business, know the culture, and have already proven their value in another role. So it’s often wise to start there. 

But reskilling is also a powerful strategy for attracting external candidates—especially in the wake of the pandemic.

With workers in many industries un- or under-employed, organizations, both public and private, are banding together to create reskilling programs within local communities to attract candidates, train them on needed skills, and then onboard them into the workforce.

Not only is this a way to meet talent objectives, but it’s a way to contribute to economic recovery. General Assembly has partnered with organizations like Microsoft, M&T Bank, and Humana to successfully build and execute these types of reskilling programs in fields such as data, software engineering, user experience design, and digital marketing. 

Employees find a great deal of value in reskilling, too.

In fact, IBM found that employees who are given access to training are 42% more likely to stay with a company in the long-term. In the context of the Great Resignation, if your organization can demonstrate high retention when so many employees are leaving for greener pastures, that makes a powerful statement. 

You can dovetail reskilling initiatives with other corporate goals, such as diversity and inclusion. The lack of diversity in tech is well-documented. Due to established wealth gaps connected with race and gender, some members of marginalized communities may not have access to the financial means to pursue a technology training program.

In evaluating reskilling initiatives, there may be opportunities to provide members of a diverse workforce with access to mentorship and career pathing to which they’ve previously lacked access.

How reskilling works

Every reskilling initiative is different, but here are the key building blocks of success. 

Define your organizational goals 

What are your objectives for the next 6 months, 12 months, 5 years? Start with the overall business strategy and decide where you want to go from there.

Importantly, don’t stop at your own organization. Take the larger trends shaping your industry into account as well. 

Map your goals to specific skills 

Identify and prioritize the mission critical skills to meet your goals. Then drill into what roles or jobs you need to adapt or create to achieve your business objectives.

What skills will those roles require? Work with departmental leaders to identify both immediate and anticipated skills gaps.

Do a workforce skills inventory

Next, take stock of what skills you have in-house. Put together a database of your current employee skills, as well as those of potential candidates.

Identify adjacent skills, or areas where potential crossover to an emerging or in-demand skill makes sense. 

Prioritize new skills 

Reskilling is an iterative process—you can’t transform an entire organization at once. So pick an area of focus that would have the greatest near-term impact on your business.

Also keep an eye on which skills fit the Venn diagram of both 1) essential and 2) rapidly learnable for quick win that can domino into future, more long-term initiatives. 

Team up with a reskilling partner 

Building a reskilling program from scratch internally requires an enormous investment of time and resources that is simply not feasible for most organizations that need act fast.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Select a qualified implementation partner to help you begin reskilling now, and refine as you go. Explore GA’s reskilling programs here. 

Track success 

Work with your departmental leaders to set clear goals for your program, and metrics to track success. These metrics can include everything from an employee’s ability to perform specific tasks within a new skillset to quality standards being met and controlled as your employees transition to new roles.

Start your reskilling journey today 

Reskilling is the talent strategy for the moment, capable of paying for itself as much as 6x over.

At General Assembly, we partner with the some of the world’s most forward-thinking organizations to design, build, and launch reskilling programs that work.

Get in touch today to learn more about reskilling your people with General Assembly.