Professional Skill Building

What you’ll learn to do: Discuss how to gain skills necessary for professional life

There is no doubt that a huge percent of life is spent at work. If you were to work forty hours a week and live to seventy years old, thirty-five percent of total waking hours of your life would be spent at work.[1] Considering how much time is spent in a work environment, you want to be sure you have the right skills and mindset to make the difference between “going to work” and “having a career.” This module discusses ways to develop and demonstrate skills for an enjoyable career. To start the discussion, the module examines career skills, transferable skills, and new skills to be acquired.

Learning Outcome

  • List specific skills that will be necessary for your career path
  • List transferable skills that will be valuable for any career path
  • Explain how to acquire necessary skills, both in and out of class, for your career goals
  • Describe the stages of career development

Skills for a Career

If you lived and worked in colonial times in the United States, what skills would you need to be gainfully employed? What kind of person would your employer want you to be? And how different would your skills and aptitudes be then compared with today?

Black and white painting of a cobbler and apprentice at a workbench

Many industries that developed during the 1600s–1700s, such as health care, publishing, manufacturing, construction, finance, and farming, are still with us today. And the professional abilities, aptitudes, and values required in those industries are many of the same ones employers seek today.

For example, in the health care field then, just like today, employers looked for professionals with scientific acumen, active listening skills, a service orientation, oral comprehension abilities, and teamwork skills. And in the financial field then, just like today, employers looked for economics and accounting skills, mathematical reasoning skills, clerical and administrative skills, and deductive reasoning.

Why is it that with the passage of time and all the changes in the work world, some skills remain unchanged (or little changed)?

The answer might lie in the fact there are are two main types of skills that employers look for: hard skills and soft skills.

  • Hard skills are concrete or objective abilities that you learn and perhaps have mastered. They are skills you can objectively claim, like using a computer, speaking a foreign language, or operating a machine. You might earn a certificate, a college degree, or other credentials that attest to your hard-skill competencies. Obviously, because of changes in technology, the hard skills required by industries today are vastly different from those required centuries ago.
  • Soft skills, on the other hand, are subjective skills that have changed very little over time. Such skills might pertain to the way you relate to people, or the way you think, or the ways in which you behave—for example, listening attentively, working well in groups, and speaking clearly. Soft skills are sometimes also called “transferable skills” because you can easily transfer them from job to job or profession to profession without much training. Indeed, if you had a time machine, you could likely transfer your soft skills from one time period to another! Though it is important to remember that while soft skills are broadly consistent even from centuries ago, the specific execution of them requires continuous learning and recalibrating—especially as the workplace diversifies.

What Employers Want in an Employee

Employers want individuals who have the necessary hard and soft skills to do the job well and adapt to changes in the workplace. Soft skills may be especially in demand today because employers are generally equipped to train new employees in a hard skill—by training them to use new computer software, for instance—but it’s much more difficult to teach an employee a soft skill such as developing rapport with coworkers or knowing how to manage conflict. An employer might rather hire an inexperienced worker who can pay close attention to details than an experienced worker who might cause problems on a work team.

In this section, we look at ways of identifying and building particular hard and soft skills that will be necessary for your career path. We also explain how to use your time and resources wisely to acquire critical skills for your career goals.

Practice Question

What Employers Want in an Employee

Employers want individuals who have the necessary hard and soft skills to do the job well and adapt to changes in the workplace. Soft skills may be especially in demand today because employers are generally equipped to train new employees in a hard skill—by training them to use new computer software, for instance—but it’s much more difficult to teach an employee a soft skill such as developing rapport with coworkers or knowing how to manage conflict. An employer might rather hire an inexperienced worker who can pay close attention to details than an experienced worker who might cause problems on a work team.

In this section, we look at ways of identifying and building particular hard and soft skills that will be necessary for your career path. We also explain how to use your time and resources wisely to acquire critical skills for your career goals.

Transferable Skills

Transferable (soft) skills may be used in multiple professions. In looking at this page for transferable skills, which are largely soft skills, start to think about the ones that apply to you and that you might refer to in your employment documents or employment conversations.

They include, but are by no means limited to, skills listed below:

Dependable and punctual (showing up on time, ready to work, not being a liability) Self-motivated Enthusiastic
Willing to learn (lifelong learner) Committed A good problem solver
Adaptable (willing to change and take on new challenges) Strong in customer service skills A team player
Good in essential work skills (following instructions, possessing critical thinking skills, knowing limits) Positive attitude Strong communication skills
Able to accept constructive criticism Ethical Safety-conscious
Strong in time management Honest

These skills are transferable because they are positive attributes that are invaluable in practically any kind of work. They also do not require much training from an employer—you have them already and take them with you wherever you go. Soft skills are a big part of your “total me” package. This is not to suggest that either you’re born with these skills or you’re not. Each of the skills listed above is different, and you will be stronger in some than in others. In addition, soft skills can be worked on and improved, and there are lots of resources to help develop them. Think of each soft skill like playing a sport—tennis, for example. Some people are inherently athletic and will pick up a racket and play well from their first time on a court. Other people will need lessons and lots of practice, but eventually, they can build up to a solid game—and have fun playing as well.

So, identify the soft skills that show you off the best, and identify the ones that prospective employers are looking for. By comparing both sets, you can more directly gear your job search to your strongest professional qualities.

Practice Question

10 Top Skills You Need to Get a Job When You Graduate

The following video summarizes the ten top skills that the Target corporation believes will get you a job when you graduate.You can read a transcript of the video “10 Top Skills That will Get You a Job When You Graduate” here. As you watch this video, begin to think about which of these skills you might have and how you will demonstrate them to a potential employer in your application documents and interviews.

How to Find a New Job–Transferable Job Skills

The following video covers similar information to the 10 Top Skills video above. Discover how to find a new job more easily by learning how to identify and describe your transferable job skills.

Remember, no one person is perfect for any job. Everyone has areas to emphasize and to de-emphasize.

Learn More

For more extensive exploration of your skills check out the following sources:

Acquiring Necessary Skills

“Lifelong learning” is a buzz phrase in the twenty-first century because we are awash in new technology and information all the time. Those who know how to learn, continuously, are in the best position to keep up and take advantage of these changes. Think of all the information resources around you: colleges and universities, libraries, the Internet, videos, games, books, films—the list goes on.

With these resources at your disposal, how can you best position yourself for lifelong learning and a strong, viable career? Which hard and soft skills are most important? What are employers really looking for?

The following list was inspired by the remarks of Mark Atwood, director of open-source engagement at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. It contains excellent practical advice.

  • Learn how to write clearly. After you’ve written something, have people edit it. Then rewrite it, taking into account the feedback you received. Write all the time.
  • Learn how to speak. Speak clearly on the phone and in person. For more on clear, purposeful speaking, see Module 7: Public Speaking.
  • Be reachable. Publish your email address on your résumé, website, and social media profiles so that people can contact you. Don’t worry about spam.
  • Learn about computers and computing, even if you aren’t gearing up for a career in information technology. Learn something entirely new every six to twelve months. This doesn’t have to be expensive, there are free and low-cost resources online.
  • Build relationships within your community. Use tools like Meetup.com and search for clubs at local schools, libraries, and community centers. Then seek out relevant, interesting people around the country and world. Learn about them and their projects first by searching the Internet. The more you sound well-informed, curious, intelligent, and polite, the more likely you are to get a positive response.
  • Attend conferences and events. This is a great way to network with people and meet them face-to-face.
  • Find a project and make your mark. This can include anything from editing a Wikipedia page, to answering questions on a discussion forum on a topic you are passionate about, to volunteering in person for a project related to your career.
  • Collaborate with people all over the world.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile and social media profiles up-to-date. Be findable.
  • Keep learning. Skills will often beat smarts. Be sure to schedule time for learning and having fun!

Practice Question

Just Get Involved

After you’ve networked with enough people and built up your reputation, your peers can connect you with job openings that may be a good fit for your skills. The video, below, from Monash University in Australia offers the following tips:

  1. Get involved in part-time work
  2. Get involved in extracurricular activities
  3. Get involved with employment and career development

Have a Formal Learning Plan

Schools and employers offer a wide variety of ways to learn or enhance soft and hard skills. You are in a class now. That demonstrates specific intent toward improving skills in a formal fashion. There are other formal ways to acquire skills:

  • Enroll in a credit or non-credit class
    • Many know about four-year colleges with Bachelors degrees and sometimes high costs, but there are also two-year colleges with Associates degrees and lower costs. What many miss out on are the Continuing Education classes taught at colleges or community colleges. These are frequently very affordable and allow the learner to focus on an entry-level skill in a specific area. Most degree programs provide hard skills and some training in the soft skills.
  • Find an apprenticeship
    • Apprenticeships can range from highly structured to relatively loosely structured. The employer may bring someone in from the outside or work with internal employees to blend coursework with on-the-job training. Often these programs end in full-time employment or advancement. Apprenticeships directly impact hard skills and some training in the soft skills.
  • Apply for an internship
    • Internships are shorter-term working relationships frequently offered in conjunction with credit from a college. While internships may be paid or unpaid, they focus on giving the employee new skills.  Some of these arrangements are not well structured, so the employee must reach agreement with the employer about the skills to be earned in exchange for their valuable labor. Internships directly impact hard skills and some training in the soft skills.

Stages of Career Development

Career experts say that people will change careers (not to mention jobs) five to seven times in a lifetime, so your career will likely not be a straight and narrow path. Be sure to set goals and assess your interests, skills, and values often.

In thinking about the values one finds in a career, there is the value of what the outcome is and the value of the way it is achieved. In searching for the right career, the employer match is better when both are aligned.

Various experts break down the broad phases of a career with different labels. Let’s start with this interview with Brian Fetherstonhaugh from Forbes magazine. It helps us start to think about what phase of a career we are in while offering a reminder of how we will help others with their progression.

To pull career development in for closer examination, here are some more bite-size thoughts about the stages of a career. This is good to think about as we examine how to best benefit from the first growing stage of choosing a career.

See if you can remember a time in your childhood when you noticed somebody doing professional work. Maybe a nurse or doctor, dressed in a lab coat, was listening to your heartbeat. Maybe a worker at a construction site, decked in a hard hat, was operating noisy machinery. Maybe a cashier at the checkout line in a grocery store was busily scanning bar codes. Each day in your young life you could have seen a hundred people doing various jobs. Surely some of the experiences drew your interest and appealed to your imagination.

If you can recall any such times, those are moments from the beginning stage of your career development.

What exactly is career development? It’s a lifelong process in which we become aware of, interested in, knowledgeable about, and skilled in a career. It’s a key part of human development as our identities forms and our lives unfold.

There are five main stages of career development. Each stage correlates with attitudes, behaviors, and relationships we all tend to have at that point and age. As we progress through each stage and reach the milestones identified, we prepare to move on to the next one.

Which stage of career development do you feel you are in currently? Think about each stage. What challenges are you facing now? Where are you headed?

# STAGE DESCRIPTION
1 GROWING This is a time in early years (4–13 years old) when you begin to have a sense about the future. You begin to realize that your participation in the world is related to being able to do certain tasks and accomplish certain goals.
2 EXPLORING This period begins when you are a teenager, and it extends into your mid-twenties. In this stage you find that you have specific interests and aptitudes. You are aware of your inclinations to perform and learn about some subjects more than others. You may try out jobs in your community or at your school. You may begin to explore a specific career. At this stage, you have some detailed “data points” about careers, which will guide you in certain directions.
3 ESTABLISHING This period covers your mid-twenties through mid-forties. By now you are selecting or entering a field you consider suitable, and you are exploring job opportunities that will be stable. You are also looking for upward growth, so you may be thinking about an advanced degree.
4 MAINTAINING This stage is typical for people in their mid-forties to mid-sixties. You may be in an upward pattern of learning new skills and staying engaged. But you might also be merely “coasting and cruising” or even feeling stagnant. You may be taking stock of what you’ve accomplished and where you still want to go.
5 REINVENTING In your mid-sixties, you are likely transitioning into retirement. But retirement in our technologically advanced world can be just the beginning of a new career or pursuit—a time when you can reinvent yourself. There are many new interests to pursue, including teaching others what you’ve learned, volunteering, starting online businesses, consulting, etc.

Keep in mind that your career-development path is personal to you, and you may not fit neatly into the categories described above. Perhaps your socioeconomic background changes how you fit into the schema. Perhaps your physical and mental abilities affect how you define the idea of a “career.” And for everyone, too, there are factors of chance that can’t be predicted or anticipated. You are unique, and your career path can only be developed by you.

Practice Question

Career Support

Career Development Office on Campus

Whether you are a student, a graduate, or even an employer, you can obtain invaluable career development assistance at your college or university. Campus career centers can support, guide, and empower you in every step of the career development process, from initial planning to achieving lifelong career satisfaction.

Many colleges open their career centers to current students or alumni.

Books on Career Development

Going to college or taking courses for a certificate program is one of the best steps you can take to prepare for a career. But soon-to-be or recently graduated students are not necessarily guaranteed jobs. Staying educated about strategies for developing your career and finding new jobs will help you manage ongoing transitions. The book The Secret to Getting a Job After College: Marketing Tactics to Turn Degrees into Dollars, by Larry Chiagouris, was written specifically to help recent grads increase their chances of finding a job right after college. It speaks to students in all majors and provides tips and tactics to attract the attention of an employer and successfully compete with other candidates to get the job you want.

The following video provides an introduction to the book. You can download a transcript of the video “The Secret to Getting a Job After College” here.

Career Roadmap

You can use the Career Roadmap, from DePaul University, to evaluate where you are and where you want to be in your career/careers. It can help you decide if you want to change career paths and can guide you in searching for a new job. The road map identifies the following four cyclical steps:

  1. Know yourself
  2. Explore and choose options
  3. Gain knowledge and experience
  4. Put it all together: the job search process

Internet Sites for Career Planning

There are many excellent, free resources available.

Visit the Internet Sites for Career Planning Web site at the National Career Development Association’s site. You will find extensive, definitive, and frequently updated information on a wealth of topics there. What is fun and helpful are the number of self-assessment activities offered.

Paid Agencies

As with all tasks in life, one may always pay a career placement firm or counselor for advice and support. These services will take time to evaluate and then require payment. In many instances, the same answers may be obtained from the other options listed here.


  1. ReviseSociology. "What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?" ReviseSociology.com. 16 Aug 2016. Web. 10 July 2018.