The Age Of AI: When Reskilling Makes More Sense Than Upskilling

Reskilling Or Upskilling? A Prominent Dilemma In The Age Of AI
Monster Ztudio/
Summary: Are you torn between reskilling or upskilling your staff? Learn how tech disruptions and shifts in organizational and skill needs will make reskilling a top priority.

4 Scenarios On When Reskilling Can't Be Avoided

Although ChatGPT was only launched in November last year, it feels like it’s been around for much longer—perhaps because it is one of the fastest-growing applications, and everybody and their cousin has an opinion about it. But wait a minute... what do ChatGPT and AI tools have to do with reskilling and upskilling? It’s simple. The last years have been marked by ongoing changes, disruptions, and transitions determined by various factors (e.g., the pandemic, tech innovation, quiet quitting, and quiet hiring), which have widened the skill and talent gaps. And AI will widen these gaps even further, especially when it comes to technical and digital know-how. Some jobs will disappear, many are changing, and role requirements are evolving at a rate like never before. And this is where reskilling and upskilling come in.

In a world of work that’s bound to be transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, organizations and governments will be faced with the need to reskill more than 1 billion people by 2030, at least according to the World Economic Forum. Being proactive and investing in existing talent early on should be a priority for any company that wants to remain competitive, innovative, and successful. It also makes financial sense.

According to LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, "79% of L&D leaders agree it is less expensive to reskill a current employee than to hire a new one." Of course, it’s not only about money. Prioritizing the development of in-house talent will also inevitably reveal hidden gems—that is, employees with excellent skillsets who aren’t being used at their full potential and who could (perhaps with some additional training) thrive in bigger and more important roles. But how do you decide which skill development approach is better?

What’s The Difference Between Reskilling And Upskilling?

While upskilling is about improving or expanding existing skills, usually to remain competent in a particular role or field or to promote upward, reskilling focuses on acquiring new abilities that prepare employees for new roles, career transitions, or industry shifts. Skills developed through reskilling programs may or may not be related to the current skillset of the employee. Their learning abilities, willingness, and support from the company will largely decide the success and progression rate of the reskilling process.

Reskilling Or Upskilling? Why Reskilling Is The Winning Move

The main reason reskilling should receive more attention is the fact that in the new age of AI, job requirements and jobs, in general, are likely to change and be replaced faster than before. In this age marked by rapid developments, upskilling your workforce can easily backfire, especially for industries that are at higher risk of automatization. One can argue that reskilling is long-term focused, while upskilling is short-term focused. And with most skills having a half-life of around 5 years, it’s easy to understand why investing in retraining your workforce will pay more dividends in the future.

Scenarios Where Reskilling Makes More Sense Than Upskilling

The specific growth and development needs of each organization depend on a wide range of variables, from business goals to available resources and the actual potential of their people. Still, there are situations where reskilling is a much better business decision than upskilling. In fact, in some cases, it may be the only option.

1. Technological Disruption

Technological disruption, for example, has and will continue to make some jobs obsolete. In such cases, you can either reskill employees for new roles that involve the use of emerging technologies or you can retrain them for other positions within the company, where they can still bring value and continue to grow. This is also a more desirable and humane alternative to workforce reduction. Self-checkout machines that have started to replace cashiers are the first example that comes to mind. And it’s common for retailers to retrain and redeploy these workers in other areas, like warehouse logistics or retail customer service.

2. Shifting Organizational Needs

The next scenario? A shift in organizational needs. Perhaps the most common is the transition from brick-and-mortar business models to eCommerce. This is hardly surprising in a world where most customers expect to have everything available one swipe away on their smartphones. In this situation, employees already possess the human or soft skills necessary to help and interact with customers. The missing pieces of the puzzle are the technical and digital know-how, like using customer support platforms, promoting products and services on social media, and so on. Those are the areas where reskilling efforts should focus.

3. Career Changes And Transitions

Career changes or transitions can also be an opportunity to extend the tenure of top talent. Some employees could simply feel the need for a change, while others want to use or develop other abilities in which they’re interested. Let’s say you have a Marketing Specialist who is very creative and has done a great job on your social media channels. But one day they communicate interest to shift to graphic design and allow their creativity to find expression in novel ways. Providing the necessary training and mentoring to make that transition will ensure you keep someone who already knows the core company values and goals while also communicating to others that you encourage and believe in this type of opportunity.

This aspect of reskilling should not be overlooked, because it can play a crucial role in the retention process, especially within companies that only allow traditional or vertical progression paths and risk losing talented workers who are more interested in lateral or cross-departmental moves.

4. Industry Transformation/Convergence

And last but not least, there’s industry transformation or convergence. That is when "the business you’re in, whether it’s banking, retail, telecommunications, healthcare, or entertainment, is being disrupted and redefined by another industry.", in the words of Josh Bersin. The sustainable or renewable energy industry is one of the obvious examples. It’s clear that they represent the future and traditional energy companies need to reinvent themselves to survive the transition. Reskilling employees with expertise in fossil fuel extraction to solar, wind, or biofuel technologies won’t be easy or cheap. But it needs to be done and the process should start as early as possible.

Final Thoughts

So, where does all of this leave us? We’re definitely living in exciting times, not only for our professional but also for our personal lives. There are many questions still unanswered or perhaps questions for which we have the wrong answers—only time will tell. But one thing is clear: jobs are evolving and so will the skills and requirements to perform them. This also means that we, as employers, employees, or freelancers (you name it) need to keep an open mind and look at skills as assets that can come and go rapidly over a short period of time. However, as long as we maintain our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn, the future of work and personal fulfillment will be bright. And it should be!