What we're talking about

Upskilling employees means making training available to them as part of their role – helping them to improve existing skills or develop relevant new ones. The target of this training is to improve their ability to carry out their responsibilities and to enable individual professional development. 

It's usually career-specific, paid for with company cash and done on company time, with formats typically ranging from studying for qualifications and workshops to job rotation. It can be centered around hard skills (eg, cloud computing, video production or blockchain) or soft skills (eg, creativity, adaptability or collaboration). As your business grows, creating a strategy and incorporating it into wider employee growth and development plans is a super worthwhile exercise.

Why it's important 

Investing in employee education might seem like a luxury that a small business like yours can't afford – and that's not a rare perception. A recent survey showed that 40% of employees feel that their bosses put upskilling low on the agenda or don't think about it at all. Nevertheless, 97% of employees were keen to upskill – spurred on by the upheaval brought about by the pandemic. 

Upskilling brings a host of benefits for employers and their staff. It can keep employees in line with the needs and trends of the sector they're working in, helping to foster a smart and skilled team. Employees, meanwhile, are increasingly expecting personal development to form part of their roles. They may well look elsewhere for employment if it's not prioritized – particularly in sectors where competition is fierce. Small businesses are well-placed to offer personalized learning and internal growth opportunities, and you should grab on to this advantage. 

Things to note 

Know the difference between upskilling and reskilling. While upskilling is all about improving an employee's ability to perform their current role, reskilling involves developing the set of tools needed for an entirely different job. Sometimes, an employee might reskill with a view to taking on a different role in the same company – and you can support them in doing this. On occasion, like if you undergo a pivot, you'll be forced to reskill elements of your workforce. But, more often than not, if you spot a big gap between what you have and what you need, it'll be a case of recruiting new talent instead. 

You can do it at your own scale. As overwhelming as setting up an upskilling program can seem, you won't be expected to match what the big corporates can offer. You can build something using the resources you have, at a level you can manage. That might be more of an ad hoc approach to learning that makes use of internal capabilities, rather than bringing someone in from outside. For example, you could set up a work shadowing scheme or a mentorship program, or ask someone in the business who has a skill to teach it to the rest of their team. 

E-learning is your friend. One of the most accessible routes to upskilling for small businesses is e-learning. Numerous apps and sites have emerged in recent times and, while there's arguably no substitute for in-person education, they're affordable and have their own suite of advantages. E-learning gives your employees the freedom to work in accordance with their own goals and schedules. At one end of the spectrum, there are micro learning apps and games, such as Surge9, 5Mins and Primer, which provide bite-size chunks of info at a time convenient to the learner. At the other end, there are more structured courses, such as those provided by education platforms Khan Academy, Coursera and Udacity

Let your employees take the lead. You should seek employee input when deciding where to allocate resources and how to implement training; they're more immersed in their line of work than you are and are more likely to know areas for attention. Aim for a happy balance, where upskilling makes your business stronger, but also allows team members to develop the skill sets they want.

How to launch an upskilling program 

1. Determine your skills gap. Establish what your employees have and what they need knowledge-wise. Here's a useful guide to skills gap analysis. Note the hard and soft skills possessed by individuals across your business, then think about your business' long-term plan and where you anticipate your industry is headed. With input from employees, consider the skills that aren't present but will be needed for continued success. You may want to map this process visually using a tool, like skills management platform MuchSkills

2. Pick some initial goals. This skills gap analysis should give you a holistic picture of your business. But it's unlikely you'll be able to upskill everyone at the same time so, for now, pick a priority. Where will upskilling have the biggest impact? Where is it needed most urgently? Determine the outcomes you're hoping for on an employee level and a wider business level. 

3. Define your constraints. Assess your budget, any deadlines you're facing and your existing internal resources. You may need to reassess your priorities given your financial situation. It might also be worth looking into some available grants

4. Secure employee buy-in. Before ironing out the specifics of delivery, outline what you have in mind to your employees and get their buy-in. Get input on how the group likes to learn and what they'd like to get out of the time they put aside. If you're hoping to lean on existing team members for their expertise, make sure they're available and willing to pass on their wisdom.

5. Choose your method of delivery. Bearing in mind your goals and the group you're upskilling, decide the form and structure that training will take. Will it be run in-person or online? How long will it take? Even if you're not going to be particularly involved in the day-to-day running of the program, you'll need to provide a tight brief. 

6. Allow for personalization. It's likely that each employee you're training will use their new skills uniquely – applying them to different situations, requiring different levels of aptitude. They'll also bring their own personal aims and interests to training sessions, and know what works for them in terms of learning style. Build in the capacity for independent learning, ensuring there's flexibility outside of the core upskilling curriculum and commitments. 

7. Block out the time. You're now ready to schedule key moments in the upskilling calendar – whether this means organizing training days, setting up assessments or just freeing up hours in the day for study time. Make sure you or the relevant managers have also blocked out time to check in on how things are going, implementing adjustments as and when they're needed. 

8. Measure results. As the end of the training rolls around, ask for more comprehensive feedback on how it went. Are there other areas for development that have emerged? Was the teaching of sufficient quality and did the format work? From this, you'll be able to improve on how you deliver employee education in the future.

9. Provide opportunities for use. The ultimate proof, however, will come when your employees put their new-found skills to good use. Plus, these skills will weaken without practice. So, revisit your upskilling goals and instruct your employees on some tangible use cases for these skills, ensuring supervision is available where necessary. 

Key takeaways 

• Upskilling is a win-win for employers and their employees. Despite the upfront costs, your business will reap the benefits of increased retention and productivity. 

• You can offer upskilling at a level that's right for your business, right now. There's something to fit all sectors and budgets.

• When it comes to upskilling, employees should lead and businesses should facilitate. This means allowing for personalization and independent learning, listening when you're told what's lacking and bearing the cost in time and money. 

Learn more

Perspective. From business publication Startups Magazine, here's why upskilling is on the rise and education tech is no longer just for kids. 

Example. Here are some insights from founders, via a round table from management consultancy Tech Nation, on how they've helped boost digital skills in their respective businesses.

Tool. Here's a list of training programs and micro learning apps catered to small business needs – provided by micro learning platform EdApp.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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