Skip to main content
Business LibreTexts

14.2: Professional Skill Building

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

    There is no doubt a huge percent of life is spent at work. If you were to work 40 hours a week and live to 70 years old, 35 percent of total waking hours of your life is spent at work.[1] Considering how much time is spent in a work environment having the right skills will 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 acquiring skills.

    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 to 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 easily quantify, 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 probably transfer your soft skills from one time period to another!

    practice question

    Jasmine earned a two-year (AS) degree in Chemistry from the local community college. She had always loved science. To put herself through, school she worked as the front desk employee as at local retirement home for three years. She now wonders if that means she can only apply for jobs at chemical companies like “Lab Assistant." Is she right?

    • Yes. If science is her best skills, she should only look in that industry.
    • No. Employers look at more than education.
    • Maybe. It either has to do with chemicals or with receptionist jobs.

    No. Employers look at more than education.

    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 transferrable 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.

    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

    Marshall spent the last three summers and part of the school year working as a lifeguard. Now he wants to earn an internship to better prepare him for life after college. Which of the following is the best list of skills to emphasize based on this work experience?

    • Microsoft office suite proficient, GPA 3.8, Accounting Minor
    • Decision-making, Communication, Analytical
    • Lifeguard Water Safety Certification, Punctuality, First Aid Training

    Decision-making, Communication, Analytical

    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 here. As you watch this video, begin to think about which of these you might have and how you will demonstrate these to a potential employer in your employment documents and employment meetings.


    How to Find a New Job–Transferable Job Skills

    If you are an international student, or perhaps English is an additional language, the following video may especially appeal to you. It 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 in English.


    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:

    • This checklist of transferable skills from Community Employment Services in Woodstock, Ontario.
    • This article from Princeton University on Transferable Skills including interpersonal, organizational, leadership, communication skills.
    • The My Skills My Future skills matcher, which asks you for a past or current job and finds jobs with similar skills.
    •, which is (as it says in the name) your one stop for career exploration.

    Acquiring Necessary Skills

    “Lifelong learning” is a buzz phrase in the twentieth-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.

    Where do the world's content strategists' skills lie? 265 surveyed content strategists were asked to indicate their abilities, knowledge, and skills by choosing from a predetermined list. Accessibility, 27%. Community management, 24%. Content analysis, 79%. Content curation, 62%. Content development, 84%. Content management, 80% Content sourcing, 49%. Creative direction, 42%. Digital marketing, 40%. Editorial strategy, 71% Information architecture, 66%. Interface design, 28%. Interaction design, 25%. Localization, 12%. Project management, 60%. Search engine optimization, 41%. Technical communication, 34%. User experience design, 51%. Web writing/editing, 86%. Other, 16%.

    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 at a table. For public speaking, try Toastmasters. “Meet and speak. Speak and write.”
    • Be reachable. Publish your email so that people can contact you. Don’t worry about spam.
    • Learn about computers and computing, even if you aren’t gearing for a career in information technology. Learn something entirely new every six to twelve months.
    • Build relationships within your community. Use tools like and search for clubs at local schools, libraries, and centers. Then, seek out remote people around the country and world. Learn about them and their projects first by searching the Internet.
    • Attend conferences and events. This is a great way to network with people and meet them face-to-face.
    • Find a project and get involved. Start reading questions and answers, then start answering questions.
    • 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

    Shannon was at her usual Saturday Starbucks meeting Becky. She really wanted to talk about her frustration at work. She knew her work was good—her reviews and boss said so. She even volunteered whenever anyone asked for help. But just last week Fred left for a similar company where is his softball friend worked for $5000 more a year. Additionally, just yesterday the woman who shared her cubicle got a promotion to a neighboring department—the same department that put on career seminar. Why didn’t anything good to her? Which of the following is likely the best advice from Becky?

    • "Shannon, you must be doing something wrong and they aren't telling you. Do you have your resume ready to go in case they fire you. I'd be worried."
    • "Shannon you are great employee, and they know that. Why don't you ask to go to the next Thursday through Saturday seminar?"
    • "Shannon, sounds like you are doing everything right. You just need to be patient and wait your turn."

    "Shannon you are great employee, and they know that. Why don't you ask to go to the next Thursday through Saturday seminar?"

    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 in 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 4-year colleges with Bachelor degrees and sometimes high costs. Others are becoming more aware of 2-year colleges with Associate degrees and lower costs. What many miss out on are the Continuing Education classes taught at the college or community college. These are frequently very affordable and allow the learner to focus on the entry level skill is specific areas. Most degree programs provide hard skills and some training in the soft skills.
    • Find an apprenticeship
      • Apprenticeships can be highly structured or less so. The employer may bring some one in from the outside or work with internal employees coupling coursework with on the job training. Usually 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 valuable labor. It is to the employee’s benefit to realize that even while learning the work is getting done and ask that the job be paid. 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 by FORBES magazine. It helps us start to think about what phase of a career we are in, while offering the reminder of how we will help others with their progression.


    To pull career development in for closer examination, here is 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 identity forms and our life unfolds.

    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?

    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 stills 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 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

    Marcus had been working for his Fortune 500 company for ten years. First he was a line worker at an hourly pay; then he became a team lead. Just now he got a big promotion from hourly employee to his first supervisory position. It was exciting, but it felt like somewhat of a setback when is new boss said, “I’m so glad to have you working on the team. Please know that it will take you up to 18 months before you will be truly comfortable. You and I will meet weekly for the first 6 months. You should consider making use of the company tuition reimbursement plan to finish your college degree.” Marcus thought he had reached the maintaining not exploring part of his career. Is he correctly assessing his career position?

    • No, Marcus is likely in neither of these stages.
    • Yes, Marcus is likely in the maintain stage of his career.
    • No, Marcus is likely in the exploring stage of his career.

    No, Marcus is likely in neither of these stages.

    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 author 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 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 the money to pay for. 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?" 16 Aug 2016. Web. 10 July 2018.