How to Use Upskilling to Close Career Gaps and Accelerate Your Career

Ready for something totally new work-wise? Here's how to get there.

A woman drinking a coffee and working at a desk with a computer
(Image credit: Getty)

Shashi Dokania had spent nearly two years working as an accountant at Ernst & Young when she decided to exit the workforce in 2011 to raise her children. A few years later, her then-7-and-a-half-year-old son was attending a coding camp and needed Dokania’s help with Scratch coding (a programming language geared toward helping children learn to code). Dokania realized she had a passion for computer science and that she wanted to head back into the workforce—as a coder. She quickly signed up for Coursera and edEx classes and enrolled in a coding bootcamp of her own to learn the skills she’d need to make a career shift from accounting to software development. Dokania added her new skills to her resumé and LinkedIn profile, attended industry events, and started applying to dozens of technical roles. 

A year later, Dokania was accepted into PayPal’s Recharge program, a 20-week paid training program for female technologists reentering the workforce after a career break, most commonly to focus on caregiving. In addition to sharpening their software development skills and networking with peers and higher-ups, the participants took soft skills classes on topics including networking, communication, and time management. At the end of the program, Dokania was hired as a full-stack engineer—someone who builds the content the user sees and the behind-the-scenes code that makes the tech work—and has since been promoted to senior engineering roles in which she uses the hard and soft skills she gained to manage and mentor other technologists. 

Dokania’s story is a prime example of how being proactive and learning new skills can yield real results. In other words, she aced upskilling. “Upskilling is using your initiative to acquire new skills that can advance your professional development,” explains Octavia Goredema, founder of the career coaching firm Twenty Ten Agency and host of the Audible original series How to Change Careers. “That starts with identifying what you need to advance and taking steps to learn and grow.” 

If you’re job searching after taking a career gap of any length, start by determining the skills and experience necessary for your ideal role. Find five to 10 job descriptions that seem like a perfect fit. Make a list of the most common—and most important—hard and soft skills and job requirements. If you’re looking for digital marketing roles, for example, you may find that your top-choice jobs require you to learn hard skills like SEO best practices, data analytics, and how to use specific content management software, as well as soft skills like communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. Once you’ve compiled your list, follow Dokania’s lead and take classes and enroll in certification programs to learn the competencies you’re missing. It can also be helpful to join industry associations, attend relevant networking events, and go on informational interviews with people in your target roles. 

“Upskilling is a great way to boost your confidence and your resumé. Being proactive and making the decision to learn something new and applying those skills demonstrates to prospective employers that you’re a self-starter,” says Goredema. Of course, to make your hard work pay off, it’s essential to make sure any potential new boss and your professional network have the 411 on all the new skills you’ve gained. 

Lauren McGoodwin, founder of the professional development site Career Contessa and the author of Power Moves: How Women Can Pivot, Reboot, And Build a Career of Purpose suggests adding your new proficiencies to the skills section of your LinkedIn profile and resume and adding a list of the courses and certifications you’ve completed to the education section. She also recommends writing LinkedIn posts about the classes you’re taking and skills you're learning and showing off any products you’ve created, like a design portfolio, a website you built, or writing samples. As you’re searching for your next full-time gig, you could also freelance or look for returnship programs or fellowships like the one Dokania was a part of. 

While you can and should use upskilling during your career search, it’s also a great way for employees to get ahead at their current workplace and for employers to make sure their company stays competitive. “Upskilling on the micro level is all about employees individually learning new skills to keep up with the pace of change. On the macro level, it’s about companies helping support a modernized workforce — that means identifying changing shifts, forces, and trends; identifying new skills and competencies that your workforce most requires; and developing training programs to fill skill gaps,” explains Selena Rezvani, a leadership consultant, speaker, and author of Quick Confidence: Be Authentic, Create Connections and Make Bold Bets on Yourself

Rezvani recommends using LinkedIn’s 2023 Most In-Demand Skills List to find the skills a majority of employers want and classes you can take to level up. McGoodwin notes that anyone can benefit from popular soft skills like communication, project management, organization, negotiation, and collaboration. 

Check if your company has employee training and development programs through which you can learn the technical and soft skills you need to land a promotion or make a rewarding lateral move. Your company may also provide learning and development stipends that you can use for educational platforms like Udemy, edEx, and LinkedIn Learning, certification programs, and other educational endeavors. If your company doesn’t offer in-house training programs, McGoodwin recommends finding out the most in-demand projects for your department and the required skills for those and asking for a stipend to take classes to enable you to contribute, or, if there isn’t room in the budget, finding free ways you can get up to speed. For example, she says you may be able to learn from free online classes, industry publications, and by following industry insiders on LinkedIn, TikTok, YouTube, and other social media platforms. 

Make sure your peers, manager, and executives know the effort you’re putting in. “One missed step here is that many people skip promoting their newfound skill or making it visible to others,” Rezvani says. “Be sure to strategize about how to solve a business issue with what you know. You can talk with your manager about how you can maximize using your credential or apply it more often on the job.” Dokania explains that she started her career at PayPal by taking on small projects and, as she strengthened her skillset, learned about the payment platform, and shipped more projects to production, the time came for her to transition to a role specializing in high-priority projects, like building security features such as passwordless login. She was promoted to a technical lead role this year. 

Dokania’s advice to her direct reports and to women navigating their own career gaps or pivots is to put in the hard work—and upskilling—it takes to get ahead. “If you're really passionate about doing anything, nothing is impossible. Because if I look at myself six or seven years back, I did not even know CSS coding, and today 95 percent of my job is coding,” she says. Whether you’re making a major shift, job searching in the same field, or gunning for a promotion, upskilling is one of the most valuable things you can do to create the career you want.

Elana Lyn Gross

I’m a journalist and the author of What Next?: Your Five-Year Plan for Life After College. The book, published by Simon & Schuster, teaches recent graduates how to create a five-year plan and offers actionable career, finance, wellness, and relationship advice to help them accomplish their goals.