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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

What Is Upskilling and How Can You Use It to Get the Career You Want?

smiling person standing in front of brick wall holding a marker and placing sticky notes on large white pad on stand that says “strategies”; coworker facing away from camera in foreground
Bailey Zelena; kupicoo/Getty Images

If you’re like me, you may have thought you’d learn everything you needed to know for your career in college. Then, you’d get a job, move up the ladder, and never need to take another course or get more education. But that’s not actually the case.

While you probably did learn plenty during college or via other formal education, you’ve likely picked up even more practical knowledge and skills from each job you’ve had. And in an effort to keep learning—as well as stand out in the job market or get promoted—more workers are embracing the practice of upskilling, or continuously acquiring extra skills outside of their core job duties.

In a 2021 Gallup study (commissioned by Amazon), 57% of workers were interested in training to upgrade their skills or learn new ones that would help them advance. What’s more, 52% of workers had participated in an upskilling program in the past year.

The recent interest in upskilling can be attributed to the increasingly “dynamic labor market,” says Dimitris Tsingos, cofounder and president of Epignosis, a learning technology company. The COVID-19 pandemic led people to rethink work and seek out a better work-life balance. It even inspired many to look for new opportunities—fueling the Great Resignation. And many workers have realized that upskilling is the path to finding a role that’s better aligned with their values and compensation goals.

Here’s a deeper look at what upskilling actually is, what benefits it brings, and how to do it.

What is upskilling?

Upskilling simply refers to learning new skills. Specifically, it’s building on your existing skills or knowledge, or taking them to the next level. And it's a strategy for employees to upgrade their role and bring more value to their employer, Tsingos says, as well as an “opportunity to dive deeper and gain a more solid expertise in a specific domain.” 

This benefits everyone: Companies are staffed with the most knowledgeable people, and employees continue expanding their skill sets, which helps them grow their careers.

Upskilling shouldn’t be confused with reskilling: “When you think about upskilling, you’re just trying to build upon what you already have, whereas when people think about being reskilled, they’re thinking about having to learn something new,” says career development coach Alicia Perkins, often for a completely different type of role.

You’ll definitely learn new things while upskilling, but it’s usually related to the industry or job you’re already in. Upskilling is about ensuring you have a wide range of skills so you can adapt now and in the future, Perkins adds.

Upskilling is also more than just taking a class or earning a certificate, Tsingos says. It’s about acquiring knowledge you can actually apply. For example, someone may take courses and earn credentials in a foreign language, but true upskilling means the person would be able to communicate in that language, not just have proof that they passed a class.

Why is upskilling so important?

Learning is a central part of upskilling, but so is growing and advancing your career, says Zanzibar Vermiglio, a corporate business coach and founder of Zanzibar Enterprises. In today’s job landscape, “There’s a very healthy sense of bettering oneself.”

Additionally, 36% of Gen Z workers are not satisfied with how well their education prepared them for the workplace, according to a survey by Epignosis’ TalentLMS—making upskilling more important than ever.

Aside from the learning itself, here are some upskilling benefits:

  • Staying up-to-date with what’s new in your field
  • Demonstrating potential and showing existing employers that you’re willing to learn and adapt
  • Staying competitive in the job market (As Perkins puts it, “When it comes to staying competitive, you are only as strong as your skill set.”)
  • Preventing feelings of job stagnation
  • Standing out among coworkers and job applicants
  • Enhancing job satisfaction
  • Feeling more productive

And as a bonus, upskilling can help you earn more money. The Gallup-Amazon report suggests that upskilling can increase your annual wages by 8.6%. About two-thirds of workers said upskilling also improved their standard of living and quality of life.

Upskilling is crucial for employers, too. According to TalentLMS, 23% of Gen Z workers would leave a job if it didn’t offer learning opportunities.

4 steps for upskilling yourself

To upskill successfully, you need to strategize, Perkins says. Here are four steps to follow.

1. Identify the skills you need.

What skills do you actually need to get where you want to go in your career? That’s a key question to ask yourself when upskilling.

Look for gaps in your existing skill set and what’s needed in your industry now, and think about what might be needed in the future, Perkins says. “You want to look at the big picture.” Also, think about adding transferable skills—like writing or mastering certain computer software—that you can use across multiple jobs.

To help you identify where to upskill, Tsingos recommends reviewing current job postings in your field or for roles you want to have one day to see what skills, experiences, certifications, or other requirements employers are looking for. You can also talk to managers within your organization to find out what you’d need to position yourself for advancement And reach out to your mentors or others in your industry to get their take as well.

The most desired skills often vary by industry, but there are some skills that all employers look for, including:

2. Set clear goals.

Think about what you’re hoping to accomplish by acquiring new skills: a promotion within your organization, a raise, more satisfaction at your current job, a new role at a different company, or any other goal you might have.

“I’m a big fan of people inventing a future for themselves,” Vermiglio says.

Then identify what kind of upskilling will help you take the next step. Setting clear, precise upskilling goals ensures that you achieve a result, Tsingos says. Goals can be specific, like completing a course or earning a certification, or less concrete, like truly feeling comfortable and proficient in a new skill.

Timelines are important, too, Perkins emphasizes. Establishing a timeframe for learning new skills or completing a course will keep you on track.

3. Find the tools and courses to give you the skills you need.

There are lots of ways to upskill. Perkins suggests first examining what opportunities are already available to you—possibly for free. Maybe the university you graduated from offers career development programs for alumni, or a professional or trade association you belong to has classes, conferences, networking events, or continuing education programs. Reach out and ask!

Don’t forget to check with your current employer, too. Many companies provide educational benefits, such as tuition reimbursement, education stipends, or access to professional development courses. They may also pay for you to attend conferences or networking events. Some organizations have mentorship or other development programs that allow employees to shadow employees in other parts of their business, develop leadership and management skills, or learn new skills and technology.

There are also free online courses or low- or no-cost sites that can help you beef up your skills. Perkins recommends:

  • LinkedIn Learning for thousands business and other professional courses
  • Google Skillshop for certifications in Google’s programs, including Google Ads and Google Analytics
  • Udemy, for many professional courses on a variety of subjects, like writing, design, and time management
  • HubSpot for digital marketing, advertising, blogging, and social media courses

4. Talk to your employer about upskilling benefits.

If your employer doesn’t already provide opportunities to upskill—or to fund upskilling—consider asking them to offer these benefits. Talk to your boss about your desire to develop your skills and emphasize the outcomes and benefits for the company, Vermiglio says. Perkins adds, “You’d be surprised what kind of initiatives you could get started by just bringing up upskilling benefits.”

Use concrete examples to show that you’re “purpose focused,” meaning that you’re invested in contributing to a company’s success, Vermiglio says, and do some research to back up your request. For example, if your role is to manage the company’s website, find stats and research showing how writing search engine optimized–content could increase traffic as justification for you to take an SEO course. Or if you’re on the sales team, discuss how learning a new customer relationship management (CRM) software and helping implement it across the organization could drive up sales or save everyone time.

If your organization still won’t offer the upskilling benefits you need, you might consider independently pursuing whatever options are feasible for you (don’t forget about all those free upskilling options!). You might even decide that it’s time to look for a new role elsewhere. More companies are offering educational benefits to attract and retain talent, Tsingos says. And any learning you’re doing in the meantime will only make you a more compelling candidate.

How can you put your new skills to use?

The most successful upskillers are people who find a way to add value to an organization and make an impact, Vermiglio says, such as suggesting new ideas and coming up with ways to make processes work better. But how exactly you leverage your new skills depends on the upskilling goals that you set. 

If you want to use your new skills in your current job

Talk to your boss. “A great way to upskill is to get hands-on experience at work, so ask to take on different tasks,” Perkins says. This might mean taking on new duties or shifting your responsibilities.

“But you need to have a plan,” Perkins cautions, “because you don’t want to end up with two jobs for the price of one.” So you should definitely discuss the possibility of a raise if you’re taking on new responsibilities or whenever you’re bringing an advanced skill set to the role, she says.

If you want to show off your new skills in a job application

Of course, upskilling can also help you land a new job, either with your existing employer or somewhere else. Be sure to list any new skills, certifications, and online courses on your resume, and highlight how you’ve used them to make an impact in your bullet points or cover letter.

Explaining the effect of your upskilling is key: Obtaining a certificate from an online learning platform is a great start. But upskilling should go beyond that, Vermiglio says. You need to be able to demonstrate how these learning opportunities make you valuable to a company—otherwise, how would they increase your chances of landing the job?

You can also frame your decision to upskill to show future employers the value you place on learning and growing your skills.

If you want to talk about upskilling in an interview

In job interviews, emphasize how much you enjoy continuing to learn, and how you keep up with market trends and look for ways to improve systems and processes within an organization, Vermiglio says.

Also discuss real-life examples from your work history showing how you made improvements. Maybe the average time to deploy a new feature decreased 15% when you implemented and trained your team on a new project management software that you learned about during an online course. Or perhaps a successful marketing campaign idea came from a new brainstorming style you learned from shadowing someone on another team. “It’s not just about having the experience, but about being able to express how you have what they need,” Perkins says.

How do you keep upskilling for the future?

Upskilling is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done thing.

Any time you seek out a new role, make sure the company offers opportunities for upskilling if that’s important to you. If a new job and company seem like a good fit, but they don’t offer these benefits, you can use that to negotiate for a higher salary, Perkins says, so you can continue investing in growing your skills, broadening and deepening your knowledge base, and thriving in your career.

“We’re in the era of the economy of knowledge,” Tsingos says. “Knowledge continuously evolves,” he adds. “Smart companies don’t hire people for what they know today, but they hire them for what they can learn.”