10 Ways to Get Your Job Skills in Shape

Learn the steps you should take today if you want to be competitive tomorrow

by Kate Ashford
tires and shoe in sand image
Photograph: Geof Kern

“In 10 years, productive project managers will be in high demand, especially if they can work across industries, cultures and languages,” says workplace consultant Steve Langerud. “Ask yourself, Where have I been a project manager, and how can I do more of that?” Your expertise at guiding a team could translate to a similar role in another field. Another skill to work on: leadership. “At a certain point there’s an assumption of talent, but not necessarily an assumption of leadership,” says Amy Dorn Kopelan, president of Bedlam Productions. Volunteer for opportunities within your company and for community efforts that fit your interests; you’ll gain experience, broaden your network and sharpen transferable skills.

Q: I’ve been hearing about “T-shaped skills.” Can you explain?
Paul Saffo, technology forecaster and consulting professor at Stanford University: This is an idea you will hear often at Stanford. T-shaped people have one area of deep expertise and broad skills on top of that.

Q: Ok… So how do I get T-shaped?
PS: My advice is, seek “adjacent expertise.” In other words, figure out what things will help you do your job better and will also be a lily pad to hop to if your current job evaporates.

Q: Do you mean become a generalist?
PS: No. Everybody loves hanging around with generalists, but nobody really wants to pay them. That said, general skills are absolutely essential, because in any current job, everybody is going to multifunction. You need to be able to work outside your formal area of expertise.

Q: What kinds of extra skills do I need?
PS: Don’t confuse T-shaped with acquiring a bunch of vertical skills. We’re not talking about English majors who become software engineers. That’s trading one insecure career for another. The skills have to be more closely related, or complementary, and have to offer a higher level of abstraction. For instance, if you have an engineering degree, get a management degree in addition—that could end up serving you well.

Q: How do I figure out what those “complementary” skills might be?
PS: In the short term, look at the skills that are taken for granted in college freshmen. The kids now coming in all know HTML. It’s like typing used to be for people in their fifties. I teach in an engineering school, and the students all ask if they can do a Web page instead of a paper.

Q: Now I’m scared.
PS: Nobody’s job is safe. Everybody is going to have a succession of professions, and the jobs today will go away. The pure specialist will end up going the way of the buggy-whip maker.

In 2011, Harvard Business School gave its entering MBA students $3,000 each in seed money to start a company. It’s not a bad idea to try the same thing yourself. That’s because the decisions you have to make to open a business are the same no matter how big that business is—and starting one on a  small scale is a great way to practice before your livelihood depends on it.

If you’ve never considered entrepreneurship, you may still find that it has a place in your career, especially in your later years, when getting hired is more difficult. “Not everybody is cut out for this,” says Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president of the Apollo Research Institute. “But because of the Internet, it’s easier now to be an entrepreneur than it was in the past.” In fact, women are starting about 550 businesses a day, according to the most recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. “In your forties or fifties, it used to be that you were planning retirement,” Wilen-Daugenti says. “Today you need to plan your encore career. Entrepreneurship is just another option.”

First published in the February 2013 issue

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