British companies are facing unprecedented pressure to upskill their workforces. This translates into an enormous responsibility for HR departments, which in most instances are tasked with organising, overseeing and instilling a culture of continuous improvement.

Why is the need to upskill arguably greater than ever? Fears of a Brexit-inspired “talent exodus” are obviously very much to the fore at present. As is the associated issue of how possible restrictions on migrant flows might further impact on recruitment in years to come.

The challenges that stem from ever-accelerating technological progress are also hugely relevant here. As more and more businesses are recognising, the skills that workers possess today might not be the skills that they’re likely to require in the future. Standing still has seldom been a realistic option in this regard, and it certainly isn’t one now.

All of this suggests that companies – and HR departments in particular – need to confront two vital and related questions. Firstly, does upskilling actually make a difference? Secondly, if there really are substantive benefits to be derived from it, how might upskilling be best achieved?

Is upskilling worth the effort?

Even in the face of Brexit and other disruptions, no business could reasonably embrace upskilling if there were no tangible advantages to be enjoyed it. So how might we go about searching for empirical evidence that the effort is worthwhile?

The Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) offers some potentially compelling answers. Widely regarded as the most authoritative and comprehensive data source of its kind, it contains a wealth of information representative of all UK firms with five or more employees.

Crucially for our purposes, its treasure trove of data includes insights into aspects of on-the-job training. For example, leadership, problem-solving, teamwork and computing. It also includes details of whether a company is accredited by the government-backed Investors in People (IiP) scheme. This scheme has assisted in the upskilling of thousands of businesses since its launch 27 years ago.

Our recent research combined this information to explore whether there might be a relationship between the decision to upskill and various elements of business performance. We focused on almost 900 organisations surveyed in the 2011 and 2014 editions of WERS.  As a result, we identified a positive link between IIP accreditation and enhanced on-the-job training in the private sector.

Reality and responsibility

If upskilling does make a difference, as our research indicates, then it follows that companies that choose not to adopt a culture of continuous improvement are missing out. It also follows that they’re very likely undermining their hopes of surviving and thriving in an increasingly competitive business landscape.

This is basically the view of every major political party in the UK. The importance of upskilling is one of the few points on which genuine consensus has emerged. And yet the reality, lest we forget, is that nobody is forcing firms to upskill.

There are, after all, no government policies that induce businesses to future-proof themselves. Initiatives such as IiP are purely voluntary. By way of context, consider this:  Around 10,000 companies have participated in IiP since 199. But Britain is home to millions of firms – of which an estimated five million are small and medium-sized enterprises.

Waiting for some sort of edict from on high is therefore unlikely to prove wise. It’s up to companies to acknowledge the mounting pressure and respond to it. In other words, HR departments have to take the bull by the horns.

Making the case for upskilling

As many managers appreciate, securing employee buy-in can often be the toughest hurdle to overcome when promoting upskilling. Almost every company will have members of staff who, for whatever reason, have little or no enthusiasm for expanding their skills.

Ensuring that upskilling fits around day-to-day demands are seldom sufficient to win over the doubters. Similarly, striving to make the exercise both personally and professionally satisfying is rarely enough to woo them. So what can be done?

Ultimately, not least in the current climate, the key is liable to lie in convincing workers that upskilling is vital not just to the company as a whole but to them as individuals. It might sound like scare-mongering, but – as our study underlines – it’s actually an argument firmly rooted in fact.

With the road ahead set to be characterised by ever-greater churn and change, the merits of getting better and better simply can’t be denied. Maybe now more than ever, this, above all, is the message that has to be conveyed, accepted and acted upon.

Dr Getinet Haile is an assistant professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School and the author of ‘Organisational Accreditation and Worker Upskilling in Britain’, published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn, and available at


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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.