Business is changing faster than ever before. Globalisation, automation, digitalisation, and the enduring effects of the pandemic are reshaping the way we work. Pandemic-induced border closures have led to a shortage of skilled workers. With skilled migration failing to keep pace with the shortage, upskilling current workers has become absolutely essential. Doing so means imbuing your business with greater power and flexibility to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. So, how can you upskill employees in your business?

The Meaning of Upskilling

First, a quick primer. Upskilling ‘facilitates continuous learning through training programs and development opportunities that expand and diversify employee’s portfolios’, according to Think of a software developer learning a new coding language to be able to take on more complicated projects for his company.

Of course, upskilling does not only refer to technical knowledge. Both hard and soft skills can be developed – anything, really, that helps your people do their jobs better.

Exploring upskilling from an employee’s perspective, the BBC identifies benefits such as ‘[being] a more effective worker, [staying] relevant and competitive in your industry, potentially [getting] noticed for more raises and recognition or [positioning] yourself for better job opportunities down the road’.

Skills Crisis

The ability to upskill workers is set to become more crucial than ever. One analysis concluded that 4 in 10 Australian businesses were suffering from skills shortages. In particular, AI Group’s Centre for Education and Training identifies that the rapidly transforming digital economy has generated a critical need for advanced digital skills among workers. ‘Organisations, governments and education and training systems need to adapt to the rapid and continual technological development in order to remain fit for purpose’ argues the report.

Add to this the after-effects of the pandemic, which has ‘dramatically accelerated the need for new skills in the workforce, with social and emotional skills in high demand’, according to a recent study. Peter Tulumello of Deloitte sums it up when he says, ‘In a world that requires more skills that are refreshed more often, we also need to build a workforce that is able to learn, apply and adapt quicker than they have before.’

The Upside

The benefits of investing in upskilling your employees are manifold. 31% of small and medium businesses are facing a shortage of technological skills, while 55% of employers surveyed said that skill gaps in the labour market presented the greatest barrier to the adoption of new technologies. It stands to reason that equipping your people with greater technological know-how might just give your business a leg-up against the competition.

Upskilling also helps with retention. Millennials are already known to be serial job-hoppers. With 39% of workers fearing their job will become obsolete in the next five years, who can blame them? By offering the opportunity to gain skills that might be transferable across a career of twists and turns, you can – conversely – incentivise millennials to stay, more than you might have done with simple promotions and pay-rises.

Step by Step

So, what is all this upskilling meaning in practice? What does an effective professional development program look like? Let’s break it down into steps.

  1. Identify the skills you need – where is your business going in the next five years? Are you planning to expand into new markets or launch new products? Has the pandemic caused a digital shift in your operations? Do your teams have the IT skills necessary to manage such a transition? Pondering these questions will help you answer the most crucial question: what skills will your people need to execute?
  2. Analyse your skill gaps – understanding your workforce’s actual, current competencies is necessary for determining where the gaps are. Bridgewater Associates, often regarded as the largest and most successful hedge fund manager in the world, is well-known for utilising a sophisticated employee evaluation system known as ‘baseball cards’. This enables them to understand clearly where they excel, as well as in what areas they may still need to develop. Regardless of your method, it’s crucial to maintain awareness of where your teams can improve.
  3. Introduce professional development programs – these can take many forms. Create mentoring programs, pairing highly skilled workers with lesser-skilled counterparts. Organise shadowing days, incentivise self-study, or deliver short courses in different areas. Provide opportunities for job rotations or cross-departmental opportunities. These are just a few examples.
  4. Retest, re-evaluate – of course, it’s critical to be able to measure the results of professional development efforts, to recognise those who excel and to make adjustments where the desired change isn’t coming through. Evaluation and analysis is a constant process that fuels the professional development cycle.

A final tip: don’t just focus on designing professional development programs. Put some thought into how you will incentivise participation, as well. Only 42% of employees take advantage of existing professional development programs. That number should be a lot higher if you want to maximise return on investment. Encouragement, recognition and other rewards are all good methods.


Knowing how to upskill means knowing how to future-proof your company. Digitalisation, globalisation and automation are paving the way for the 4th industrial revolution. The key to taking advantage of such major shifts in the workplace is to ensure that your people are equipped with the skills needed to prosper in the world of industry 4.0.