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Reskilling, Upskilling and now Outskilling: Do you know the difference?

by Catherine Cole

by Catherine Cole


A flexible and adaptable workforce has been one of the main business needs compounded by COVID. Not only are our teams adjusting to new virtual ways of working but company processes are being flexed to adjust to financial or supply chain pressures. Janice Wang, CEO of Alvanon, the global innovations company, and I tackled this in a recent New Realities webinar. What happens to skills and training during a time when all focus turns to business survival? Can we as companies afford to put these all on hold and then expect to hit the ground running when things return to some semblance of routine – new or not? The resounding answer is no. It will be the companies that invest in their people now that will be in a better position to resume when business survival is no longer the urgent matter at hand.

A new workforce reality

McKinsey came out with a report in early May saying that now is the time for companies to double down on upskilling and reskilling because “Developing this muscle will also strengthen companies for future disruptions”. Companies should be distinguishing between what essential and non-essential skills are and focus on what will be needed post-pandemic. Another key area of focus should be on looking at adjacent skills that will be needed and invest in those in order to give your workforce flexibility. In a recent conversation that I had with a global fashion brand, their executive leadership said their company will emerge from this much leaner with employees that have a broader skill base. We were already talking about workforce disruptions before the pandemic but what is different now is that we will likely emerge into a new workforce reality that will still include demand for digital capabilities but now also new skills for the “distance economy”.

Defining reskilling and upskilling

So now let’s get to semantics. Although upskilling and reskilling are often used as interchangeable terms, they actually do have very distinct meanings. While both point to the acquisition of new skills, the intention that drives this acquisition is what differentiates them.


Reskilling is learning new skills so that once you do that, you are able to do a different job or transition to an altogether different field. Your talent is being put to use elsewhere. It is often used from a collective point of view. As industries face painful market shockwaves or technological upheavals that result in factory closures or wholesale layoffs, governments and local communities are faced with launching major reskilling efforts to keep people employable. Janice Wang tells the story about the Alvanon factory workers not yet at retirement age, realizing their physical manufacturing production skills were rapidly becoming obsolete so proactively lobbied to transfer these skills to a 3D software environment by learning Rhino.


Upskilling is refining the skills you already have or adding new ones to keep relevant in doing the same job or to do it better. Think of it as layering on to a base of skills that is in place. Education and training around sustainability in fashion is a great example. Transforming how we produce, move and sell goods requires new processes and mindsets at each step of the supply chain. So it is about learning how to do things better. 


And what about outskilling? In the New Realities webinar, Janice Wang talked about the need to consider how you say goodbye to an employee, that as companies and leaders, we have an “opportunity to do this well”. The Chief Learning Officer report says that present and future employee relationships are a leading determinant of employee success. Amazon is a great example of this, back in 2012 they launched their internal training campaign where they pay for 95% of all online and inhouse training programs that employees take advantage of – on any subject. All this to say that investing in an employees future success, even beyond the company, despite this feeling counterintuitive, is actually good sustainable business sense.

The skills journey

While skills should always be a preoccupation, this extraordinary period calls of each of us, as professionals and employers, to more urgently question  where we stand in terms of skills and where we need to go next. However, it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey too: how will we bridge the gap? Through upskilling or reskilling or a combination of both? Using the right terminology definitely helps shape a learning and training strategy and helps define the steps to future-proof our careers and businesses. Now is as good a time as any to assess the skill sets of your teams and be future-orientated, looking at potential new disruption or new business opportunities and identify the new skills that can support your people and company through change. And it shouldn’t be a one off effort, but an opportunity to implement processes or mechanisms to continuously do so. 

Then we also need to put our money where our mouth is. Are we truly investing enough in our individual and collective skills capital? Our soon to be released 2020 State of Skills Report in the Apparel Industry will give us an idea of whether we’ve made significant progress on that. Stay tuned…   

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