Upskilling definition: What does it mean?

Upskilling Definition: the process of learning new skills or building on skills that you’ve already acquired.

Upskilling can refer to adding a new skill to your skill set within a specific area, or even starting to learn a skill from the very beginning. 

Definition of upskilling example: 

Steve studied journalism in college. After graduating and spending a few years working for a small online news publication, he decided that he might want to go into content writing. When entering his new job as a content writer, his employer suggests that it might be good for him to also learn search engine optimization (SEO) and basic coding in the language HTML. 

Steve decides to go on this journey. Of course, he already has many of the skills that are necessary for his new job, but it will help him in the long term to get these new skills. He decides to take an online SEO course with a popular learning app. For HTML, Steve joins a coding bootcamp to get the skills he needs. 

What you will notice about this example is that Steve isn’t heading back to school for a Master’s degree in marketing or computer science. This is where upskilling is generally different. Upskilling is unique in that it is geared toward working professionals getting their skills in unconventional ways, such as taking online courses, boot camps, self-paced courses, or even tutoring and coaching. 

Upskilling has come about as a response to both the time and monetary constraints that affect individuals in the 21st century. 

Why is upskilling important?

The reason for upskilling for many individuals comes from large-scale economic changes. Most importantly, employers desire skills that help them grow in the global economy. 

A recent article from McKinsey on the future of work, details how both the global economy and digital commerce will impact individual workers in the coming decades. They note that 1 in 16 workers may need to switch occupations in the next 10 years due to market changes (source). This unprecedented change in the way we work also requires changes in how individuals educate themselves. 

In Sean S. Gallagher’s book from 2016, The Future of University Credentials, he discusses what is at stake for job-seekers and future generations that will enter the workforce: 

“As the world has changed around us, our notions of what it means to be educated have evolved as well. Intellectual skills are a must in today’s world, but so too are interpersonal skills. A complex world requires complex skills. Historically, a college degree was the next proxy for those complex skills. But today’s jobs require the meshing of multiple disciplines and skills, with frequent upskilling.” (Source)

Another factor that makes upskilling important is the skills gap. In the past two decades, new industries have appeared, while others have ceased to exist. The increased focus on ecommerce, software, and mobile technologies has meant that employers move faster than universities can provide in-demand skills. As a result, certain industries will pay a premium for certain skill sets, and they will do so even if an individual hasn’t pursued the traditional path of getting a college degree.

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In what specific areas do most people upskill?

Upskilling takes place in every sector, but a few areas have been closely associated with the term. Here are a few examples:

Coding and Programming

Coding and programming have become one of the key disciplines where people gain skills through online learning. The push to upskill or reskill is associated with the so-called, skills gap, which is when employers cannot find the talent they require because applicants simply don’t have the skill yet. 

Another force behind the move towards coding and programming is that employers are willing to pay a premium to individuals who have these skills. For example, the mean annual wage for computer programmers in the United States is $102,790 annually (Source). If you compare this annual wage with the mean annual wage of $61,900, there is a substantial difference (Source). This difference is another key reason why students flock to coding and programming.

It’s important to note as well that the cost of entry and time to learn these skills vary. But, with hard work and dedication, you can see a good return on your investment in learning these skills. However, there’s one point of concern: you must continuously upskill in these areas. With the arrival of LLMs, such as ChatGPT, certain tasks could be automated in the upcoming years. This means you have to commit to continuous development in this area.

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Project Management

Project management is another area where students are upskilling. Why? Well, the industry has a lower barrier to entry, with individuals benefiting from some professional certifications but not needing to fulfill the requirement of having a college degree. Since college degrees remain expensive, any area with a lower barrier to entry and a decent salary has become attractive to students.

But what is a project manager? If we define the profession in a broad sense, it is planning, organizing, and managing projects to completion. It requires attention to detail and a decent stress tolerance, since you will need to deal with deadlines that, if unmet, will add large sums to the project budget. Project managers find work in diverse areas, from construction to software companies. Thus, individuals may need to couple these skills with other in-demand skill sets, such as programming. 

The salaries for project managers across the United States are higher than the average wage. The average mean wage for project management specialists is $94,500 (Source). By comparison, the annual mean wage in the US is $61,900 (Source). The result is that individuals in project management can earn an above-average salary. 

Project management specialists need various skills to succeed, though, and this is where some people might decide to take another path. 

Data Analysis and Data Science

With the rise of technology, data that was previously difficult to obtain, sift through, and draw conclusions on is now capable of changing how organizations operate.

This area of data analysis and data science is thus ripe for new individuals looking to upskill or reskill. Data science uses statistics, math, programming, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to discover insights within an organization’s data. These insights provide new learnings that can help guide an organization’s decision-making and planning. 

What’s the difference between data science and data analysis? 

You might be wondering what the difference between these two areas is. Let’s take a look:

Data science

Data science takes a macro-level approach and tries to answer the questions that are troubling an organization. To achieve this, data scientists will use big data.

Data analytics

Data analytics takes a micro-level approach. It searches for helpful data within the larger data set that will help the organization act. Similar to data science, data analytics uses big data to fulfill their needs.

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Where to upskill and get new skills

  1. University Courses

The university plays a key role in learning new skills. Whether online or in-person, you can enroll in individual courses, a certificate program, or degree program. When it comes to upskilling, universities struggle to provide the skills necessary in certain industries, which are fast-moving. 

  1. Institution-led Courses

In both online and in-person settings, institutions are providing courses for upskilling. On Coursera, for example, you’ll find specializations from IBM, Facebook, Amazon, and more. Why do they do this? Well, first, it increases the likelihood that companies will use IBM’s products, which further entrenches their advantage in the market. Secondly, these skills are in demand from the companies that use them and are willing to hire you if you have them.

  1. Online or In-person Boot camps

In recent years, boot camps have become an important part of upskilling, and they have received significant attention in the media. When compared to a college degree, they have a substantially lower price tag. 

Typically, boot camps refer to coding boot camps where a student will engage in a course for on average 16.5 weeks (Source). In these courses, the student will learn a coding language, such as HTML, Java, SQL, Python, and more. Amazingly, 72% of hiring companies believe that bootcamp hires are the same as or equally equipped as university hires (Source). While boot camps provide a great alternative, you should talk to graduates and see how they feel about the program in retrospect. Most importantly, did the program help them find a job? 

Bottom Line: Upskilling Definition

Upskilling is an increasingly vital part of the economy and the lives of individuals. In a time of continuous development, where industries rise and fall quickly, it is important to consider getting new skills or further adding to your skill set.

FAQ: Upskilling Definition

Let’s take a look at some of the big questions around the definition of upskilling.

Upskilling and reskilling definition

Reskilling is when a worker gets skills outside their existing skillset. This could mean going from a HR professional into a digital marketer. There’s not substantial overlap between these two areas, so the individual will have to reskill.

Digital upskilling definition

Digital upskilling is focused on getting skills for the digital economy. Similar to the broader definition of upskilling, digital upskilling focus on learning and acquiring new skills. Digital upskilling could mean learning a new software associated with your job or learning about social media as a marketer.

About the author:

Mike is a US professional interested in online learning and self-directed learning. He currently works for a financial services company and spends his spare time reading, learning languages, and taking online courses (of course).