To stay competitive, invest in cutting edge skills

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Today’s job market is changing at an incredibly fast pace. To stay competitive, to safeguard your career, and to ensure you can always find new work in the future, you need to be continually updating your knowledge and skills.

Of course, for many people, going back to school to further their education is the last thing they want to do. Some struggle with the structure, some don’t perceive any relevance to school, and some have not mastered the basic writing and quantitative skills needed to get to the more pragmatic topics. In other words, many people have excess “baggage” when it comes to upgrading their capabilities.

Realize, though, that investing in your skills doesn’t necessarily mean going back to a college classroom. From online courses, distance learning, and seminars to self-study, volunteer work, and on-the-job “stretch” assignments that add to your current capabilities, you have many options for getting out of your comfort zone and updating your skills.

When you’re ready to make yourself always employable and in-demand, use the following steps to begin the re-training and re-educating process. 

Assess your strengths to determine your unique selling advantage (U.S.A.).

In today’s economy, no matter what your profession, you have to sell your knowledge, skills, and abilities to advance. That means you must have something unique that’s sellable. If your core skill sets are commodities, you won’t be able to command higher wages or fees. In other words, if hundreds of other people do exactly what you do, you’ll never stand out. You need to go beyond the commodity skills and make yourself unique.

For example, if you’re a college professor who does classroom teaching, you’re a commodity. However, if you also know how to design and administer online courses, then you have a unique skill. Or, if you’re a graphic designer who creates web sites, you’re a commodity. But if you create web sites that integrate the newest design and SEO practices, then you have a cutting edge skill.

Therefore, be brutally honest with yourself by answering the following questions:

  • What does the future of your career look like?
  • What new skills do others have that you do not?
  • What are the skill deficiencies that are holding you back?
  • What are you good at (your strengths)?
  • What are you not-so-good at (your weaknesses)?
  • What do you do (or what can you learn) that others don’t currently do or know?
  • What skills are you missing that you are not willing to obtain now?

Once you’re aware of what new skills you need to stay relevant in the current and future work world, as well as what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can figure out the ideal way to position yourself so you stand out from the competition.  

Leverage your strengths to address your weaknesses.

While you do want to work on your weaknesses that may be career-killers, you don’t have to work on every weakness. For example, suppose you determine that one of your weaknesses is a lack of attention to detail. Whether you work on that depends on your industry. If you’re a trainer and you have a couple of misspellings on a slide, it’s not a big issue. But if you’re writing an opinion for a judge, detailing a contract, or are in the nuclear power industry, a lack of attention to detail is a big issue you need to correct.

After you address the career-killer weaknesses, spend the rest of your time and resources leveraging and improving upon your strengths rather than addressing every weakness. When you build upon your strengths and focus your re-training on those areas, you’ll increase your unique selling advantage and be more in-demand in your field.

Write a 30 day, 90 day, and annual action plan to invest in cutting edge skills.

After you assess what skills and knowledge you are missing and which strengths or weaknesses you want to build upon, create a 30-day, 90-day, and annual action plan to get the training and education you need. What do you need to continue advancing on your career path? It may be to enroll in a certificate program, to take the lead on a project, or to do some volunteer work to gain new skills. Whatever it is, schedule the steps in a planner and take action.

Then, re-check your plan every 30 days. This enables you to increase your level of accountability. Additionally, if you do a check-in every 30 days, you will see progress. If you see progress—even small progress—you’ll keep going. By the 90 day mark, you’ll see some significant change. So while your long-term vision that’s a year or more out might be a giant leap in skill advancement, the shorter term goals that are 30 and 90 days out are generally more manageable. And since most people can manage 30 days better than a year, the chances of you accomplishing multiple smaller goals that lead to a big goal is higher than if you just dangle that big goal out there with no mini-steps along the way.

Finally, don’t keep your training and skills attainment goals to yourself. Share your plans with others, such as a spouse, boss, co-worker, or business coach. When you have other people who care asking you questions about your progress, you’re more apt to stay the course. Use these people as sounding boards for tough decisions and for motivation when things get rough. Even if you’re good at self-accountability, still engage others. Accountability is the key to sticking to a re-training path. The more people holding you accountable, the better.

Commit to Lifelong Learning

While learning something new may seem like a daunting task, remember that you have been learning ever since you were born. When you embrace the fact that learning is something you do continually, either formally or informally, you’ll always have the skills you need succeed in the future, and learning won’t feel like a monumental task. Therefore, commit at least three hours per week to updating your skills and refining your knowledge. That’s the surest path to stay competitive in the job market and to ensure you thrive in your career.

Marty Martin, Ph.D., has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for many years. His second book, "Taming Disruptive Behavior," will be published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2013. He is currently working on his third book, "Do You Have Career Insurance?" Martin is the director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and associate professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. For more information to obtain a free chapter of "Do You Have Career Insurance?" visit his website:

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