How to improve your career-related skills and keep them relevant

by on Oct 28 2013 - 36 Comments

Employee DevelopmentWhen it comes to careers or small business, skill development has always been a favorite topic of mine. If a certain skill is in high demand and you spend the time and effort to attain and refine that skill, you will have a powerful bargaining chip when it comes to your career.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my first three years after college, it’s that the people who take the time and effort to develop new skills and refine ones they already have are at a distinct advantage over those who do not. Additionally there are always new skills and expertise that companies and customers desire. This can work to your advantage.

Today I want to talk specifically on how to go about improving your career-related skills and keeping them relevant. This topic applies to professionals, small business owners, contractors, and even “regular old” employees.

Take a Skills Inventory

It’s hard to know what skills you need to work on and not work on unless you know what skills you have. Your first step in developing your career-related skills is to take an inventory of your current skills. Most people only do this when they are updating their resume so they can apply to jobs. Don’t be that person.

Block fifteen to twenty minutes to sit down and evaluate your skills. Make a list of all the skills you currently have. These can be both “soft” skills or “hard” skills. Be sure to list all software and applications you have experience using and skills specific to your career, such as volunteer organization or account reconciliations.

Make an honest assessment of your level of expertise for each skill

I will use a very basic example to explain the importance of this. Almost everyone puts “Microsoft Excel” on their resume. In reality, though, there is a huge range of Microsoft Excel skill level for any given person who puts this skill on their resume. Is your understanding of Excel extremely basic? Intermediate? Advanced? Ninja level? Be completely honest. This is for your own benefit.

I could arguably say CSS is a skill I currently have. In reality, though, I only have an extremely basic understanding of CSS and even a tiny investment of time in learning more about CSS would bring my skill level much higher.

Add to your list any skills you wish you had

When it comes to careers, or life in general, people too often think about things they could have done or should have done. While there is certainly a time and place for reflection, it doesn’t help you today and it especially doesn’t help you down the road.

That’s why I think it’s so important to think about skills you wish you had. Identifying and calling out these skills is the first step in attaining them. The reality is

Reasons vary for wanting new skills – perhaps a new job requires it or you want to completely switch your line of work. I know more than a few people who developed entirely new skills to fit a career and lifestyle they desired more than their current career. On the other hand you may just want to be a more well-rounded accountant, administrator, or personal care attendant. You don’t need a desire for a new career to have a motivation to learn new skill.

The biggest tip I have in identifying skills you wish you had is this: look at job postings for jobs you would like to have. I check job listings every few months solely to see what skills are in demand. Because most skills take a while to develop it’s important to identify these skills before you are applying for jobs. This gives you the time needed to attain the skills that are relevant and in-demand.

Make a Plan for Skill Development

The final step in this process is to make a skill development plan. Notice how I said “skill development” instead of “career development.” I personally think career development plans focus too much on job titles and prestige and not enough on the underlying skills that actually provide value to a company, customer, or client.

Prioritizing what skills you want to further develop or start developing is the first step. You have to make sure the skills you are working on are in-demand, relevant, and will allow you to create value. This of course varies from profession-to-profession.

A few examples of skills and potential development plans:

  • Learn Microsoft Access – Spend 15-30 minutes each weekday going through a book about Microsoft Access including completing examples. Additionally, spend 5-10 minutes each weekday building sample tables, queries, and forms.
  • Improve ability to give presentations & give speeches – Join Toastmasters and make going to meetings a priority. Volunteer to give presentation to team at work on relevant work topic.
  • Become a better blogger – Read three blog posts a week about how to blog better and implement tips/suggestions from blog posts. Conduct one informational interview via email per week with a successful blogger.

You get out of things what you put into them. If you want to become better at your job, or switch to a different job, you need to focus on the skills behind those jobs. The more effort you put into developing those skills the more likely you will succeed.

How do you go about skill development? Have you ever developed a new skill set to switch careers? Any tips on how to go about developing a given skill or skill set?
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Photo by pnwra

36 comments
MicrosMissions
MicrosMissions

I completely blanked for a moment trying to think about what skills I have been trying to improve lately.  After a bout of feeling bad, it suddenly dawned on me that I'm doing classes for my master's and I'm pretty sure that counts.  :)  Although I do need to do some more reading on how to improve my site.

Eyesonthedollar
Eyesonthedollar

I certainly could work on being a better blogger! As for my real job, I am in the process of learning some new skills that will help us branch out into a different specialty field. I'm really excited and think it can add great value to our business and to the community. 

Ugifter
Ugifter

Ugh.  Microsoft Access.... gross!  Haha.  I have a way of phrasing my excel skill level currently, but it only works within my company.  

I like your idea about listing future skills or ones you wish you had and then working toward them.  I should email you about a project I'm planning for the future. 

Money Life and More
Money Life and More

Recently I've been watching YouTube a lot for some free tutorials on how to get better at things like fixing my car, changing motorcycle oil and even Excel. It depends on what skills you want to learn, but YouTube is a great resource.

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428

I begin by identifying strengths I already possess and working on those first. If I can move the needle up a few notches in something I'm already good at, then maybe I can become excellent (perhaps elite) in that skill. Of course, that doesn't work for everything. When I started blogging I had completely zero skill and had to start from the ground up.

Charles@gettingarichlife
Charles@gettingarichlife

Hi David,

I had to upgrade my skills on powerpoint and excel which was instrumental in my promotion.  I took a Dale Carnegie course for public speaking which was OK, I got a lot more from taking toastmaster classes.

KyleJames1
KyleJames1

Getting better at things I am OK at is something I am always working on. The Excel example is spot on for me. I can work with Excel pretty fluently but my wife is a rock star and is constantly showing me new tricks. If I spent just a little more time at improving my skills I could really get a lot more out of it and even get to the point where it would be a strong asset when job hunting.

TheHeavyPurse
TheHeavyPurse

Great post, DC! You definitely need to keep your skill set relevant ... things are always evolving these days.  I haven't changed professions in many years but I've definitely had to keep my skills and knowledge up-to-date. Things constantly change in the finances from rules and regulation to new products and investment vehicles to running my business and being a leader. I know as an employer, I want employees who have a thirst for continuing to grow their skills and to continue learning. 

JourneytoSaving
JourneytoSaving

Great advice. I do believe that developing skills is important, especially right out of college. Looking through job postings to identify needed skills is a good idea. I love learning, so if I am interested in a certain program, I will try and look up tutorials on it. One example is Photoshop. I've been playing around with it since I was around 10, and through experimenting with options and tutorials I managed to be pretty decent with it. It always helps to be genuinely interested instead of thinking about it as another thing you have to learn to perform a job better. 

Taynia
Taynia

As a Director of Finance with varying levels of staff that report up to or through me, I cannot emphasize enough the need to build and improve on your current skill set.  The best thing you can do as a "regular old employee" who is in search of a promotion is to be proactive, find a problem your manager has which they may or may not know they have, build up you skill set around that problem and find a way to creatively solve it. That is the sign of a superstar in the making!

DebtandtheGirl
DebtandtheGirl

Learning new skills is important. It can be hard to do sometimes because there barely needs to be time for anything else. Learning is always good, though.

Beachbudget
Beachbudget

I'm at a crossroads where I'm disinterested in continuing my skill development related to video, but very interested in skill development when it comes to blogging. It's a tough position because on one hand the video stuff still pays me the most, but I'm so burned out on it. But I guess as long as you're learning something it's better than nothing right? 

Andrew LivingRichCheaply
Andrew LivingRichCheaply

I take continuing education credits to maintain my license in my profession, and I try to take ones that will improve my skills and where I'm learning a topic that may be useful.  It's kind of weird but when I was young...learning was boring but nowadays, I love learning.  I really would like to learn more about wordpress/ html and other skills in that area to improve my blog. And I'm always interesting in reading about personal finance/investing to learn more.

BorrowedCents
BorrowedCents

As a graduate nurse, skills are very important and you need to keep learning new stuff. Even though not all of us are privileged to land a job at a hospital, it is the best place to polish and learn new skills because you are faced by challenges every day. As a job seeker I feel like the few skills I learned while in college are getting rusty and that's why I need a job very soon. The only thing I can do right now as I job hunt is to keep watching skills videos.

I also taught myself video editing skills and I keep learning more and more. The sky is the limit here.

DebtRoundUp
DebtRoundUp

Great post DC!  I got a degree in business marketing.  I got out of college with a job in marketing, then realized that I hated it.  I started learning about web technology, productivity improvements, and coding.  This allowed me to get the job that I have now.  I didn't need school for it, just time and determination!

SingleMomIncome
SingleMomIncome

I love to learn and add to my skill set. I read books on a regular basis and try to incorporate new skills into my routine. I also just signed up for an online course which I hope will benefit me as well. I think everyone should make a commitment to continually learn new skills.

Matt @ Mom and Dad Money
Matt @ Mom and Dad Money

I completely agree with the concept of continually building your skills, but I'm not sure that building them before applying for jobs is always the right idea. What I mean in a more general sense is that if your real goal is career advancement, it's really important to know exactly how a particular skill will actually help you advance. I think many people go through life collecting skills and/or degrees thinking that that alone will bring them success, only to find that they don't really have an avenue to apply those things for money. So I guess my advice is to do the work ahead of time to know for sure how a particular skill will advance your career, and have a plan in place for executing that advancement, before sinking a ton of time into it.

FrugalRules
FrugalRules

Good post DC! I developed a somewhat new set when I was getting my MBA - more so it opened up a new area that I never knew I enjoyed which helped create a new career path for me. I have also developed an entirely new set of skills since leaving corporate America that has proven to be very helpful. I think key to growing your skills is to always be looking for opportunities and not being afraid to teaching yourself something new.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Eyesonthedollar That's exciting about the new specialty field!  I'm always impressed by how motivated you are to be better, do more, expand your businesses/income, etc.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Ugifter I know I really dislike Access!  I love Excel because it's so flexible and there's so many things you can do in it.  I'm much better at it, too.  In many finance and operations jobs at my company Access is used heavily.  Having almost no background in it, I'm slowly forcing myself to use it each day.  It's not fun, but I'm learning a lot.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Brian @ Luke1428 That's a great point.  I took the strengthsfinders course along with other new college hires at my work and it was really eye-opening.  Focusing on 1-3 things that are your true strengths can go a long way as opposed to getting frustrated trying to be good at something that isn't your strength.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Charles@gettingarichlife I've made about one powerpoint a year for the past three years.  It's interesting how you kind of lose that skill when you start your job, then need it a few years down the road.  I should really consider joining toastmasters, it definitely can't hurt.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@KyleJames1 I think you should work on your Excel skills, it's amazing how in-demand they are.  From an accounting perspective there is a HUGE difference between how much work someone can handle based on how good they are at using Excel.  I feel like I have been able to make time for additional development and new responsibilities solely because I am able to improve and automate tasks in Excel.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@TheHeavyPurse I bet your employers are very happy to be working for you!  The worst thing is an employer who doesn't embrace development for whatever reason. My first manager and supervisor even hoarded work so that they would be harder to fire versus the entry-level accountants (me!).

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@JourneytoSaving I wish I had learned more about photoshop, that's a program I know NOTHING about but would be totally useful now with the blog.  I also spend a lot of time in software that I want to learn more about.  The best example is Excel, though I've been trying to learn more in Access (not nearly as fun!).

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Taynia Great advice, Taynia!  I have been proactive at times and volunteered to solve problems (stuff like automating or researching things that my directors want to know about) and it's definitely paid off.  It also leads to more responsibility, which is usually a good thing.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Beachbudget I have been (and arguably still am) in the same boat.  It's always a struggle to decide how much time and effort to put towards becoming better at blogging and Spreadsheet/Database-related stuff versus continuing to move forward in my full-time career.  There is (currently) more money in putting the hours in at work and going way above and beyond, but I am much more interested in pursuing blogging and learning various skills that may not directly benefit my 9-5 career.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Andrew LivingRichCheaply I think you have the right attitude.  I may have to take some continuing education credits for my profession as well, yet I don't know how I will have the time with all the other things I want to learn.  I don't LOVE wordpress coding and whatnot but I have learned quite a bit since getting into blogging a few years back and hope to continue to learn more.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@BorrowedCents Video editing is such an awesome skill, something I completely lack.  It's amazing what some people can do with raw video footage.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@DebtRoundUp Thanks Grayson!  I never knew you majored in marketing.  I would have guessed IT for sure.  I definitely am leaning more towards the IT side myself and have been trying to teach myself coding and various software applications and how to best use them.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@Matt @ Mom and Dad Money Matt, I think you and I agree on this but you may have misinterpreted what I said in the post.  If the goal is career advancement, before gaining a skill you should check what skills are in demand for the positions you are eyeing.  If you can spend some time learning the skills you lack that they are looking for, you set yourself up for a better chance of success.

DC @ Young Adult Money
DC @ Young Adult Money moderator

@FrugalRules Great words, John.  I think a lot of people are afraid of even considering gaining new skills.  I'm not sure where this fear comes from, but sometimes embracing a new skill and spending the time to learn it can change the course of your life.