In The Digital Age, Upskilling Is Hot!

Like it or not, the digital age is the source of a tsunami of change in our lives.

By Julie Norwell

Rapid technological changes are shaping everything from the way we hail a cab to the way we order takeout food. We are forced to adapt to new ways of doing the most basic tasks. It’s no wonder, then, that you may be feeling similar pressure in your work life.

Your calendar is updated by others remotely, your files are stored in the cloud and editable by someone in a different city – or country, and a modern meeting is held by video conferencing technology in a “zoom room” or over a smart phone. Even the staid one-page, paper resume has been replaced by the LinkedIn profile.

In The Digital Age, Upskilling Is Hot!
In The Digital Age, Upskilling Is Hot!

In an effort to keep up with the competition, companies must respond to the never-ending need to upgrade systems, digital platforms, and applications. Naturally, companies value most the employees who can keep up with all these changes. It is incumbent upon you, therefore, to continually develop yourself, to learn new skills – especially digital skills – and to be flexible about learning new modes and patterns of work.

In the digital age, having excellent skills is a more valuable currency than an impressive resume, but the requisite skills are a moving target.

According to a report by the RAND corporation, technology skills have to be updated every three years in order to have continued relevance. 

So “upskilling” is crucial for anyone who hopes to position him or herself for a better opportunity at a new company or advancement within the current one.  But what skills are the most important ones to have? And what is the best way to acquire them?

What Is Upskilling and How Do I Do It?

A scene in “The Intern,” a 2015 film about a retired professional, bored with retirement, who elects to return to the workforce, shows Robert DeNiro’s character, Ben Whittaker, reading the instructions to digitally apply for a job posting to an e-commerce startup company. “I have no idea what you just read,” said Whittaker’s friend in the scene. “It’s like a different language!” Undeterred, Whittaker applies for, and lands, a job at the startup and begins his re-education in the world of modern technology.

Upskilling should be a constant endeavor

These days the experience of those characters may be common to people of all ages who aren’t actively updating their skillset. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum forecast that within five years over one-third of skills that are considered important in the workforce will have changed. Therefore, acquiring new skills and knowledge that make you marketable in your career – upskilling, in today’s parlance – should be a constant endeavor for everyone.

But what skills you should learn depend entirely on the needs of your employer and, of course, on you.

Would you like to advance in the field you’re already in or pursue a different career altogether? Many company leaders now see a yawning gap between the technical needs of their company and the technical abilities of today’s workforce.

Research firm Gartner reports that “…talent has now been recognized globally as the single biggest issue standing in the way of CIOs achieving their objectives.” Increasingly, companies are recognizing the value of training their workers in new skills and offering them valuable professional development. If you are offered such an opportunity, jump on it!

If not, you should be exploring ways to develop yourself on your own.

Consulting with a professional career coach, like the ones available at The Barrett Group, is a great first step for getting a fresh perspective on what you might do to boost your career. Other good resources include finding a mentor, joining an industry association, or taking a course at a local university where you can interact with an experienced educator. Speaking to other people who know the industry is a great way to find out what skills are in hot demand.

Once you figure out what skills are important for your career goals, there are endless ways to learn them – and they aren’t necessarily costly or time consuming. Read books, subscribe to technical magazines, or take an online course, of which there are many excellent, free ones, like Coursera or MIT’s OpenCourseWare. It may seem obvious, but do an online search for “How to learn [fill in the blank].” You’ll doubtless get a page or more of good links to blogs, webinars or podcasts to dig into.

The value of online tutorials
Don’t underestimate the value of online tutorials or YouTube videos.

Although they aren’t usually professionally edited and may lack clarity and thoroughness, they are easily accessible and free. What’s more, they often incorporate links, user comments and interactive demonstrations that are incredibly informative.

Finally, set yourself a tech goal, like creating a website or starting a blog. There is nothing better than experiential learning for mastering technical skills. Working on a project is more compelling than reading a book and the task focuses your attention on the practical application of the skills you are learning.

You might also consider joining a tech-related club and volunteering for a technical project. It will give you valuable experience and, perhaps, the opportunity to work with people with more technical know-how than you, who can act as useful resources. Doing this will have the added benefit of broadening your network and possibly opening doors in your career.

Seasoned Professionals Have an Edge

A report by the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs identifies the technology drivers of change that have already impacted industries – mobile internet, cloud technology and Big Data – and those that we can expect by 2020 – artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and autonomous transport. Nearly every industry and every organizational role will eventually require the use of sophisticated technology, but there are huge talent gaps.

There are huge talent gaps in the use of sophisticated technologies

According to the RAND Corporation, two different types of skills are in short supply: digital skills and digital navigation skills. The former are the technical skills required to use digital technologies. The latter is a wider and less tangible set of skills that is less about knowing technological skills than knowing how to find and prioritize information and assess its quality and reliability. It means taking responsibility for figuring out what you need to know and where to find that knowledge.

The good news is that hard, digital skills are defined and relatively easy to learn in a class or a book. Meanwhile, digital navigation skills require experience, judgement and time to acquire, which gives the seasoned professional an advantage in the employment market. The key here is to be able to apply technology within the context of a specific profession.

This means, for example, a doctor knowing how to use health IT tools to better diagnose a patient’s malady, or an auditor knowing how to use data analytics and visualization software to evaluate copious amounts of information on a spreadsheet at the click of a button. Still, it’s an ongoing process because the knowledge base is constantly changing and one must continue to adapt to new technologies and ways of doing things.

In the face of such radical change in the job environment, staying competitive means adapting. But successful people understand that learning is a lifelong pursuit. If you invest in ongoing skills development, you will do your job more effectively, increase your salary bargaining power, and give yourself confidence to set increasingly challenging goals. You will set yourself apart from the crowd and the results will speak for themselves.

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