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Posted by on Jan 31, 2020

Tell Me, What is the Difference Between Reskilling and Upskilling?

Tell Me, What is the Difference Between Reskilling and Upskilling?

As I was enjoying lunch with my colleagues last week, I mentioned that I was writing a blog about the difference between reskilling and upskilling. I was astonished to hear them ask, “What is the difference? Aren’t they the same thing?”  While many publications address the inability of the workforce to keep pace in increasingly dynamic environments due to technological disruption, few distinguish between reskilling and upskilling.

Clarifying the Difference
While reskilling and upskilling are similar, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has provided us with a clear distinction between them in the Reskilling Toolkit

  • Reskilling is defined as training for employees who have shown they have the aptitude for learning a completely new occupation. For example, an office clerk whose job has become obsolete will need to learn new skills to perform a different in-demand job within the same organization, such as a web developer.
  • Upskilling focuses on providing training for employees who need to learn new skills to improve their current performance without changing their position or career path. One example would be a grants manager who uses Microsoft Excel to administer grants would need to be trained on robotic process automation as the organization implements this new technology.

Essential to Mission Success
You might be asking yourself, “How pervasive is the issue of reskilling and upskilling in the Federal Government?” The Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that workforce skills gaps played a role in nearly half of the Federal Government’s high-risk areas. Federal agencies must address skills gaps to avoid facing consequences that impact their ability to execute their missions in service of the American taxpayer.

Passionate Engagement
In addition to the business imperative, reskilling and upskilling boost employee engagement. In Looking Inward For Talent OPM Deputy Director Michael Rigas makes the case that a lot of the work employees are doing is “not the kind of work that they get excited to do every day” and learning new skills “opens the door to keep employees engaged within Federal service and leverage their skills and talent in a new way.”

Addressing Skills Gaps
How can an organization effectively address the need for new skills?

  1. Awareness – The organization must be aware of the jobs needed in the future and the skills they will require.
  2. Assessment – An assessment of the current workforce will reveal gaps between existing and anticipated skills.
  3. Strategy – To address the gaps, the organization must develop a strategy to provide training and development activities — reskilling and upskilling — within the timeframe required.
  4. Acceptance – Perhaps the most crucial challenge will be persuading employees and management to accept the need for change with the understanding that new skills are needed and will be beneficial to both the employees and the organization. They must be willing to step out of their comfort zones and learn new skills to pursue new opportunities to achieve mission success.

Whether your organization provides opportunities for employees to take on new roles through reskilling or enables them to become more effective and efficient in their current positions through upskilling, there is no doubt that new levels of skill are critically needed in the government — today and in the future. The needs of the workforce will no doubt continue to evolve at a rapid pace, requiring regular assessment, training, and development to perform the right jobs at the right time.

Where is your organization in the need for reskilling and upskilling? Management Concepts has been a learning partner, providing workforce solutions for the Federal Government for more than 40 years.


Debbie Eshelman is Managing Director at Management Concepts. She advises senior leaders in the private sector and Federal Government on human capital, performance improvement, talent management, and leadership development. Before joining Management Concepts, Debbie held executive leadership roles in several leading human capital management consultancies.  Debbie holds a BA in education from the University of Florida and an  MS in human resource development from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

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