Millennials Need To Expand Job Skills To Advance Careers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — What set 23-year-old Zach Roberts apart from his Millennial peers during his job search were the leadership skills developed and honed during an internship and his business school’s two-year career development program.

The general skills Roberts learned throughout the program as a mentor to other students at Wisconsin Business School in Madison played a role in his ability to get a job offer this spring as a business leadership program associate at LinkedIn, the San Francisco professional networking company.

Roberts also had enhanced his skills of communication and leadership by participating in a peer mentoring student organization for three years as an undergrad at Wisconsin, serving as a teaching assistant at the business school for two years and working as an account strategist intern at Google last year.

“My extracurricular involvement and work experience were the two most significant factors, because it taught me how I could apply my classroom learning to solve real world problems,” he said.

Employers are seeking candidates to demonstrate both strong general and specific skills, especially as they advance in their career, said Michael Gritton, executive director of Kentuckiana Works, the Louisville, Ky.-based regional workforce investment board.

Millennials who obtain specific skills in a certain industry though a college degree or industry credentials have an advantage, because the “path to your first job is more clear,” he said.

The drawback is that Gen Y-ers still need to work on their general skills to “thrive in a fast-changing economy,” Gritton said. “If you thought you eliminated that risk by majoring in a specific field, you'll soon find out your assumption was false.”

General Skills Applicable in Any Industry

Businesses are looking for candidates who have "employability skills,” he said. These may appear to be common knowledge, but managers place value on people who show up on time, work in a team environment, take direction from a supervisor and demonstrate critical thinking skills for problem solving, he said.

The downside of only pursuing general skills is that the candidate may not fit into a position easily. This person may have to work harder by finding his niche and then “proving you can thrive in it,” Gritton said.

Realizing that general skills can not be applied in every situation or project is crucial, said James Jeffries, director of career development at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college in Great Barrington, Mass. for students of high school age.

“Don't assume that because you can write a good memo, you can also write a white paper or a grant proposal,” he said.

Specific Skills Are An Advantage

Many employers are now hiring for specific skills and candidates need to show they are proficient in them to even get an interview, said Joe Weinlick, the senior vice president of marketing for Beyond, a King of Prussia, Penn. career website. Acquiring those skills are a must, but it is now easier with the proliferation of online education resources.

“Years ago, acquiring these skills often meant going back to school, which requires a lot of time and money,” he said. Now there are companies like Udemy, a company Beyond recently partnered with that provides job seekers with training specifically related to the jobs that they are pursuing.

Millennials should work on cultivating soft skills such as communications and teamwork, especially since many managers believe they lack those abilities, Weinlick said.

“Our research shows that 11% of HR professionals don't see Millennials as hard working,” said Weinlick. “Demonstrating persistence in pursuing a very specific skill that a company needs kills two birds with one stone. It adds the skill to your resume, while also demonstrating work ethic.”

Adopting and learning specific skills will help you advance in your career, even if it occurred during an internship. Alex Moffitt interned at Jawbone, the San Francisco-based wearable tech company, during the summers of 2012 and 2013 and recognized the importance of setting goals to develop specific skills. Younger employees should focus on their goals instead of considering the infinite number of possibilities, he said.

“We usually know somewhere deep down what we really want, but we lose sight of those dreams,” said Moffit, who is now a product marketer at BetterWorks, a Palo Alto, Calif. cloud platform company. “By keeping your truest goals clear, you narrow your options and already set yourself up for specialization, rather than directionless generalization.”

While some people believe that you can spend your 20s and 30s trying out different careers, this philosophy can backfire and instead signal a lack of commitment to potential employers, Moffit said. When you follow a specific career, you have more freedom to explore and have different experiences along a “vertical spectrum, as opposed to jumping from lily pad to lily pad at sea level,” he said.

“You are greater than the sum of your parts, including your skills,” Moffit said. “Skills are dynamic and can always be improved.”

Since many people get hired from friends or second degree connections on LinkedIn, employers could be more impressed with someone who has expertise in one area.

“You don’t want to be a Lemming,” he said. “If you think, behave and act just like everyone else who has your skills, your contributions won’t be unique. The most creative people in the world are those who can draw connections between disparate objects, concepts and ideas.”

Developing a skill properly will help advance your career. Since excellent communication is a “really hard skill to master, you won't get all the professional value out of it unless you treat it like a hard skill,” Jeffries said. “You don't become a master speaker just by talking a lot.”

How To Build Your Skillset

Seek out strong mentors early on in your career to help you narrow down your specialty and accept projects which challenge your skills. This will help you figure out your strengths and what you are truly interested in, Moffit said.

Millennials need specific skills because too many generalists are graduating, said John Addison, CEO of Addison Leadership Group in Gainesville, Ga. Competition is fierce, and to advance in your career, you have to balance for both specific and general abilities.

“You do need to be able to see over your cubicle wall and be aware that there are other skills that are important,” he said.

Blending Both Skills

Being concerned about which skills to develop is critical, because 47% of jobs are predicted to be replaced by computerization in the next decade or two, according to Carl Benedict Frey and Michael A. Osborne, researchers for Oxford Martin School in the U.K. who wrote a widely cited research paper about the future of U.S. employment.

Choosing fields that require “creativity and high-level conceptual thinking” will give you greater options, said Karie Willyerd, a senior vice president, at SuccessFactors, a San Francisco-based human capital software company.

The winning combination of skills requires honed skills such as finance, architecture or software engineering and emotional intelligence, she said.

“Emotional intelligence is necessary to collaborate with others in an increasingly complex work environment and helps you perform better in interviews and navigate organizational politics,” said Willyerd.

What Employers Are Seeking

Employees who have the ability to work in an open and collaborative environment tend to thrive, because they are willing to learn new skills and teach others, said Laura Yip, co-founder of Storm8, a Redwood City, Calif. mobile game network company.

A dynamic person who has the creativity to solve problems is a must, because there is never one solution for technical problems. This is also an acute skill that you can’t teach an employee or learn from a book, she said.

“We need people who are smart and move fast on their feet to solve the myriads of challenges we face daily,” Yip added.

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