What is upskilling?


Upskilling means honing existing skills or learning new skills to improve performance or efficiency.

Upskilling is the process of building on your skills to become better at a job. This could mean honing existing skills, such as emotional intelligence, or learning something new because the nature of your job is changing, often as a result of new technology.  

Upskilling is different from reskilling, which means training to prepare for a different role.  

History of upskilling  

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the earliest known reference to upskilling was in 1978. However, humans have been upskilling since we first began using tools, with each innovation requiring our ancestors to adapt.  

The pace of change has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, with six waves of innovation demanding more frequent upskilling. From the factories of the late 1700s to steam power in the 1800s, the adoption of electricity in the early 1900s, electronics in the later 1900s, digital technologies towards the end of the century, and more recently, the application of artificial intelligence (AI). Those that did not use new technology to its full advantage lost out to more innovative competitors, both at an organisational and individual level.  

Recent trends in upskilling  

Perhaps the most talked about trend in upskilling is adapting to AI and automation. Startling statistics suggest millions will lose their jobs to machines, while others say AI will ultimately make us more efficient and create new types of work. The trajectory of technology is unpredictable, but we do know that few jobs will remain untouched by the current march of innovation.  

From doctors using AI for disease detection to engineers using the technology to optimise power generation and manufacturers to predict when production lines need maintenance, many will need to upskill – or risk being left behind.  

Indeed, employers estimate that 44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted by 2028, according to the World Economic Future of Jobs Report, published May 2023. More than 85% of companies said frontier technologies (such as AI and automation) and broadening digital access were driving transformation.  

But while technology may grab the headlines and drive business strategy, the World Economic Forum found that training workers in AI and big data ranks third among company skills-training priorities from 2023 to 2027. Analytical thinking tops the list for upskilling, with creative thinking the second priority. Employers also plan to develop workers’ skills in leadership and social influence; resilience, flexibility and agility; and curiosity and lifelong learning.  

While AI and big data is part of fewer businesses’ upskilling strategies, it tends to be a more important element when it is included, according to the World Economic Forum. Other skills that appear to be strategically important to businesses are design and user experience, environmental stewardship, marketing and media and networks and cybersecurity. 

As many as 60% of workers will require training before 2027, showing the scale of the upskilling challenge. Yet, only half currently have access to adequate training opportunities.  

Advantages of upskilling 

  • Upskilling makes you more effective at your job and more employable.  
  • It is an opportunity to shape your career trajectory around the elements of work you find most interesting, ultimately making the job more fulfilling.  
  • When specific skills are in high demand, upskilling saves organisations the time and expense of bringing in new talent in a candidate-driven market 
  • If an organisation invests in upskilling it fosters loyalty.  
  • Upskilling means companies remain competitive.  

Disadvantages of upskilling   

  • Finding the time to upskill can be challenging for employees who are already very busy 
  • When the cost of upskilling falls on the individual, it can have a large impact on their finances, which is not something everyone can afford  
  • The results of upskilling are not always immediate, making it harder to accept the cost of investment  

Use case 

Amazon is investing $1.2 billion in an upskilling programme running from 2021 to 2025. By providing 300,000 employees access to training, and catering to both technical and non-technical staff, this initiative offers pathways to careers in areas that are growing. The company has led on embedding new technologies into its business – from warehouse to process automation. The upskilling programme helps employees stay relevant as job profiles change. For example, the Machine Learning University, part of Upskilling 2025, trains Amazon employees with a technical background in this field, which is increasingly important to customer innovation. It also creates the workforce Amazon needs to remain competitive.