Rethinking Reskilling: Investing in Critical Skills vs. Critical Roles

If there’s one thing COVID taught us, it’s that there is no way to future-proof your business. There will always be curve balls, innovations and disruptors that will change the way things are done and shift the landscape of how things currently look.

Which is why it’s important to rethink the way we prioritize skills vs. roles. When an employee takes on a new role in an organization, they are typically reskilled in a way that siloes their abilities and knowledge, keeping them tied to a specific role for the duration of their career unless they switch jobs and reskill again.

However, organizations would do well to embrace an approach that focuses not on the role that employees will hold but on the variety of skills they can learn that will allow them to gain foothold in various areas of the business.

The benefits of prioritizing skill development vs. roles

This approach has many benefits, both to the organization and to the employee.

For the employee, they have a chance to explore other areas of potentially untapped talent and develop skills they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to. This is a boon to their career development and gives them greater adaptability, making them more resilient to changing demands in the industry. It also keeps them more engaged and energized at work, lessening their chances of leaving for an opportunity at another company.

Likewise, the greater number of versatile employees strengthens an organization’s immunity to the perils of sudden changes like those experienced during the COVID pandemic. When the workforce is able to flow between multiple departments with a cross functional ecosystem in place, the organization is less likely to take a severe hit when employees resign or there is a sudden unpredicted churn.

Whether it’s the pandemic or the increasingly steep obsolescence curve brought about by automation wreaking havoc, a company’s ability to diversify the skill sets of the individual members of its team will help it weather many storms. This approach can also help with retention rates as employees will see the value in staying with an organization that is preparing for a future with them, rather than keeping them locked in certain roles and hiring from outside when new roles need to be filled.

As business coach and managing partner at Prescient Strategies Dr. Curtis Odom told Forbes, “Companies that have a real future focus on having a dynamic skills taxonomy will constantly update the team’s skills and, in doing so, the employee experience.”

More new skills with a dwindling shelf life

There are other factors at play, such as the rapid evolution of industries that require ever quicker upskilling and new-skilling. For example, it used to be the case that an employee learning a new skill would be able to rely on that knowledge for a decade or more. Now, the shelf life of new skills is about five years and getting shorter all the time, particularly in certain industries such as technology.

At the same time knowledge is becoming obsolete more quickly, the number of skills employees need to perform a job to a high level is also increasing, requiring companies to invest more heavily in training their teams. Since this increased investment in skill development is already a necessity, companies can capitalize on this continual training and upskilling culture by shifting the focus from learning how to perform a role to learning skills that are critical to the company’s success and their own adaptability.

Learning architect David Yeo says, “The future of work and learning are invariably tied together. Being able to adapt to work changes requires a change mindset and new skills.”

Yeo’s company, Kydon Group based in Singapore, develops training materials that are quick, accessible and easily adapted to the rapid changes many industries are facing. Gone are the weeks- and months-long in-person training sessions. Companies that want to adopt a skills-based model need to also adopt training techniques and content that are adaptive and reflect the quick evolution of knowledge. Going skills-based but maintaining old skills trainings isn’t going to help the company or its employees. A fully re-wired approach is necessary in order to truly reap the benefits.

Skill development can calm employees’ fear of obsolescence

This shift in mindset allows for companies to broaden the perspective of what they offer employees, not only in terms of skills but also in terms of security. In PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 report, it was revealed that almost 40% of workers fear their job will be obsolete in five years’ time and 77% want to upskill or reskill. In this context, it’s clear that companies that work towards leveling up the skills of their employees to meet their needs will enhance the employee experience, unlike those who are still focused on role-centered management and HR.


A shift in focus from roles to skills leads to greater employee satisfaction and helps weatherproof companies from rapid changes in their industry. Adapting a training methodology that takes into consideration the continuous introduction of new knowledge will help both employees and companies develop resilience and increase their future-proof ability.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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