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The Power of Upskilling, Re-Skilling, and Certificate Stacking in Healthcare

Learn how these training options help frontline healthcare workers gain new skills and increase salaries, and make it easier for providers to improve patient care.

Author: Kristin Marino
Nicolle Merrill

Nicolle Merrill

Nicolle Merrill is the author of Punch Doubt in the Face: How to Upskill, Change Careers, and Beat the Robots. In her book, she teaches people how to learn new skills and adapt to the future of work. Nicolle is also the host of the podcast 50 Conversations, a podcast for career changers.

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A group of healthcare professionals, including two male and two female doctors or nurses specialized in medical billing, smiling and conversing in a bright hospital corridor.

The job market can change fast, and both healthcare providers and frontline professionals must be ready to change with it. According to the World Economic Forum, approximately 54% of workers will need to re-skill or upskill in the next three years. Workers themselves tend to agree; a survey by West Monroe Partners found that 60% of employees believe their current skill set will become outdated in the next three to five years.

For current and future healthcare professionals — especially those in entry-level positions or early in their careers — this means capitalizing on upskilling, re-skilling, and certificate stacking opportunities. Not only are these education and training options fast and affordable ways to gain new skills, but they can hasten upward mobility and improve salary potential. And for providers, it means keeping loyal and well-trained professionals on staff and improving patient care. Let’s take a look at what upskilling, re-skilling, and certificate stacking can do for everyone in the healthcare industry.

What Are Upskilling, Re-skilling, and Certificate Stacking?

Maybe you’ve heard of upskilling, or you’ve read about a series of certificates that could get you to a new level at work in just six weeks. They sound like great opportunities, but what exactly do they entail and why are they beneficial for everyone involved? What’s more, are upskilling, reskilling, and certificate stacking the same thing? For some, yes. For others, not necessarily. Here’s a closer look at the basics and the nuances of each.

Upskilling in Healthcare

Upskilling refers to giving employees the chance to learn new skills they can apply to their current role or to a more advanced but related one. It’s like on-the-job training, but may be considered more formal and focused on a particular skill.

How Does Upskilling Compare to Re-skilling and Certificate Stacking?

Upskilling allows current employees to continue working in the same profession or a similar profession. With re-skilling, the employee is training for a different yet likely related job to change their career path, broaden skills, or fill the needs of the employer. Certificate stacking can be a form of upskilling or re-skilling, but may involve a series of training programs to reach a certain level or become certified in a specific area.

How Does Upskilling Work?

The upskilling process depends on the type of program and the level of skill being learned. The longest programs can last months, require formal in-person attendance of classes on a campus, and result in an official academic certificate or degree. The shortest can be a series of lunchtime lectures while participants spend a few hours eating a meal and watching PowerPoint presentations.

A Real-World Example of Upskilling in Healthcare

Medical assistants today serve critical functions both clinically and clerically. You can find MAs taking a patient’s vitals behind the scenes or recording personal information at intake. According to the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement, MAs can find career advancement (and improve patient outcomes) by upskilling in areas such as health coaching, facilitation skills, population management, and interprofessional care.

Who Can Benefit the Most from Upskilling?

Almost anyone in the healthcare field can take advantage of upskilling. One of its primary advantages over re-skilling and certificate stacking is that it usually leads to employees staying with the same employer after completing their upskilling program.

“You must look ahead 5-10 years if not longer; just as when you drive you’re watching the road ahead,” says Mark Herschberg, one of the creators of the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, MIT’s “Career Success Accelerator”, where he’s taught for twenty years. “Don’t worry about being perfect, but try to make some educated projections. To do so, look at the trends and talk to people in the field. Ask yourself (and others) what the roles will look like in the future.”

Re-skilling in Healthcare

Re-skilling is the learning of new skills so a worker can take on an entirely new job or profession.

How Does Re-Skilling Work?

Due to the fact that re-skilling often results in a change in career or even industry, re-skilling programs are usually more formal and lengthy than upskilling programs. Typically, a student will formally apply to a post-secondary institution for admission into a program, complete the program, and take a certification exam, if applicable. Depending on the program and the level of skill being learned, this whole process can take a few weeks to a year or more to complete.

A Real-World Example of Re-Skilling in Healthcare

The adoption of electronic medical records (EMRs) forced Atrium Health, a U.S.-based non-profit healthcare network, to restructure its workforce. EMRs made Atrium’s teams of unit secretaries obsolete. To help their employees stay with the company, Atrium gave their secretaries the option to reskill and become healthcare technicians, a role that required a CNA credential. In addition, they made tuition assistance available for the 1.5 year program, and continuing paying the secretaries until they became full health technicians.

Who Can Benefit the Most from Re-Skilling?

Re-skilling provides the greatest benefit to healthcare professionals who wish (or need) to change career paths, such as shifting into a new area of practice. It can also be a great option for those looking to enter the healthcare field for the first time.

“It’s important to have a clear plan for where you want to go,” Herschberg points out. “After figuring out you dream job look at what skills are required, both the technical skills (medical knowledge, specific tools, or that of accounting, marketing, or anything else) but also skills like leadership, communication, teamwork, etc. Look at which of those skills you have and where you’re short. Then create a plan for developing those skills over the next few years. This may include formal classes, but also books, mentoring, or independent development.”

Certificate Stacking in Healthcare

In its most general terms, certificate stacking is the use of certificates to enhance your professional career. There can be two types of certificate stacking. Progressive stacking (which may sometimes be referred to as vertical stacking) is the use of certificates to earn or work toward a more advanced academic credential, such as a college degree. Independent stacking is the use multiple certificates to expand an individual’s breadth of knowledge in a general industry or academic area of study. Unlike many degree programs, certificate stacking often can be done while you’re working.

How Does Certificate Stacking Work?

Certificate stacking works by completing a series of education and training programs. These programs can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. The certificate will be in a subject that complements the student’s prior educational or professional background. Depending on the certificate and industry covered, the certificate might result in an entry level job, or it might allow a current professional to move on to the next level in the industry.

A Real-World Example of Certificate Stacking in Healthcare

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) play a critical role in patient care, yet many have little upward mobility without learning new skills. To help CNAs move up in their careers without missing work, some healthcare providers are partnering with colleges to offer certificates in specific skill areas. These certificates don’t lead to college credit directly, but they can count as credit if applied to an R.N. program.

Who Can Benefit the Most from Certificate Stacking?

The biggest benefit from certificate stacking is being able to obtain the credentials necessary for professional advancement in a relatively short period of time. For example, someone can add the certificate to a degree or use the certificate to shorten the time it takes to earn a degree. In this latter scenario, a student could use the academic credits from a certificate to get a head start in an associate or bachelor’s degree program.

Herschberg offers a few pro tips on certificate stacking. “Often organizations like to have members with degrees and certificates to differentiate from competition. When hiring they prefer those with certificates and so having it on a resume helps you get noticed in a search. Make sure to both spell out the certificate name and use the abbreviation so when HR is doing a search on a resume site or in their ATS your resume is picked up.”

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Common Upskilling & Reskilling Paths in Healthcare

Upskilling, re-skilling and certificate stacking can be used in almost any career field, but it’s especially useful in the healthcare profession. Learn how these can help you advance your healthcare career.

Career Path That Uses Upskilling: Medical Assistant to Medical Coder

Medical assistants work in doctor’s offices to handle administrative and clerical tasks, as well as take patient medical information and help process samples for medical testing. Medical assistants can expand their role by helping with billing insurance companies and government programs for reimbursement. But to take on these additional duties, they will need to receive training on medical billing and how to interpret the procedural and diagnostic codes. Medical assistants can get this training in a variety of ways, from on-the-job instruction to self-study to enrollment in a formal certificate program.

Career Path That Uses Re-Skilling: Registered Nurse to Nurse Midwife

Registered nurses work with doctors to provide direct patient care, including administering medications, observing patient conditions, and teaching patients how to manage a medical issue. But by earning a master’s degree, the registered nurse can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and focus on a particular area of nursing with far more responsibility. One good example is a nurse midwife, who will help women as they carry and deliver their child, as well as provide medical care related to women’s unique health needs. During their graduate training, prospective nursing midwives will learn about pre and post-childbirth care, as well as perinatal care skills.

Career Path That Uses Certificate Stacking: Dental Assistant to Dental Hygienist

Dental assistants engage in a variety of administrative and clerical tasks in a dental office. They may also assist the dental hygienist or dentist during dental treatment. Many dental assisting positions require completion of a diploma or certificate program. Dental assistants who want to become dental hygienists can go back to school and earning an associate degree in dental hygiene, where they will obtain training about anesthesia, dental hygiene theory, and descaling techniques. But because they already have a certificate, they can sometimes shorten the time it takes to complete their degree, thanks to transfer credits from the certificate program.

How to Get Started

To take advantages of upskilling, re-skilling, or certificate stacking, prospective healthcare professionals will need to take several steps to complete their advancement. The steps will depend on where they are starting and where they want to go.


Identify your new role. Before you can begin the upskilling process, you need to figure out where you want to end up. Maybe it’s the same job at the same employer. Or perhaps it’s taking on a management position that provides no clinical care, following a long career of working directly with patients.


See if your employer can help. Many opportunities for upskilling involve training provided directly by the employer. Sometimes this comes from employer- sponsored classes or training program. Other times, employers will help their employees pay for their academic training once enrolled in an accredited program.


Complete the training or education requirement. Whether it’s attending a week-long conference, after-hours training at work, or earning a graduate degree, you’ll need to put in the time and effort to finish your instruction and learn your new skills and knowledge.


Obtain professional credentials. While not all new positions or roles require licensing or certification, many do. This might consist of completing paperwork verifying your credentials and experience. But often, it necessitates passing a national certification exam. In the latter situation, you’ll need to prepare for the exam. This could require taking prep courses, but some programs will provide this exam preparation as part of academic curriculum.


Network throughout the process. “The best way to find any job is not by submitting your resume but by using your network to get you I the door and send positive signals about you.” Herschberg points out. “Remember that the right time to build your network is long before you need to use it. Most people mistakenly ‘network’ only when they need a job, but relationships take time to build. Start today so it’s there for you in the future.”

Q&A with an Upskilling Expert

Nicolle Merrill

Nicolle Merrill is the author of Punch Doubt in the Face: How to Upskill, Change Careers, and Beat the Robots. In her book, she teaches people how to learn new skills and adapt to the future of work. Nicolle is also the host of the podcast 50 Conversations, a podcast for career changers.

Q. What questions should a person ask themselves when they want to move into a new field or position, and look to any of these three methods to do so?

A. People should start by reflecting on their interests. What type of healthcare work interests them? Are they more interested in a clinical position or healthcare administration? Do they want to do inpatient or outpatient care? Medicine versus procedures?

Once they know what type of work interests them, they need to talk to someone in the role. Ask them about the certifications or degree pathways they pursued to get to their level. Ask them how long it took. Then try to shadow someone to see if it’s a path that you’d like to pursue.

Financial cost is going to be specific to each person. Certifications are cheaper than degree programs, however, a certification may not be right for everyone. If you are a lab scientist who would like to become a Physician Assistant, it is going to cost a lot more than an RN who is trying to get an ICU certification.

Q. Is there a strategy to upskilling that people should keep in mind?

A. I recommend a 2×2 strategy for upskilling. Every two years pick two skills you want to work on. The first skill is something that you’re good at. Find opportunities to get better at it. Then pick a skill you are not as good at it. Find opportunities to practice it so you get better at it.

Q. How successful has upskilling or reskilling been in a rapidly changing workforce, especially in places where automation is taking center stage?

A. New technology like artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation are quickly being integrated into healthcare. We are seeing Physician Assistants who are using robots in surgery. Medical students are learning about artificial intelligence in school. Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are using AI-enhanced microscopes to look for bacteria. While it may be hard to see in your everyday work, new technology is reshaping healthcare jobs.

Those who are curious about new technology and seek out opportunities to learn about it on the job are practicing a form of upskilling. You don’t have to go back to school or get a degree to upskill. Seeking out opportunities to understand an automated tool or watching videos about how AI is used in healthcare, can be the foundation of upskilling.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add about these three methods for better job prospects?

A. Each of these paths are similar despite the wording. The goal is to keep pursuing new skills and knowledge to ensure you stay relevant as the world of work changes. It’s no longer enough to get a degree and assume you’re set. You have to pursue a strategy of lifelong learning. Stay curious about trends in your industry and workplace. Pay attention to new technology and ask curious questions about it.

Resources for Upskilling, Re-Skilling, and Certificate Stacking

  1. All Things Work Podcast.
    This podcast focuses on all points concerning employment, including upskilling, reskilling, and more.
  2. Business News Daily.
    In addition to offering information on various careers, this site also features an article on essential Healthcare IT certificates.
  3. The Future of Work in America.
    This report from McKinsey global institute offers a peek into the importance of upskilling in the years to come.
  4. A Guide to Upskilling America’s Frontline Workers.
    This downloadable book from Deloitte and The Aspen Institute looks at what it takes to bring frontline workers, such as those in healthcare, in line with what their growing job duties will require.
  5. Putting Together an Effective Individual Development Plan (IDP).
    This article focuses on how to put together an IDP that can help anyone reach their goals along their career path.
  6. Stepping Stone or Off-Ramp?
    This in-depth article from Inside Higher Ed drives home the point that when choosing certificates, it’s important to choose wisely for best career results.
  7. Reskilling Toolkit.
    This in-depth, actionable guide offers information for those who know reskilling is in their immediate future.
  8. A Strategist’s Guide to Upskilling.
    Designed for administrators, this guide looks at what employment will be like in the coming years and how to plan accordingly to keep an effective workforce.
  9. Upskill America.
    This initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program offers insight into what employers, employees, and human resources need to know about upskilling for frontline workers.
  10. The Upskilling Crisis: Effectively Enabling and Retraining Employees for the Future.
    This report from West Monroe Partners goes in-depth on the issues that surround upskilling; the findings apply across industries, including healthcare.