Upskilling the Future: Employee Learning and Development

Pam Sornson, JD

The past two decades have ushered in profound workplace changes, as technology absorbed many menial tasks while facilitating the previously unthinkable but now globally accepted ‘work from home’ standard. Employers struggled to accommodate drastic workplace disruptions and are still struggling to reorganize as those disruptions evolve into the ‘new normal.’ While many companies may be looking at new technology or infrastructure investments to take them to their next goal, others are looking closer to home to an asset they may have disregarded in the past: their existing workforce. The world is seeing a shift to an ’employee-centric’ workplace, and businesses that embrace both the concept and their current staff may be the farthest ahead in the game. 


A Global Phenomenon

World Economic Forum report issued in 2021 (WEF) suggests that ‘upskilling’ today’s existing workforce has the potential to boost the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by as much as $6.5 trillion by 2030. Those investments in workforce training, learning, and development would close the current skills gap by ensuring that all available workers have the training (or access to training) needed to succeed in the increasingly technical world economy. In addition, augmenting existing skills with new capacities will boost worker productivity, leading to enhanced corporate success. 

The report surmises a surge in ‘upskilling’ will bring several benefits to individual countries and the world as a wholly connected economic system:

China will most likely achieve the highest gain within that time frame, potentially increasing its GDP by as much as 7.5%. The United States is second, with a potential yield of 3.7%.

Around the world, the business services, manufacturing, and consumer services sectors will gain the most return on those investments, all growing by close to 5% over that decade.  

And there could be a net of over five million new jobs created by 2030 in occupations that require innovation, creativity, and so-called ‘soft’ skills like empathy, collaboration, and partnering. 

Based on its research, the WEF recommends that all stakeholders in any economic system review their specific sector to discover emerging occupations that can enhance current corporate fortunes and then invest in integrating those jobs into their future workforce strategy.  


Connecting Worker/Employer L&D Needs

Other research indicates that employers, too, can retool their existing training programs to be more productive, both for the business and its individual workers. According to NYUC LearningHub, a Singapore-based workforce development think-tank, there’s often a disconnect between the training the business offers and the skills and abilities that workers want to attain – the training the company provides might not address the needs of either group. While almost all employees and employers (99% and 98%, respectively) agreed that continuous employee learning and development (L&D) is critical to company success, significant percentages of both populations aren’t satisfied with the content of those learning opportunities. Thirty-eight percent of employees and 45% of employers classify their current occupational training opportunities as ‘fair,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘very bad.’

Further, while most of the workers polled (88%) agreed that their employer fully supported worker training programs, almost one in three (32%) also said they weren’t offered enough support to access those resources. Workers cited three major concerns that interfered with their ability to obtain additional work training:

    1. They were too busy in their job to take the time to learn more.
    2. Their productivity would suffer if they were to leave work during the day. Workers who were expected to achieve certain daily milestones weren’t comfortable trusting someone else to attain those benchmarks in their absence.   
    3. Their personal obligations outside of work prevented them from accessing additional training while off work.

These disgruntled employees shared, too, their thoughts on what their boss could do better to ensure they got the training they wanted:

They wanted to be paid for the time off work they’d take to attend training courses. 

They also wanted to be sure their work obligations were appropriately covered while they were away. Some suggested their immediate supervisor would be an appropriate interim substitute.

They also suggested changing the training format into shorter refresher courses that didn’t take much time out of the day but still offered new learning capacities. 

While these comments may be specific to those workers polled, they may also be relevant to workers in other sectors and industries, and, therefore relevant throughout the global economy.


Enhancing Employer Effort 

There are several steps employers can take to enhance the skill set of their existing labor force, each of which will provide the data needed to determine the optimal type and style of learning required by each employee:

Assess current skill levels, especially digital skills. Approximately one in three American workers still have no comprehensive digital skills, even though they may be using computers in their occupation. While these workers may be able to manage their occupational programming on a day-to-day basis, they don’t know how to repair or address computer glitches that may crop up, nor would they be able to advance to a higher occupational level. Not surprisingly, most organizations these days prioritize digital skills as critical assets in their new hires. 

Upskill or Reskill? 

Upskilling enhances existing skills by building on them to achieve new goals and capacities. Upskilled workers frequently also advance faster in their careers.

Reskilled workers learn new skills to perform new and different types of work. A computer programmer, for example, can obtain training to become a systems analyst, which is a separate occupation even though it’s based within the same technical environment.  

Think ahead. Most companies have long-term goals, and their employee L&D initiatives should encompass the skills that will be needed to attain those long-range plans. In many cases, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are on a company’s radar, even though they don’t as yet have the equipment to implement those strategies. 

The work world is decidedly different now than it was just two years ago. Workers are willing to provide better service to their employer when that employer facilitates the L&D opportunities they need. As the global economy evolves through the pandemic and beyond, companies that invest in maintaining and enhancing the skillsets of their existing workforce will be more stable and, therefore, more successful than those that don’t.  


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