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Upskilling: The key to success in the new world of work

Upskilling prepares today’s workforce for tomorrow’s opportunities, positioning organizations for success in the future.
Credit: Ana Kova; Image Sources: Adobe Stock, TATIANA, Otto

Faced with multiple transformational changes — the impact of automation on job roles, remote and hybrid working conditions, and increasing labor shortages, to name a few — the question on top of many L&D leaders’ minds is: what can we do to help our organization not only survive, but thrive? 

Crafting an upskilling strategy that prepares today’s workforce for tomorrow’s opportunities is a step in the right direction. What is upskilling? In short, upskilling is developing talent to meet current and future hiring needs, particularly where there is a widespread skill gap. 

How to start upskilling employees

In the video below, David Epstein — the bestselling author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World — compares the evolution of job roles in modern times to the changes that followed the widespread adoption of ATMs. Epstein explains how the ATM was originally predicted to replace bank tellers, but instead, the need for tellers increased after the machine’s invention. 

In the late 1990s, bank teller roles began to transform to meet needs that ATMs couldn’t. Likewise, business leaders today can begin shifting their employees’ roles and responsibilities toward higher-value work. For ideas of how to put this into practice, we can look to a few companies that have successfully developed upskilling programs, including Amazon, Salesforce, and PwC. 

Amazon – Upskilling 2025 

Amazon’s upskilling program offers job assistance and tuition-free training that employees complete during their workday. Through Upskilling 2025, employees can participate in a variety of opportunities, including:

  • Machine Learning University (MLU): Taught by Amazon’s own, this program is on track to train thousands of employees in machine learning skills. It requires a time commitment of four to eight hours per week, for each six-week module. 
  • A2Tech: Fulfillment center employees can complete this 90-day program to develop IT support technician skills and eventually, complete the A+ certification test. 
  • AWS Training and Certification: To address the cloud skills shortage, Amazon offers free AWS training and discounted certification exams. Classes are offered in-person and online. 
  • Amazon Technical Academy: Designed for employees in non-technical roles, this program seeks to move employees into software engineering professions through hybrid instruction, project-based activities, and real-world application.
  • Career Choice: Amazon offers operations employees pre-paid tuition toward qualified certificates and diplomas, preparing them for in-demand jobs. Since 2012, over 50,000 Amazon employees have participated in this program.

PwC – New World. New Skills. 

Over the next several years, PWC plans to invest $3-billion in upskilling. As part of its “New World. New Skills” initiative, the company offers in-person, digital upskilling programs where participants learn how to leverage tools from automation to robotics. The Virtual Digital Academy lasts from one to two days and is offered at both standard and advanced levels.   

To upskill their 50,000 U.S.-based employees, PwC also created the Digital Fitness app with training tools for a variety of in-demand topics such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality. Through the app, which is now available to the public, employees and others can earn micro-degrees and certifications.

Salesforce – Trailhead

Salesforce predicts it will create over four million jobs by 2024. To prepare current and prospective employees to fill these roles, the company invites its workforce and external learners to “skill up for the future” through its digital upskilling program, Trailhead. 

Through the online platform, learners can develop in-demand skills and earn credentials. To begin, participants select a career path (such as developer or data analyst) and then complete the “trail” for that career. Trails include eLearning modules and projects that help learners upskill for a new role. 

Alternatively, participants can create a custom “trailmix,” pulling learning components from various trails to form a personalized learning plan. Along their learning journeys, participants earn badges and certifications to showcase on their resumes.

3 key takeaways for your upskilling program

These pioneers are paving the way for others to follow, offering upskilling programs that position the entire organization for success in the future world of work. Learning leaders can glean a few key takeaways from their success. 

Organizations don’t have to rely solely on outside sources 

Historically, leaders have turned to academic institutions to prepare employees for job roles, but times are changing. Innovators today are taking it upon themselves to leverage their own resources and create platforms and apps that train employees for higher value work, in-house. While future needs will vary per organization, forward-thinking leaders can expect certain job roles and responsibilities to shift. For instance, the fastest growing occupations require trade, medical and therapeutic, managerial, and creative skills that technology cannot easily replicate. 

Discover how a culture of learning can prepare your workforce for the future.

Employees want to future-proof their careers 

The Great Resignation is showing that employees desire more development opportunities. They’re eager to work toward certifications that will give them more earning potential and help them stay relevant in their fields. Organizations can respond by designating time in employees’ schedules for learning, like Amazon, and by crafting clear learning paths that help employees make career transitions. Having a clear path generates more learner engagement than buffet-style content catalogues, where learners pick and choose what they want to develop, and often lose motivation along the way.

Upskilling programs can target external learners

While most organizations’ upskilling programs focus on developing their own employees, the companies listed above invite both internal and external learners to develop in-demand capabilities. Organizations who are facing, or will soon face, labor shortages can follow suit by tailoring training offerings to their operational needs and making them available to the general public. As a bonus, this also helps increase brand awareness and loyalty. 

Final note

Upskilling programs allow employees to future-proof their careers, while helping organizations attract, develop, and retain talent. And fortunately, programs don’t have to require multi-billion-dollar investments or the development of entire virtual academies. 

Organizations of all sizes can start small and scale up as demands require and resources allow. Simpler programs could include a mix of lunch-and-learns and mentoring sessions. Over time, programs can be expanded to include in-person and virtual interactions, eLearning, and microlearning courses that offer micro-degrees or certifications. 

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