Leading The Charge on Upskilling: Unlocking Human Potential in the New Digital Era


From the growing number of devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) to the expansion of data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the impact of technology is rapidly increasing. The speed and scope of the changes associated with this technological revolution are like none we’ve seen before, reshaping work and home environments and how we interact as a people and a society.

Today’s business and local government leaders are facing a tremendous challenge: the need to navigate the digital era amid a growing gap in the skills required to harness new technologies. To address this challenge, businesses will need to invest in upskilling their workforce.

Are you ready to guide your organization through the challenges ahead?


According to our annual CEO Survey, 88% of Canadian CEOs are concerned about the availability of important skills in their industry, up from 51% in 2018. Global CEOs expressed a similar concern, placing the availability of key skills as the third top threat to growth, up from No. 5 last year. But unlike their global counterparts, Canadian CEOs are less likely to prioritize upskilling. Just 16% of Canadian CEOs cited significant upskilling as the most important solution to addressing a skills gap, versus 46% of their global counterparts. Instead, they cited strong educational pipelines as their preferred (41%) solution.

The growing skills gap represents a very real issue that stands to hold back organizational performance and prosperity. Adding to the challenge is the concern about job displacement associated with technological advancement as automation threatens many existing jobs. Hundreds of millions of young people around the world are coming of age and finding themselves unemployed and unemployable, while many older, long-established employees are discovering their jobs are becoming obsolete.

In the meantime, jobs requiring knowledge of AI, robotics, and IoT are going unfilled in ever-greater numbers.

Together, these trends have broadened the gap between the employees of the present and the workforce of the future. Unless we find a solution, the social impact of job loss—for individuals, the organizations that employ them and the communities around them—will be even more staggering than it has been in the past.


Upskilling refers to the expansion of people’s capabilities and employability to fulfill the talent needs of a rapidly changing economy. An upskilling initiative can take place at the level of a company, an industry, or a community.

Upskilling shouldn’t be confused with reskilling, a term associated with short-term efforts undertaken for specific groups. By contrast, upskilling is a comprehensive initiative to convert applicable knowledge into productive results. It involves identifying the skills that will be most valuable in the future, the businesses that will need them, the people who need work and could plausibly gain those skills and the training and technology-enabled learning that could help them.

It’s not a one-time endeavor, and it involves every member of the workforce. From the front lines to the C-suite, the goal of upskilling is to have all members continually expand or augment their skills. Those skills aren’t limited to the realm of technology. They also include soft skills like the ability to learn and grasp new knowledge, improving communication, fostering teamwork and developing leadership. This way, employees can adapt to fit the roles needed for tomorrow that we can’t forecast today.

Some of the most effective upskilling initiatives take place at a community level, where government, business and not-for-profit organizations work together, often in new ways.


At first glance, the costs of upskilling appear daunting. But they should be considered in the context of the alternatives: severance costs for laid-off workers, plus the time and expense involved in finding, recruiting and on-boarding new people with the skills most in demand. Moreover, an upskilling program doesn’t need to upgrade skills for the entire workforce at once. In any given year, only 10 percent of a company’s workforce is immediately at risk.

What’s more, skills mismatches have a direct impact on a country’s GDP, tax revenues and social safety net bill. Analysis of the return on investment for existing cases suggests that $1 invested in upskilling tends to return at least $2 in revenues or savings.


Our society’s intellectual capital may well depend on deepening our understanding of how to effectively design and implement upskilling initiatives. Below are six key action steps:

1. Analyze the situation and define the initiative:

Some upskilling efforts may begin as regional initiatives, driven by government leaders; others might start within a single enterprise. All will have some elements in common:

  • a commitment to lifelong learning rather than the preservation of specific jobs;
  • support for individuals undergoing change; and
  • a reasonable time horizon, generally nine to 18 months, for the first round of activity.

Begin by convening candid dialogues with key stakeholders. The initiative must coordinate decisions and actions on several levels at once. To keep these activities aligned, a core group of sponsors and a project leadership team must manage the initiative and organize communications. There’s also generally a technological component developing digitally enabled methods for gathering data, assessing skills and facilitating lifelong learning.

Set quantitative objectives indicating the desired return for each stakeholder group (for example, the government, the company and the individual). It’s also important to set non-numeric objectives, which articulate the positive future state and motivate people.

2. Design a skills plan:

Base your priorities on the types of jobs that will be affected most by new technologies, the employees who are most at risk and the businesses that have the most to gain.

Off-the-shelf analytic workforce planning tools can help you estimate the impact of new technologies on companies, the savings that automation will generate, the types of new skills that will be needed and the number of months or years it will take for these changes to happen.

3. Assess and advise individual employees:

Some form of individual transformation will take place for participants, sometimes taking them out of their comfort zones. A considered assessment program that includes personal coaching and advice can go a long way toward relieving employees’ fears.

For each participant, create an individual skills development plan, defining the steps and training necessary to address the new job requirements or even make broader changes. Ideally, individual workers should feel they’re in charge of their own process.

4. Match jobs and engage workers:

It’s rare to find the perfect match right away; make use of IT systems that quantify the skills gap between the candidate and job requirements.

It’s also important to ensure positive communication with supervisors, transparency about the project and its implications for employees, encouragement to ask for help when needed, strong support for workers’ upskilling decisions and standardized rules for all HR advisors.

5. Select training and providers:

The quality, value and efficiency of the training experience affect every aspect of the upskilling initiative, from its costs to employee outlook and motivation. In selecting professional programs, your key criteria are market recognition, track record and the trust built in the past through placing graduates in new jobs.

6. Administer the project and monitor results:

Upskilling is challenging for everyone involved. Bring together the HR departments of relevant companies as administrators, and use digital HR tools to keep track of activity and results.

Set up a communications plan, publishing success stories and communicating the benefits to the broader community and to the media. Showcase individual employees as role models and set up opportunities for workers to communicate with one another via support groups, informal meetings and online platforms.


If this approach to upskilling seems exceptionally complex, that’s because it’s addressing an exceptionally complex problem. The assumption that people would be able to easily acquire new skills through vocational or on-the-job training in the future no longer holds true. And as the digital transformation of the global economy continues, the payoff for upskilling can be immense⁠—in economic results, overall quality of life and increased opportunities.

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