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The Future of: The Importance of Upskilling

LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report found that 59% of learning and development professionals named upskilling and reskilling as their top priority in 2021. Is it your priority?

Workers sat at a seminar, facing a speaker next to a whiteboard.

WikiJob defines upskilling as a form of training that enhances the existing skillset of a person, so that they can grow in their role and bring added value to the organisation. The below article is aimed at learning and development professionals who are still curious about how the importance of upskilling is changing over time.

The Increased Importance of Upskilling

The 2021 Workplace Learning Trends Report by Udemy found that, while 14% of the workplace were upskilled in 2019, this was increased to 38% in 2020.

A chart demonstrating the aforementioned changes in upskilling trends.

Why has this number doubled? And will it continue to increase?

In 2020, closing the skills gap became the key goal for learning and development programs, with 62% of L&D professsionals naming it in their top 3 goals for 2021. This is likely because of the employment crisis caused by the pandemic, whereby employees needed to upskill in order to retain their jobs in an unsettled and constantly-changing workplace. In February 2020, one third of companies stated that they were unable to cope with disruptions to the workplace due to technological and market changes, leading to skills gaps needing to be closed. Kayshia Kruger, Director of Organisation Development at ORC, states that the last 2 years has seen such instability and uncertainty for organisations and employees that organisations have “pivoted their people strategies” and will now focus on succession planning and career pathing in 2022 and beyond.

This disruption and uncertainty hasn’t disappeared; the economy is still trying to recover and the pandemic isn’t gone for good, so we expect upskilling to remain a priority for organisations in 2022 and beyond.

A learning and development leader asks her team for feedback

The Importance of Democratisation in Upskilling

Additionally, upskilling has been shown to be valued by the current and upcoming generations of workers, so we expect it to be embedded in the workplace to more and more of an extent as future workers expect and demand it. For instance, 87% of millenials believe that workplace learning and development is important, and 76% find companies more attractive when they offer additional skills training. It’s clear that employees value receiving further training to develop in their role, and as we’ve seen through previous articles regarding the democratisation of CPD, this should influence future learning and development coordinators to regard this more highly.

More traditional top-down workplace cultures involved line managers deciding when it was necessary to upskill their employees, but Wikijob states that more modern and progressive employers have abandoned this static approach in favour of letting employees make suggestions, looking at people analytics and behavioural software to understand employee behaviour.

A CPD leader teaches a colleague about digital skills by drawing a diagram on a whiteboard

Upskilling and the Digital Skills Gap

At any one time, new digital technologies are being introduced and existing technologies are being used in new and innovative ways. This rapid pace of change is resulting in a widening digital skills gap. Working knowledge of commonly-used platforms like Microsoft Word and Excel are no longer enough, and 62% of UK employers say that their workforce has small or severe shortages in terms of the sector-specific skills required – such as data analysis tools, Adobe Photoshop, etc.

Hays’ survey about the digital skills gap found that employers’ top challenges in making the workplace more digital and automated, included their current staff’s lack of skills, and the workplace’s budget.

Upskilling is one way of improving these skills to overcome the gap. For instance, engineering company SNC-Lavalin has launched their own Cyber Academy so that digital skills are no longer seen as ‘bolt on’ skills and there is instead a structured path for their graduates, apprentices and engineers to grow into cyber security practitioners.

However, the aforementioned Hays survey did mention budgetary challenges to overcoming the digital skills gap. So, what happens when technology exponentially advances too quickly for training to keep up with? And how do smaller organisations keep paying to upskill their employees in each newly-required skillset at such a rapid pace?

The first step is to have people in your organisation whose job it is to identify emerging technologies in your sector, so that you can keep an eye on what you may need to allocate parts of your budget to.

There are other tips that will help digitally upskill your employees without last-minute budgetary crises. For instance, we discuss how to make the most of your current development budget in this article. The main ideas include retaining your current digital talent and asking them to train less digitally-competent workers. Job shadowing is a particularly great upskilling method as it allows employees to upskill on the job.

Barriers to Upskilling

However, the importance of upskilling is being eclipsed by how difficult it can be to carry out. The biggest barriers to learning in 2020 were named as a lack of time (61%), the budget constraints we’ve already mentioned (42%), proving ROI (38%) and choosing the right L&D program (31%).

Together, these obstacles also create the problem that organisations may look at them and believe that upskilling is simply not worth the time and money investment. While upskilling prepares organisations for growth, many (especially smaller) organisations are not in a growth stage right now, and are instead attempting to simply stablilise and bounce back after the effects of COVID.

We’re hoping that these trends, mostly caused by the onset of the pandemic, will have eased by the end of this year. They’ve partly eased already – reduced training events budgets due to COVID are now increasing again to allow employees to continue to offer seminars and other upskilling events away from the office. And online ones are also more familiar and seamless today, so such events are no longer being cancelled or postponed on the offchance that an in-person event would be more effective.

However, if they don’t, they will likely result in inter-company upskilling gaps, and an increased importance in upskilling in order to get competitive advantage over bigger-budget companies. Learning and development programs will have to prove that they can provide desired levels of upskilling.


Upskilling has always been included in CPD, which is essential in growing a team’s capabilities. Its already-prominent importance is growing due to such factors as the growing digital skills gap and the democratisation of CPD. Wikijob states that companies who do not reskill to move with the times, will stagnate and end up lacking the skills they need to advance in the marketplace. Not only this, but they will also struggle to attract and retain the top talent of employees, due to millenials’ desire and expectation for upskilling.

Therefore, employees’ needs and increased marketplace competition will continue to work together to give companies internal and external pressure to focus on upskilling.

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