Develop a Skills Plan for the Life Cycle of Your Career

This is the first in a series of three posts that examines the workforce skills gap from the perspectives of workers, employers and educators.

A bachelor's degree is foundational in today's workplace as more low-skilled jobs disappear or are sent offshore. The positions that remain -- and the 22 million that will need to be filled by 2018 -- require a high level of skills and a college education. In fact, by 2018, employment in professional, scientific and technical services is expected to grow by 34 percent, and in health care and technical occupations by 21 percent, according to The Great Divide, a study by Apollo Research Institute.

However, a bachelor's degree will not be enough to stay employable over the full life cycle of your career. Workers who do not bolster their degrees with continuous skill development risk leaving their careers exposed to the volatility of the global economy.

A number of factors are heating up workplace competition not only among new hires but also among employees seeking to retain positions and advance their careers. In addition to the approximately 1.5 million new baccalaureate graduates who enter the job market each year, more workers are continuing to work beyond age 55. In fact, between 1993 and 2010, the proportion of U.S. employees 55 years and older increased from 29.4 percent to 40.2 percent, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

In this competitive climate, how can workers begin the journey of continuous skill development? Here are some tips:

Cultivating skills to stay competitive today...

  • Above all, be proactive. Make it a habit to stay up-to-date with trends in your industry. Read professional journals, join associations, attend conferences, and network with your peers. Find a mentor whose career trajectory you would like to emulate, and identify the skills your mentor has developed that you may lack. During job performance reviews, routinely ask your supervisor for an evaluation of your skill set and to help you pinpoint areas for development.
  • From this fact-finding, you can craft a continuous skill development plan that may include certification programs in your industry as well as entry-level classes in areas outside your field that can widen your marketability. Be sure to take advantage of any tuition assistance programs or other training opportunities your company offers.
  • Some skill areas cut across many industries and should be kept intentionally well-tooled. For instance, according to The Great Divide study, employers in various industries reported difficulty finding workers who can think critically, solve complex problems and communicate clearly in written and oral formats. And these employers expect this trend to continue. They also said they have trouble finding employees who can work independently, in teams, and in a multicultural environment.

    • If it has been a while since you were in an environment that requires critical thinking, your skills could be rusty. Consider taking business management classes or other courses that demand problem-solving skills. Once these skills are sharp, you can begin to position yourself as the "idea person" in your workplace. Are you unsure about how to communicate your ideas effectively? Check out Toastmasters to build ease in public speaking, and business writing workshops to improve your written communication. Participating in civic groups and community organizations are also good ways to improve verbal skills and teamwork and to meet people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

    ...and in the future workforce

    In today's rapidly changing world, certain workplace skills may still be emerging or even yet to be identified. Future Work Skills 2020, a report by Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute, identified key workplace skills employees will need through the next 10 years.

    One of these is transdisciplinarity, or the ability to collaborate across multiple disciplines, which creates a cutting edge for innovation. Those with this ability are "T-shaped" workers, having both depth and breadth of knowledge. For example, a T-shaped engineer might have deep knowledge of electrical engineering and broad enough familiarity with product marketing, industrial design, supply chain management and finance to be able to collaborate meaningfully with colleagues in those areas. Many higher education institutions are already creating transdisciplinarity programs that encourage learning across a range of fields.

    Transdisciplinarity can also be developed on the job, and over time. Even if your formal education was "siloed," you can purposefully decide to become more "T-shaped" through cultivating curiosity, having fact-findings conversations with colleagues in other fields, and seeking opportunities for job shadowing.

    The Future Work Skills 2020 report also pinpoints social intelligence as a critical skill in tomorrow's workplace. Increasingly, teams are being assembled from diverse locations -- sometimes around the globe -- to work on projects in a virtual office. The Internet makes this possible, and devices such as robots and smart machines take this new workplace to a new level. Workers with social intelligence will thrive there. With this skill, individuals are able to be more productive by tapping into the shared talents of others, perhaps from quite different cultures and backgrounds. Socially intelligent workers know how to anticipate others' reactions and stimulate desired interactions. To develop social intelligence, seek opportunities to practice -- networking groups, volunteer positions, committee work are good places to start.

    In today's volatile economic environment, success amid global competition and technological change requires workers to take charge of their careers. You must create a solid plan to steer your career. Committing to continuous skill development is an essential step to increasing your employability and career prospects.