Why Every Worker Needs New Skills

In a tough job market, the people who get ahead will be the lifelong learners.


If there's ever been doubt about the value of education, the recession erased it. The unemployment rate for people with a college degree or higher is well below 5 percent. For high school grads, it's above 9 percent, and for those without a high school diploma, it tops 14 percent. Clearly, education pays. Literally.

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But getting a diploma isn't the whole solution, as the time-honored strategy of building a lifelong career around a single trade or degree no longer applies. Now it's more a matter of having the right kind of education at the right time. Fast-changing technologies can wreck old industries overnight, devaluing once-prized skills. New industries spring up, requiring knowledge that barely existed five years ago. Employers, meanwhile, have become stingier about training workers. People have to "look out for their own skill set," says Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Targeting changes in the economy, and the jobs likely to result, is one way to focus your learning strategy. A surge in insured people seeking primary care after health reform, for example, will create demand for nurses interested in becoming nurse practitioners. A push for green practices will require battery chemists, environmental engineers, and lots of workers who can upgrade building insulation or replace inefficient HVAC units. But experts caution against investing too much time or money in technical learning that's not transferable. Consulting firm McKinsey warns that the promise of innovative new fields often falls short, while people overlook simpler opportunities. For all the focus on high-tech jobs, for instance, studies report a shortage of welders, electricians, carpenters, salespeople, and customer service reps in certain sectors.

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The good news is that even modest efforts to get smarter and branch out beyond your area of specialty can provide an edge over the competition. What most employers want these days is people with "multiple skill sets," as recruiters like to say. That could be manufacturing workers who know how to manage projects or salespeople who understand social media. The ultimate combo might be advanced degrees in two high-demand fields, like finance and law, or medicine and marketing. But you don't need to spend a fortune to develop a bit of multidisciplinary agility. And if you hit a dead end in your chosen field, "look outside your industry," advises Cathy Farley, a managing director for consulting firm Accenture. "If you do supply chain management in manufacturing, maybe look in healthcare. If you do project management in construction, you might be able to apply that in a corporate environment." Keeping up with Web and mobile technology means you'll have a big advantage over the people who still carry binders and use the Yellow Pages to look up an address.

But don't expect somebody from HR to hand you a road map to your next job. An unsettling new reality is that there are fewer fixed templates for getting ahead. "You're told to do well in school, get a degree, and you'll be secure," says Linda Rohman of Omaha, who worked for years as a lawyer and also has a Ph.D. in psychology. She decided a couple of years ago to go back to work after taking time off to raise her two sons. But no one needed attorneys, so she brushed up on her typing skills and applied her legal knowledge in a part-time job as a court reporter, while also doing some tutoring to supplement the family income. Now she hopes the tutoring, combined with her Ph.D., will lead to a job teaching psychology at a community college. "You roll up your sleeves and do what's necessary."

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People can teach themselves new skills using the Internet and books, or by taking classes, once they know what's needed in their industry or profession. Find out by reading trade journals, networking, and asking people who do the hiring. "There are a lot of people with bachelor's degrees who are in their 30s and 40s who are enrolled in community colleges," says Carl Schramm, CEO of the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship. "It doesn't need to be getting a new degree. It could be computer skills."

Since many companies have cut back on in-house training, Sutton recommends that even people with stable jobs seek out mentors and take leadership development courses. You should also get used to the idea that learning new skills is anything but a temporary assignment. Your competitors are doing it. That new knowledge just might turn out to be your strongest asset.