The way we work is shifting rapidly, fueled by the rise of technologies like artificial intelligence — and employees are keenly aware their jobs could be at risk. A survey from this past December showed that 60% of employees who use AI regularly worry about its impact on their jobs. And it’s not just AI that poses a threat; a study from 2022 found that 37% of necessary skills changed across all occupations in the last five years.

Even C-Suite executives are worried about staying sharp amidst so much disruption. They ranked “keeping up with new technology” their top personal challenge this year, according to Chief’s "The New Era of Leadership" report.

Women are particularly vulnerable to advances in technology. One analysis found that women could be disproportionately affected by generative AI, estimating that 79% of working women are in occupations susceptible to disruption and automation.

All of this technological turmoil is driving a demand for career development. In survey after survey, employees express a desire for company-supported upskilling or reskilling opportunities. Yet the populations that are most impacted by the advancement of AI are the least likely to have access to skills training. One survey found that only 37% of women had used company-paid skills training compared to 56% of men. Likewise, due to systemic barriers and bias, only 42% of Black, Hispanic, and API workers currently have access to and use company-paid upskilling.​

The Case for Upskilling

Upskilling doesn’t just offer benefits for employees. There are plenty of reasons why it’s beneficial for the bottom line, too. First, it’s cost effective, since it enables employers to enhance their workforce without increasing headcount. Hiring isn’t just expensive; it’s also time intensive. The average time to fill a position is 36 days, if not longer. Focusing on internal talent helps hiring managers avoid the lengthy interview process. Additionally, current employees are already familiar with processes and culture.

Skills training also helps increase retention and boost employee engagement. A Talent Retention Report found that 28.3% of workers who left jobs voluntarily resigned because they saw few opportunities for growth or advancement. Simply put, employees are willing to invest in employers who invest in them.

Yet despite these obvious benefits for employers, many leaders are hesitant to invest. Some may be concerned about the quality of the offerings. In one recent survey of 800 C-suite executives, 51% said their companies’ existing learning and development programs feel like a “waste of time.” Some are concerned about costs, especially in a time where corporate budgets are tight.

But that’s not an argument for scrapping skills training, argues organizational psychologist Dr. Jessica Diaz. Instead, leaders should look for fast and inexpensive ways to get employees up to speed.

“Upskilling is not wildly different from some of the other terminology, like training and development, but it differs in the connotation of speed and bite-size skills,” she says.

Encourage a Learning Culture

While just-in-time formal training and development programs can be impactful, there’s an abundance of free or low-cost content that can help people reskill and upskill their competencies and capabilities, such as YouTube videos, podcasts, online articles, Skillshare classes, and more.

Often, it’s just as important that employees feel comfortable admitting what they don’t know—and are given time to learn. Cultivating a culture of knowledge sharing is one of the most budget-friendly ways companies can help their employees grow. Make sure talented employees have an opportunity to share their skills. Create and encourage employee-led forums and committees that can facilitate job shadowing. Invite outside experts to impart pro bono knowledge through events.

That’s exactly how Fitness software provider TeamUp approached employee training. The company launched a cross-departmental initiative to encourage employees from all parts of the organization to learn from each other. The program identified unique skills and knowledge in each department, created a platform where employees can learn about different areas of the business, and organized workshops, webinars and mentoring opportunities that allowed employees to learn from one another.

A mentorship matching program is a great way companies can upskill emerging leaders at no additional cost, Dr. Diaz says. “Mentors not only teach valuable management skills, but they also help mentees see themselves as leaders.”

Upskilling For All

Choosing which upskilling programs to pursue is half the battle; it’s ensuring equity that typically proves challenging. “To be most effective, organizations need to examine their processes for guiding who gets access to training, mentorship, and stretch opportunities. If a process isn't in place and left up to individual discretion, people are likelier to lack fair access to opportunities,” explains Joelle Emerson, co-founder and CEO of Paradigm.

Allyship is critical for expanding access to upskilling, Dr. Diaz says. “Allies are advocates within the company who possess more prototypical identities and have the visibility to help dismantle the systems that hold back women and people of color,” she explains. In practice, that could mean advocating for upskilling during working hours, or for subsidizing childcare costs, so caregivers don’t have to choose between sharpening their skills and their obligations at home.

For instance, last fall, Slack paused work for an entire week to allow employees to catch up on learning. The goal was for employees to reach roughly 40 hours on its internal learning platform, whose modules include topics like “Learn about the Fourth Industrial Revolution” and “Healthy Eating.”

By identifying and removing the barriers to upskilling that women and workers of color often encounter, business leaders will build a true workforce of the future — one that’s diverse and prepared for the challenges ahead.