How to Build a Successful Upskilling Program

Amber Biela-Weyenberg | Content Strategist | May 3, 2024

When business conditions change, the skills employees need often change as well. Nearly half of the 1,920 HR leaders surveyed in Mercer’s 2024 Global Talent Trends study said skills shortages are a top threat to their business this year. Employees might need to learn how to use new manufacturing equipment or financial software to keep up with advancements in automation technology or learn how to apply new healthcare protocols as treatments evolve. The most effective companies have a formal upskilling program to meet these needs and continuously assess employee skills and provide training opportunities to fill gaps. Companies that don’t could find that business leaders create their own ad hoc programs, siloing skills data within specific departments. This fragmented approach can be inefficient and problematic for a host of reasons. Instead, business leaders and human resources teams should work together to craft a companywide upskilling program to make sure employees have the skills they need to meet the business’s goals and learning paths that keep them motivated and energized.

What Is an Upskilling Program?

Upskilling programs are formal professional development initiatives that organizations implement to help their workforce acquire new skills. Traditionally, upskilling focuses on helping employees enhance performance in their current positions. Companies often also include reskilling in their learning and development plans; reskilling is when someone develops new skills to move into a different role. Both are essential. Because an organization’s skills matrix is constantly changing, any upskilling program should involve continually assessing employees’ skills against business needs to identify gaps to close. In addition, companies can include various elements in their upskilling programs, such as e-learning courses, mentorship opportunities, job shadowing, tuition reimbursement toward certifications or degrees, and apprenticeships and other hands-on learning opportunities.

Companies need upskilling programs because they’re experiencing widening skills gaps due to changes in business operations spurred by technological advancements. For instance, robotics have become common in manufacturing, requiring employees with entirely new skill sets to program, fix, and work alongside these machines. Rising retirement rates are also a factor. In 2024, the United States is seeing a surge in retirements as a wave of American baby boomers turn 65, according to a January 2024 report from CBS, and other countries are in similar positions or worse. Robust upskilling programs help companies maintain a workforce that performs at its best while enabling them to nurture an internal talent pool of qualified employees who can move into key positions vertically and laterally within the organization.

Key Takeaways

  • Several factors are widening skills gaps at companies, including changes in business and industry operations, technological advancements, and a growing number of retirees.
  • Upskilling programs with the best return on investment are intentionally designed to help employees learn relevant skills that help the organization achieve its short- and long-term goals.
  • With a strong upskilling program, employees benefit from personalized career paths that help them perform better in their current roles or reskill to move into new positions. Business leaders benefit from upskilling programs that provide visibility into the skills that exist within their teams and the organization so they can use people's talents wisely to realize their strategic vision.

How to Build A Successful Upskilling Program for Your Business

"Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely," says Karen Kaiser Clark, a lecturer, consultant, and author who helps executives and others navigate change. Business leaders know that organizations must evolve to stay relevant and competitive, and an effective upskilling program helps them nurture the talent they need to achieve their strategic objectives. The type of upskilling program your organization should develop depends on its unique needs, so there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. However, following these 10 steps will help your company build a successful upskilling program.

1. Identify skills gaps

HR teams can identify current skills gaps by creating a process to continuously assess the workforce’s skills and compare them with job requirements to see which are missing. To do this effectively, HR teams need to collaborate with business leaders to look ahead and understand what skills their departments are likely to need over the coming years to carry out strategic initiatives. This process is called a skills gap analysis, and it’s an essential step because it allows any company to pinpoint areas where skills gaps could harm the business so it can actively work to close them. Too many companies think of this as a periodic effort; but the most effective companies treat the skills inventory and gap analysis process as ongoing.

Consider just one example: IT and data skills. Employers across industries say IT and data skills are the most difficult to find, according to an October 2023 ManpowerGroup survey of more than 40,000 employers globally. Given that, many companies likely need to upskill employees in some way in these areas. However, these are broad categories. Together, business and HR leaders need to use talent profiles to monitor their teams’ technical skills and identify specific areas that will help each employee to perform at a higher level and the company to achieve its business outcomes.

2. Set clear objectives

Any upskilling program needs clear objectives that stakeholders agree on to succeed. While HR may collaborate with business leaders to identify and close skills gaps, the CEO, CFO, and other executives must also buy into the vision. Their support and a budget are necessary for an organization to create impactful training programs to improve employee performance; and HR is more likely to get support and funding if executives understand how achieving their upskilling goals will benefit the company. If business leaders and HR explain why an upskilling program will help them get the right results in a unified approach, that will be even more persuasive.

Employees also need well-defined learning goals that are specific to their positions and aspirations so they know they’re developing skills that deliver real business value. Some employee training platforms provide personalized learning paths to help workers build the most relevant skill sets. This focused guidance also empowers people to take an active role in navigating their careers.

3. Tailor content to employee needs

Upskilling initiatives need to be targeted to help employees develop specific skills that improve their performance and business outcomes. Mass education efforts aren’t helpful in practice. For example, while many companies are curious about using AI to improve productivity or quality or to gain other measurable benefits, the entire company doesn’t need to learn how to build the large language models that power AI tools. However, a salesperson might get huge value from learning how to prompt generative AI tools to write first drafts of pitch emails. It’s vital to tailor learning content to the individual and the specific skills a person needs to excel in their role or reskill to move into another.

Here’s another example: Say a construction company identifies a frontline worker as a promising candidate for a management position. The worker’s manager could suggest a specific e-learning course or learning path in the organization’s learning platform to help them hone their leadership skills and prepare to take the next step in their career. Or, if a company’s IT department is shifting to a new programming language for app development, its software developers may need hands-on training to learn the new language and expand their expertise so they can support new business initiatives.

Creating personalized career paths is crucial to developing the skills a business needs, and it may also increase employee retention, keeping valuable skills and knowledge within your company. In a 2024 LinkedIn survey of more than 2,600 learners and learning and development and HR professionals, 8 in 10 people said learning “adds purpose to their work” and 7 in 10 said learning helps them feel more connected to their employers.

4. Choose appropriate delivery methods

People learn differently. Some prefer watching videos or reading, while others prefer on-the-job training. And some skills development requires hands-on learning to be effective. Whether you’re a woodworker, machinist, cake decorator, or phlebotomist, watching a video on how to complete a task isn’t the same as doing it. Giving employees relevant content in appropriate formats is essential to helping them achieve their learning goals.

Beyond content variety and relevance, also consider what type of learning platform best accommodates different segments of your workforce. For instance, some learning platforms are only available on laptops and desktop computers. Nurses, salespeople in the field, manufacturing workers, and other deskless workers often don’t have access to a dedicated workstation. So, if your company has deskless workers, you might consider adopting a platform with mobile capabilities and short-form content to make learning more accessible.

5. Use technology and tools

The right learning platform makes it easier to track every employee's evolving skill set, suggest development opportunities based on their roles and aspirations, and understand the organization’s skills matrix, thanks to automated processes, artificial intelligence, and connectivity that crosses lines of business. Manually trying to accomplish these tasks is challenging for HR because an organization's skills are constantly in flux.

Further, without a dedicated platform, some business leaders may take it upon themselves to upskill their departments to close problematic skills gaps. These isolated efforts can cause unintended issues. The most significant is siloed data, which makes it impossible to understand what skills exist across the workforce, limiting internal mobility. For example, without organizationwide visibility into its employees’ skills, a company may overlook an existing employee who is an ideal fit for an open position and instead hire an outside applicant who isn’t as strong. Visibility is essential in successful upskilling programs because it allows business leaders and HR to make the best use of the skills they have and see what skills gaps exist and their progress toward closing them.

6. Provide ongoing support and feedback

Employees need help identifying the skills they should pursue to grow their careers. This guidance can come in part from learning platforms with embedded AI tools that make recommendations. Workers also rely on direction from managers and feedback on how well they’re implementing new skills. However, less than half of HR professionals say managers at their organizations encourage employees to grow, according to the 223 surveyed by HR.com between November 2023 and January 2024. The reason may be that managers don’t have the support they need to help their teams.

While managers likely know what skills workers need to improve to be more effective right now, they may not be able to anticipate how positions will change over the next few years. Another potential roadblock is that managers don’t always have the time or capacity to help employees learn. A 2023 Gallup poll that surveyed more than 37,000 workers discovered that US managers are more likely to be burned out and disengaged than other employees. The reason? They have more work to do with fewer resources. Organizations must support managers at all levels by ensuring they have manageable workloads and visibility into employee skills profiles and progress toward closing skills gaps. Alongside this visibility, they need tools to offer training recommendations and guidance to help them create well-developed teams.

7. Promote engagement and participation

Deloitte calls company culture the backbone of learning and development plans in a 2023 report; and the proper environment is crucial to a successful upskilling program. Fostering a learning culture that promotes employee engagement starts with executives and other business leaders, who can make learning a clear organizational priority by talking positively about its impact on employees’ careers and the business’s strategy. Similarly, managers can promote participation in upskilling programs by encouraging employees to set annual learning goals and think about their career progression.

However, talking isn’t enough. An organization may say it values learning, but giving employees personalized learning paths, dedicated time to complete training modules, tools to guide them, and relevant content that helps them develop vital skills shows the company truly values upskilling. Your organization can improve participation in your upskilling initiatives by showing how learning is connected to business priorities and how it adds value for employees, and by making sure your learning platform is easy to use. It’s also helpful to promote your upskilling program often.

8. Measure and evaluate progress

The only way to know that your upskilling program is working is to track metrics that help you measure progress against your goals. One baseline goal can be to increase completion rates of training programs. Some HCM platforms let HR track course completion rates with dashboards showing how close the company is to closing a skills gap, which makes it easier to measure progress. It’s especially beneficial when business leaders also have this visibility so they can see how close they are to achieving skills objectives. Further, business leaders can share updates with their departments to motivate their teams to complete crucial training and meet their goals.

However, course completion rates only tell part of the story. Are employees more effective in their roles with their new skills? Is the business better off? To answer these questions, HR could track other key performance indicators, such as employee performance reviews and productivity rates, to see if upskilling improves outcomes as expected. Maybe a hotel chain’s guest satisfaction score goes up after the front desk staff takes conflict management training, helping them better navigate difficult situations. Perhaps expedited shipping costs go down after logistics managers develop more advanced analytics skills to anticipate and work around transportation problems earlier.

If a company expects its upskilling program to create more internal qualified candidates, measuring promotion rates and internal mobility will show if that expectation is being met. Further, employee retention rates and employee and customer satisfaction scores can tell you if the workforce is happier, which is often a by-product of learning opportunities. It’s also vital to regularly collect employee feedback on the upskilling program to find areas for improvement and ensure it meets the workforce’s needs as well as the company’s.

9. Encourage continuous learning

Many business leaders believe their organizations aren’t doing enough to upskill the workforce. Providing relevant and valuable training in an upskilling program is a start, but companies must also encourage continuous learning in several ways. Creating a learning environment where upskilling is discussed regularly in employee communications and one-on-one conversations with managers is essential.

Additionally, companies can give workers dedicated time to focus on developing their skills. Organizations might also encourage managers to help employees find time in the flow of work to learn during periods when there’s less to do. If training is required, companies should ensure employees have time during working hours to complete it. Workers who feel pressured by the business to progress and believe they must learn on their own time may become resentful.

Internal mobility is another way to encourage continuous learning. Organizations that look to promote employees first before considering outside candidates create a powerful incentive for their workforce to upskill. Further, following that line of thinking, some companies incentivize the workforce to learn in-demand skills to close gaps by offering bonuses or additional days off when employees receive specific certifications or reach goals that positively impact the business in significant ways.

10. Celebrate success and recognize achievements

One of the clearest ways to show employees that your company values upskilling is to celebrate the individual and company successes that it facilitates. Managers should acknowledge when employees meet learning goals during one-on-one conversations and celebrate them in team meetings. On a larger scale, business leaders can share how meeting learning objectives positively impacts the business to stir up excitement.

Say an IT department aims for 25% of team members to receive an AI-related certification by the end of the fiscal year. The business leader can share periodic updates with their organization to highlight progress and give examples of how people have applied the new knowledge to drive a business outcome. In another example, if internal hiring increases year over year because employees are more skilled and prepared to take on additional responsibilities, celebrate that achievement and make sure the workforce knows. It’s an excellent way to motivate workers to take advantage of your upskilling program.

Build an Upskilling Program That Powers Your Success Using Oracle Grow

Many managers don’t understand what skills exist in their organization, so they can’t identify skills gaps or track progress toward closing them. And business leaders often feel it’s left to them to build the skills needed to achieve their goals if there’s not an effective companywide, HR-led upskilling program. Oracle Grow, part of Oracle Fusion Cloud HCM, makes it easy to continuously inventory your workforce’s skills and uncover gaps that may prevent your organization from achieving its business outcomes. Oracle Grow connects your learning platform with employees’ skill profiles and provides personalized guidance to steer them toward the right training. For example, with Oracle Grow’s new “role guides,” business leaders can help their workforce develop the vital skills required to attain business outcomes. Role guides also let business leaders show employees the exact skills needed to move into a specific position, thus giving employees areas to focus on for career growth. Additionally, the role guide innovation gives business leaders visibility into how well they’re closing a skills gap, which can help inform their strategy and increase confidence in positive business outcomes.

Upskilling Program FAQs

Why should you upskill your employees?
Companies that intentionally upskill their workforce to close skills gaps benefit by ensuring they have access to the critical competencies necessary to accomplish business objectives. Upskilling also typically increases employee satisfaction and retention, keeping vital knowledge in the business.

What is a SWOT analysis for upskilling?
HR teams can conduct a SWOT analysis for their upskilling programs to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, which can help them make improvements.

How do you upskill effectively?
Companies and individuals should identify what skills they currently have and which ones they need to achieve their short- and long-term goals. They should then create a plan with defined steps to upskill effectively and close the skills gap between where they are and where they want to be.

Don’t have the skills you need? Oracle Grow helps you close the skills gap by unifying business goals, learning, and career mobility.

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