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An SMB dilemma: Reskilling or upskilling is there a difference

By Ken Wong - 5 Jul 2022

An SMB dilemma: Reskilling or upskilling is there a difference

Some of the students at Smartcademy. Image source: Smartcademy.

It is very common for SMBs to face the problem of not having someone with the right tech skills for the job. Budget constraints, the need for a smaller workforce, and simply having problems attracting talent, are all contributing factors to this.

But what about existing staff? With some training why can’t they be the solution? The Singapore Government has provided businesses with the funds to train staff with new skills.

But getting staff to learn new skills or getting management support for it can be an issue. There is also some confusion about learning new skills. We often talk about reskilling or upskilling, but what is best for staff and is there a difference?

To understand more, we spoke to Shumin Lai, a Data Analytics Trainer at Smartcademy, a tech educator offering courses like Data Analytics, Digital Marketing, UX Design, designed to equip individuals, even those with zero prior knowledge or experience.


Shumin Lai, a Data Analytics Trainer at Smartcademy. Image source: Smartcademy.

  1. What is the difference between reskilling and upskilling? Why are they important?

Reskilling and upskilling might sound similar, and perhaps confuse people on what the difference is. Although both are equally important, they are very different!

Reskilling is when employees pick up a brand-new skill, which is different from the skills they are using for their current industry, while upskilling is when employees expand on their existing skills. For example, reskilling is when a chef decides to pivot to a data analytics role and takes up a data analytics course to learn an entirely new set of skills. As for upskilling, a data analyst can build on his current repertoire of skills by taking a course on how to build more data science models.

Personally, both are equally important. It is always good to stay up to date with the latest skills. It also opens up more opportunities within the same industry or even to new industries. Upskilling also gives the individual a competitive edge over the rest.


  1. We’ve long known about the gap between the demand for tech skills and the lack of sufficient staff, why is it still going on after so many years?

Given the data boom over the last few years, organisations are overwhelmed with large amounts of data and require the relevant skills to help harness the power of data to their advantage. Data analytics insights will pave the way for more informed decisions in improving workflows and practices within companies. Industries are getting less isolated, as technology has been integrated into various industries such as finance, healthcare, and even agriculture. Hence, tech talent is required in almost every sector.

In the last few years, American and Chinese tech giants have also been expanding their presence in Singapore. This includes companies such as Amazon, Alibaba, ByteDance and Tencent. These companies have been expanding their operations rapidly to keep up with the acceleration of technology and demand for talent in the areas of data analytics, data science and cloud computing. Hence, the talent pool is unable to keep up with the rapid rate of expansion of technology.


Smartcademy teaches tech courses like Data Analytics, Digital Marketing, and UX Design.

  1. Why can’t or won’t existing staff fill the roles with on-the-job learning and training?

On-the-job training is when employees are given the opportunity to upskill or even reskill at the workplace, which allows them to apply what they have learnt to real work situations. This usually involves some form of training or job shadowing of someone more experienced in the company, such as a supervisor or manager. However, when going through this, it is pertinent for the employee to be willing to learn and be open to criticism. Some employees may also be reluctant to take on these training opportunities if they’re currently comfortable where they are or are unwilling to allocate time for it, as this might mean lesser time to complete their existing tasks.

On the other hand, employers should take the lead to encourage on-the-job training for their employees. Some employers do not provide constructive feedback to their employees, which might cause them to feel demoralised or lose motivation to continue training. Employers should also provide post-training opportunities for employees to apply the skills they have learned, or risk wasting time and effort to train them.

Hence, resistance to training from employees, and employers not providing a conducive and motivational environment, will prevent roles from being filled by existing staff.


  1. How does on-the-job training compare to upskilling?

On-the-job training refers to when employers guide and teach the employees new skills in the workplace. This allows them to apply these skills directly to real work situations or encounters. Upskilling usually comes in the form of courses not within the same working environment.

Upskilling offers the advantage that employees may be more willing to make mistakes and learn in the comfort of their own homes or the training centres, as they may think there are lesser repercussions for mistakes made. They may also feel more comfortable asking the course trainers questions, as compared to at the workplace. Upskilling would also be more suited for individuals who can allocate time outside work to attend.

On the other hand, on-the-job training might be more stressful for employees due to them having to meet a ‘checklist’ of their training progression and having to apply their skills directly, although this is beneficial in providing relevant experience and exposure. On-the-job training is also more suited for employees who do not have extra time outside of work.

Personally, I think a combination of both would be good for employees. On-the-job training would give the individual a good hands-on experience, while courses will give the individual a good theoretical foundation. 


On-the-job training just isn't the same as upskilling. Image source: Unsplash.

  1. What is holding back staff from upskilling?

Some reasons why employees do not upskill include the lack of time due to work and personal commitments, the high costs of taking up a course, and the lack of financial support from employers. Often, employers do not look at the bigger picture and the importance of upskilling all workers and only focus on ‘developing a small percentage of high-potentials’, hence concentrating their resources mostly at the top. More than one-third of employees find that the learning and development programmes implemented at their companies are fair and below.

Employees, especially younger professionals, also find it tough to select the skills they wish to acquire. They’re often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and the different courses available. Another common misconception by employees is that the tech industry is difficult to break into and learn and hence they are afraid of making mistakes and failing.


  1. What can a business do to support them?

Businesses should take the lead, and design new competency frameworks to map out, restructure and overhaul the skills and capabilities of their employees. Sufficient resources and budget should also be allocated for employee upskilling while tapping on available Government schemes such as partnering up and working with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to review current training plans, redesign jobs and upskill workers, which has a S$70 million grant for firms. Schemes such as the Career Conversion Programme (CCP), and Company-Led Training Programme (CLT) also provide funding support for employee skills retraining and upskilling. Employers can also tap on programmes such as the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme to provide mature workers with on-the-job training and evaluate their suitability for potential roles.

The time during working hours should also be allocated for employees to upskill, as one of the reasons hindering employees from upskilling is the lack of time for them to upskill. It is also important for higher management to keep their employees’ welfare in mind, with team bonding and activities, as a form of encouragement. This sets an example for employees that reskilling and upskilling are valued, which will result in a systemic change in both the organisational structure and employee mindsets in the long run.

On the other hand, individuals should also take charge of their own personal growth and development in a fast-developing economy. They can identify new areas of interest which are in high demand and attend these industry-relevant courses at ed-tech platforms, like Smartcademy, which provides courses like Data Analytics and UX Design. Various training grants, such as the Institute of Banking & Finance Standards Training Scheme (IBF-STS) and SkillsFuture credits are available, which they can utilise to help subsidise their course fees. However, ultimately, they need to adopt a long-term approach to how learning these skills can benefit them, and be self-motivated and willing to set aside time to attend these training sessions.

For example, I have also met some mature learners in classes who have mentioned that they were initially daunted by such a ‘difficult topic’ as data analytics, but after lessons, they would tell me, “Actually, Python isn’t as hard as what I thought it would be, and is surprisingly easier than I thought! I just needed to take the first step to be willing to sign up for the course.”


Getting management support is important. Image source: Unsplash.

  1. How should a worker approach their management to ask for upskilling training?

Employees should firstly access the reasons why and how upskilling is important, and then speak to their direct supervisor and explain the reasons why then provide reasons how upskilling would benefit them at work as well.

As also mentioned above, many working professionals, especially mid-career or mature professionals, are daunted by upskilling and do not know where, when, and how to start. Employees may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for resources for upskilling and training as well.

Hence, it should be a two-pronged approach where employers, especially the management team, can take the lead and create an environment where employees feel empowered to take charge of their own careers and attend training to upskill where relevant.


  1. What tech skills are in demand now? What about in the next five years?

Data-related skills will definitely be increasingly valuable with time. The tech industry is expanding at such a rapid rate, I’d expect the demand for talent to follow suit. As companies collect more data, they would require the necessary talent to harness the potential of this data, and maintain it. Some examples of data-related skills are data analytics, data visualisation, data science and more, which they can learn from Smartcademy’s Data Analytics course.

In the next five years, one trend we can expect would be increased usage of seamless technology that will shape the future of work. We are moving towards an end-to-end automation world, where we aim to remove manual intervention and work to make processes more productive and efficient. And data would definitely play a big role in allowing us to monitor and analyse these automated processes. Hence, skills such as big data science, process automation and cloud computing will be skills projected to be in demand in the next five years.

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