Ten Skills Working Professionals Need to Upgrade in the Next Five Years
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Ten Skills Working Professionals Need to Upgrade in the Next Five Years

Today’s professionals need to vastly expand their skill-sets to move up the corporate ladder and succeed in a fast-paced and changing economy.

After a tense few years, the job market is slowly improving, and according to figures from the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), layoffs are falling, openings are rising and hiring is rebounding.

High-wage occupations are expected to account for 11.5 million new hires and 28 percent of job growth by 2020, but job requirements in these sectors also tend to be stricter.

Working professionals looking to advance their careers must set themselves apart from the competition by matching their skills to employers’ needs. But what exactly are employers looking for?

A recent IDC survey commissioned by Microsoft shed some light on this question by looking at job and skill requirements from 14.6 million job postings to identify the most common skills required in the top 60 high-growth, high-wage occupations, including medical support and nursing, sales and marketing, education and information technology (IT).

Surprisingly, the survey showed that although technical skills are highly valued, employers tend to place more emphasis on so-called “soft-skills” such as communication and teamwork.

“Soft skills are applicable to a much wider range of high-growth, high-salary positions than any specific technical skill,” Cushing Anderson, program vice-president of Project-Based Services at IDC, told me. “Unless the candidate has a particular interest in a field with a technical skill requirement, being able to demonstrate soft skills is much more valuable to a wider range of potential employers.”

He identified two important takeaways from the study that matter to working professionals:

  • High-growth, high-salary positions require communications, integration and presentation capabilities, and competence in the productivity tools that facilitate that type of work; and
  • There is no consistent, broad-based finding that technical skills, such as application programming or IT component maintenance, are common in most high-growth, high-salary occupations.

“We are increasingly an information-led economy, so learning how to critically engage, think, assimilate and present information is essential,” said Anderson. “These skills are usually reinforced in technical or professional education programs.”

With this in mind, courses that emphasize skills such as problem solving, team work and constructive criticism would all help employees build the necessary skills.

Learning to use the tools that facilitate these kinds of skills, such as spreadsheets, presentation software and word processing, would then enable learners to specifically exercise those areas of critical thinking and presentation.

“The key is intentionally developing a specific area,” Anderson told me. “Actively improving and creating areas of personal strength, is in itself an act of critical thinking and assimilation, and involves at least an internal presentation of objectives and rationale to weigh the pros and cons of various choices.”

At the end of the day, any course or training program will help employees build on these key skills, but it needs to be taken intentionally, with specific goals and areas to improve.

Some of the most important skills that today’s working professionals will need to upgrade in order to stay on the cutting edge include:

1. Oral and written communication skills

The ability to communicate effectively, whether online or in person, is extremely important in professional settings, and employers view oral and written communication skills as the most valuable capability for an employee to have.

2. Microsoft Office

It’s time for job seekers to brush up on their PowerPoint, Word and Excel skills, because Microsoft Office was the only software package identified as being very important in all occupations. It was explicitly required in 15 percent of high-growth, high-wage positions.

3. Detail-oriented

The little things really do matter, and job seekers who want to be taken seriously need to be able to pay attention to the details and see causes rather than just effects.

4. Problem solving

Employers want to hire people who can identify problems and come up with workable solutions by using their creativity and experience in combination with the information and resources available.

5. Self-motivated and independent

One of the best traits employees can have is self-motivation and independence. This means they can do their work without constant supervision, and will take the initiative to get things done without waiting to be told.

6. Sales experience

People often assume they won’t need sales experience unless they’re applying for a job in sales. These days, however, employers are looking for candidates who boast a wider set of skills, and sales experience often results in some important transferable skills such as good communication and dealing with rejection.

7. Customer service

The ability to relate to and put the customer’s wants and needs first in every situation is an important quality to have, even in jobs that aren’t necessarily very sales-oriented, such as nursing or teaching.

8. Time management

Time is money, so time management is extremely important in business. This means being able to set reachable goals, plan and organize tasks ahead of time, track progress and meet deadlines on time.

9. Bilingual or multilingual

In our increasingly global job market, anyone who can speak a second or even third language will have an advantage over someone who only speaks his or her mother tongue.

10. Strong interpersonal skills

Employers value independence, but they also want to see some teamwork to balance it out. Having strong interpersonal skills means being able to relate to, and collaborate with, others.

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3 Responses to Ten Skills Working Professionals Need to Upgrade in the Next Five Years

  1. Belinda Chang Reply

    2014/04/01 at 2:43 pm

    This is a good ‘grab bag’ of skills that professionals should look to improve in, but some are more helpful than others. I see oral and written communication as applicable across occupations, but some skills such as sales and languages are more specific and, in my view, a waste of time for individuals who don’t use them in their job functions.

    I attended a professional development seminar where we heard that professionals should identify two or three key skills they desire and work exclusively on those. I think, with the plethora of professional development opportunities today, we have to resist the temptation of becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’

    • Mike H Reply

      2014/04/01 at 5:07 pm

      No. Stenger’s argument is valuable in an increasingly flexible economy, where individuals can’t always predict where the next area of growth will be. Even skills like word processing and sales, which can seem specific, have broader benefits, such as improving communication and professionalism.

  2. Marianne Stenger Reply

    2014/04/02 at 4:38 am

    Both very good points Belinda and Mike.

    On the one hand, it’s true that job seekers don’t necessarily need to excel in all of these things. Everyone needs to look at their individual situation.

    On the other hand, these are the skills that employers in many different fields have indicated they value the most.

    So, while you wouldn’t be required to know a second language to apply for a nursing job, having a wider skill set (particularly transferable ones like communication and interpersonal skills) does help you stand out as a candidate.

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