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How Portable Are Your Skills?

In the good old days, you worked at the same job for the same organization your entire work-life. Oh, you might get promoted or transferred, but you didn’t leave. There was an unspoken compact that you would give loyalty to the organization, and that loyalty would be repaid. In the new world of work, that model simply isn’t sustainable. No, organizations are not evil — they are just trying to survive. So chances are you will have many jobs and more than one employer in your career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated an average of 10 job changes for workers between ages 18 and 38.

If organizations have to reinvent themselves, so do you! There’s a benefit to your career and your organization when you have the right skills at the right time — think of these as your portable or transferable skills. What does that mean? If you are an expert in “how we do it here” or in an obsolete programming language, your skills are not transferable. If you haven’t taken a class or learned a new technique in several years, you don’t have portable skills. If the new people in your workplace are using tools and techniques you don’t understand, your skills need a tune-up.

7 Steps to Skills Portability

1. Examine your current job. What tools and techniques, processes and products do you know? Are they widely used, or just used at your workplace? How proficient are you? What software tools do you have at work that you haven’t tried yet? What classes are available to learn new skills?

2. Talk to the newbies in your office. What software do they know? What new concepts did they bring from school or another workplace? What do you admire about their skills? Can they teach you something new? Can you teach them something new in exchange?

3. Look at job postings in your field. What skills do they want? What training or certification do they value? What soft-skills do they look for (for instance, “self-starter”)? What buzz-words do they use in the posting? You can look online to learn what these words mean in your field.

4. Find a skills assessment tool. It will help you determine what skills you possess and how best to label them. You can also rate your proficiency in each skill. (For more information check out “Now It’s Your Turn,” the section below.)

5. Write a one-paragraph description of your service offering. That’s the portable skill set you have now – a package of services that you bring with you wherever you go. You’ll now have a ready answer to the question “Can you tell me about yourself?”

6. Write a description of the skills you want to have in the future. Create a picture of your future self: what skills you’ll have, or what your work-day will look like. Post the description near your desk to give you encouragement and let you absorb the picture of “the new you.”

7. Assess the gaps between where you are and where you want to be. Then build a plan to bridge those gaps one by one. How? Start by picking one gap and asking yourself what you could do to change it. For instance, if you want to get better at giving presentations, you could:

  • Learn from watching other presenters and analyzing their techniques.
  • Take an online PowerPoint tutorial.
  • Practice giving a presentation in front of a friendly audience and ask someone to give you feedback.

Our Stories

Lena and I have reinvented ourselves several times, and we’re happy to share our stories. You’ll see that we have renewed, re-combined, re-purposed, and re-packaged our skills in order to survive in the competitive marketplace. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

Lena’s Story

After graduating from college I moved from retail work to increasingly more challenging positions in office administration. Like many people, I fell into my first job by following a friend who was an office worker in the booming biotech industry. This began my first career of working in fascinating industries with wonderful people, but doing rather uninteresting work.

My epiphany was realizing that being good at managing offices didn’t mean I needed to keep doing it. After earning my MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Science), I launched a second career as an information architect at the height of the boom and I joined the California Digital Library in 2002.

Leslie’s Story

After graduating from college I joined the financial services industry, moving from a business analyst to a project manager to a customer service director. After two layoffs, I realized I didn’t care enough about financial services, so I realigned myself as a consultant using my customer service and project management skills.

When I decided to stop consulting, I needed new skills to get noticed by hiring managers. I started an MLIS program part-time while I consulted as a project manager in a campus library, gaining both academic and practical library skills. I used an unpaid internship at California Digital Library to display my skills and to connect with new colleagues. After graduation, I joined CDL in 2008.

Now we are both project managers in a digital library. Although we got here from very different paths, we each brought a toolkit filled with skills that fit the job description and allowed us to interview successfully for the jobs we wanted.

“Progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” — Frederick B. Wilcox

Now It’s Your Turn

1. Learn more about the concept of transferable skills
2. See how many of your skills you can find on a transferable skills inventory
3. Rate the level of your skills proficiency according to this survey of transferable skills