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How to Actually Acquire the 10 Most Valuable Career Skills in Your Spare Time

How to Actually Acquire the 10 Most Valuable Career Skills in Your Spare Time

Money Magazine recently printed an article in their June issue (page 45, June ’16) that lists the most valuable career skills that a person can have as ranked by the wage premium that such skills generate on average (here it is online).

In other words, they evaluated a ton of different skills that companies look for in their job postings and then evaluated how much higher those jobs paid on average than similar jobs that didn’t include those skills.

For example, a lab technician job that includes a requirement for the “data modeling” skill commands, on average, a 5% higher salary than a lab technician job that does not include that requirement.

To me, this kind of list is an incredibly valuable resource for people who are looking to improve their income and move ahead in their career path. It specifically identifies the exact skills that companies are willing to pay a premium for!

However, the article didn’t quite follow through in all of the ways that it might. The article offers some great general advice on how to acquire these skills, but it really doesn’t go into the specifics of what one might need to do to add these skills to their skill set (and their resume) in a meaningful way. It just provides a list and some very general ideas on furthering one’s education.

I wanted to go a little further than that, so I took the top 10 items on the list and did a little homework (and, in a few cases, quite a lot of homework) to figure out what a person could do in their spare time to add that skill to their resume and skillset in a meaningful way that would help them improve their earning potential and career opportunities.

Before we dig in, I want to mention one giant caveat. Not all of these skills line up well for every career. In fact, in most careers, only one or two of these skills will really make sense. It is definitely up to you to determine whether or not these skills really fit in well with the career you happen to find yourself in (or hope to find yourself in). You are far better off becoming really strong in one or two of these skills that are really well connected to and useful to your field than being mediocre in several skills.

Here’s what I found.

SAS (Statistical Analysis System) – 6.1% Premium

SAS is a suite of software developed by the SAS Institute for the purpose of data analytics. People use SAS in order to find patterns and trends and useful things in large data sets.

This is a specific flavor of skill related to data mining, which is an incredibly popular skill these days (as you’ll see on the rest of the list). In my experience (as I was once a fairly heavy user of the software), it falls into what I would describe as light computer programming specifically done to solve problems with data. It’s a skill that’s likely useful to anyone in business or in a technical field that ever does anything associated with sets of data of any significant size.

So, how do you acquire this skill?

The most obvious thing you can do is to get into the SAS Global Certification program. This is a series of classes and exams that will end up providing a certification if you know your stuff when it comes to SAS. However, the exam preparation materials that SAS themselves sell is quite expensive.

So, another good way to learn the basics of SAS and how to actually apply it to real world problems at a much, much lower price (i.e., potentially free) is to take the Learn Data Science Fundamentals specialization on Coursera, which consists of four courses and a capstone project. Doing that will earn a certificate of completion which, while not as big of a standout on a resume as the actual certification, will still teach you the skill and is resume worthy. You can also individually complete the four courses without the certification and without the capstone project for free.

The SAS software itself is very expensive, so this skill is probably easiest to acquire in the workplace if your workplace already has SAS (which many workplaces that use lots of data do). Check with your boss as to whether your workplace has a SAS license and make sure it’s okay to use it for personal learning before diving in (it probably will be and your boss will likely be impressed with your personal initiative).

Data Mining / Data Warehousing – 5.1% Premium

The number two item on the list is in many ways just a general version of the first item on the list – after all, SAS is a specific tool used for data mining. This skill also expands into dealing with the need to store and secure large quantities of data as well, not just in the analysis of that data.

So, again, how can someone acquire this skill in a resume-friendly fashion?

If you’re looking for an inexpensive approach, there are two specializations at Coursera that fit the bill here. First, Harness Business Data is a great series of four courses on the concepts and practice of data warehousing, including some great practical exercises and projects. I’d also point at the four course specialization mentioned earlier, Learn Data Science Fundamentals. Again, as I mentioned earlier, you can pay a fee to get an official certification for these specializations and the courses within (along with a capstone project for each) or you can just take the courses for free without a certificate of completion (though you can still demonstrate that you completed those courses).

If you’re looking for a more “industry standard” certification and are willing to pay for it, The Data Warehousing Institute has been a standard certification for a while for people wanting to get a respected certification in data warehousing. It’s fairly pricy, but you’ll learn a great deal in the process and you’ll have a certification that people will value.

Another option is to earn Stanford University’s Mining Massive Data Sets Graduate Certificate. While it’s very pricy, the courses are taught by top notch people and it’s got the Stanford University name on it, which absolutely can’t hurt.

Do you need the expensive SAS software mentioned above to do these things? While SAS is obviously worthwhile (as described above), you can complete most of (if not all of) the things above using the free programming language Python, which is already on most Macs and is easily installed on Windows computers. Python is a good fundamental skill to have and to list on a resume as well and there are many opportunities to learn it very cheaply or even for free; I really like the learning environment at CodeAcademy and it’s mostly free.

Search Engine Marketing – 5.0% Premium

Search engine marketing is the art of getting websites and individual web pages listed in prominent places on search engines, especially Google and to a lesser extent Bing and Yahoo!. There’s a litany of strategies and tricks to doing this that all fall under the umbrella of “search engine marketing” or “search engine optimization.”

This is an area where there really isn’t a widely respected certification of any kind. Instead, most companies that look for this skill are looking for practical experience, such as taking a website and having it rank well in search engines when people search for a potentially popular phrase or word. They’re much more interested in the conclusion of a search engine marketing project than any certification.

So, how can you learn this?

The best course I’ve found for search engine marketing is the SEO Training Course by Moz available at Udemy for free. It does a great job of grounding you in the basics of search engine optimization and gives you everything you need to take on a search engine optimization project of your own.

The real key, though, is actually executing such a project on your own. You might consider doing this for the website of the company you currently work for or for the website of a group or organization you participate in. Simply take the techniques that you learn from the course and actually apply them to that website. Attempt to improve that site’s rankings on relevant keywords, then see if there’s any improvement in traffic on the site in question. Those project results will provide the valuable element you need for your resume.

Data Modeling – 5.0% Premium

Data modeling is the practice of defining a way to organize information that describes something in a clear fashion that can later be searched, retrieved, and analyzed.

For example, a person with data modeling skills might be challenged to come up with a way to organize data that could be used to fully describe a particular new product line or, in my own personal experience, a particular variation of a plant. What is distinct about these things? How can you store that distinct data so that it’s useful in the future?

In terms of a strong introduction to data modeling at a reasonable price, the free Coursera course Model Thinking can provide a very thorough background on the field. While it’s not a professional certification, it is a great way to get your grounding in the field and gain an understanding of what specifically you may want to study or know that would be useful for your field, which can launch you toward something more tailored to your specific situation. If you have a more business-oriented approach, the Business and Financial Modeling sequence of courses might be more specifically useful.

The leading tool used in the data modeling field is ERwin, though many, many other tools are used. It is well worth your time to figure out which specific tools are used in data modeling related to the specific career path you’re in and do what it takes to learn and earn certifications for those specific tools. If you’re not sure, take a look at job positions related to your field that include data modeling and see what tools they’re looking for.

Contract Negotiation – 5.0% Premium

The ability to negotiate a contract is invaluable in many fields. So much of today’s professional world revolves around business arrangements between businesses and individuals as well as contracts between businesses, and well-written and strongly negotiated contracts are vital to the success of all involved parties. People who can negotiate those contracts are really in demand.

The catch is that this isn’t really a skill you can get certified for. Your best approach is to get a strong background on the basics of how to figure out what the needs of each party are and how to negotiate through those needs to come up with a solution that benefits all parties (particularly the one you’re negotiating for). This is often best done through practice and experience.

If you want to get started building this skill, I’d get some basic background in contract negotiation. One great way to get the basics for free is through the Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills course at Coursera. While this alone isn’t likely resume worthy, it will get you some of the basics that you need to build upon.

After that, look for opportunities in your current workplace to get involved in contract negotiations. Any time that there are contracts being negotiated, volunteer to be involved in that process or even to manage that process, and then apply those principles in a real situation. The more you negotiate, the easier it becomes and the stronger your skills become.

The resume-worthy part of this is being able to list contracts that you’ve actually negotiated, which can clearly fulfill a potential employer’s desire for contract negotiation skills.

Software Development – 4.9% Premium

Software development is the entirety of the process needed to take a piece of software from concept to finished product. Typically, it revolves around the actual programming aspects, as well as the organization and management of the computer code generated throughout the project.

In other words, to nail this skill, you need to not only be able to write computer programs, you also need to be able to use tools that manage lots of code used by a multitude of people all working on the same project.

Most universities offer entire degree programs centered around this topic, so it’s a skill that’s not necessarily one you can pick up in a few months in your spare time. Learning software development is a long process, no matter how you slice it. However, software development is a perfect thing to learn as a side gig. It’s also something that you can show off in terms of being involved in a noteworthy finished product.

Your first step would be to find out what particular specific skills would be useful in your field. If someone is developing software that’s related to what you’re doing, what languages are they using? What tools are they using? Look for projects related to your field and find out. Some fields rely heavily on Python and use tools like cvs. Others use the Microsoft suite of tools. Others might write in C and use Github or Sourceforge. It really depends on your field and the specific needs of that field.

Once you know what you need to know, take online courses to learn those specific languages and tools. CodeAcademy is a great place to start for many computer languages.

Once you’ve worked through some projects on your own, get involved with an open source project. This is perhaps the best way to build software development skills in your spare time. It’s going to feel like jumping into the deep end of the pool, so perhaps start with a small project that’s related to your field. Look through the code and the organization of that code and see what you can do to contribute to that code to add new features or fix bugs. After a while, you’ll be listed as a contributor to those projects, at which point you have a great resume line that shows off your software development skills.

Strategic Project Management – 4.4% Premium

Strategic project management refers to the management of a project so that it’s fully in alignment with the overall vision and strategy of the business as a whole. The goal isn’t just to finish a project as stated, but to have an array of outcomes that all benefit the overall strategy of the business. It’s sometimes also called “advanced project management” or “enterprise project management.”

While you can certainly study this in business school, most of the actual skill (and benefit) of strategic project management comes from actually practicing it with real projects on the ground.

So, how can you do that? The first step, of course, is to actually manage projects. You should look for opportunities in the workplace to take on the management of projects of any size, building your overall project management expertise. If there’s a chance to lead a project, jump on it.

Along the way, I recommend finding a mentor in your field who actually has a lot of experience managing projects, preferably someone that’s already progressed down your career path to a place you hope to be someday. Take that person out to lunch. Look for advice from that person. Ask that person questions. Give that person help whenever you can.

As you’re doing this, learn about the basic principles of strategic project management. One very highly regarded book that’s well worth reading is Strategic Project Management Made Simple by Terry Schmidt. What you’ll find is that strategic project management principles mix in quite well with the normal ins and outs of project management – it just gives you a new context and new tools for making decisions.

Project leadership on a resume is always good; amping it up with a strategic angle is even better.

Strategic Planning – 4.3% Premium

So, what’s the flip side of strategic project management? It’s strategic planning – coming up with the broader plan that is directly implemented through strategically-managed projects. As Wikipedia puts it, “[s]trategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.”

Again, although there’s a good certification program in the field, the best way to get this on your resume is through actual work experience, and the best way to get started is to get involved in your workplace. Look for any and all opportunities to get involved in long-term planning groups and committees. You can – and should – also look for opportunities for strategic planning in organizations outside the workplace, as this is an activity that many nonprofits engage in as well. Get involved with community groups and look for chances to be involved in their strategic planning.

To learn more about strategic planning as you also acquire experience, take a look at this free Coursera course from the University of Virginia entitled Strategic Planning and Execution. You can take it as a free standalone course, but it’s also part of an overall sequence of courses on business strategy. There are few better ways to build a skill than to learn in a classroom environment and then immediately apply what you’ve learned.

The top certification for strategic planning is the Association for Strategic Planning’s Strategic Planning Professional certification, which actually has a requirement that you either have to be involved in strategic planning at your job or you’ve taken requisite business classes for it. This certification is a great way to hammer home strategic planning as a part of your resume and can definitely help improve your skills as a strategic planner, although nothing trumps true experience in strategic planning.

Technical Sales – 4.3% Premium

Technical sales refers to the practice of a salesperson who is responsible for selling a complex technical product to a customer. This requires not only strong sales skills, but also sound backing in the nuance and purpose of the product and how it can be used by the customer. Selling lab equipment to a research lab is a great example of technical sales.

Often, technical sales as a skill is built by people already within the field who add sales skills to their existing technical knowledge, so take that as a starting point. Rather than looking to study technical sales as an independent thing, invest your time in learning about salesmanship in general and try applying it to the real situations you see in your field.

Sales in general is more of an art than something you can study, so just look for opportunities in the workplace to be involved in selling technical products. What does your company make? Do they employ salespeople? Can others within the company get involved in that training? Are you serviced by salespeople? How did they get trained, and how can you get into that?

If you’re looking for a course to take that might assist you, many people speak highly of the Hubspot Inbound Certification and Training, which is a general marketing and sales course that’s free and actually appears on many resumes.

A key book that is frequently recommended for people interested in pursuing technical sales is Mastering Technical Sales 3rd Edition by John Care and Aron Bohlig. This would serve as a strong supplemental read to the other activities described here.

Customer Service Metrics – 4.3% Premium

Customer service metrics refers to the generation and analysis of data designed to measure the quality and efficiency of customer service. Such data is often used to make management decisions regarding customer service.

As with many of the other items on this list, the best way to start building knowledge and experience in the area of customer service metrics is to get involved with them in your own workplace. How is customer service managed? How is the success of it measured? At a small or medium sized company, you’ll often find ample opportunity to run with this idea as many small businesses are very limited in how they measure and evaluate customer service. Getting involved in implementing a customer service metrics project and then showing how the data was used to improve customer service without a major increase in cost is a spectacular resume builder.

But where do you start? A great free introductory class in using metrics for business, particularly in the customer service area, is Business Metrics for Data-Driven Companies, offered for free by Duke University through Coursera. This course will give you the basics on how companies generate and use data to evaluate and improve their own performance and will give you a great starting point.

The best certification for customer service metrics that’s available is the COPC Standards certification. That certification provides a solid all-around certification for the management and planning of customer service departments as well as the use of and generation of metrics that you can use to measure the success of your customer service department as well as measure the efficiency of your customer engagements. This is a great item to have on a resume if you’re shooting to get that customer service metrics pay premium.

Final Thoughts

All of these options provide a great opportunity for you to bolster your resume and open yourself up to significant increases in pay as you move up the career ladder. However, there are a few general tips that I consider vital.

Focus only on skills that make sense on your career path. Don’t use this as some kind of checklist. Instead, seek out just the top one or two skills that really make sense in the field that you’re in and that interest you.

Classes and certifications and books are great, but always be looking to apply what you learn. Try to find situations where you can put these things you learn into practice in a professional context. One great way to do this is to be mentored by someone who has that skill or to be a part of a team with more experienced people on it. That way, you get a chance to learn and practice these skills without having all of it thrust on your shoulders immediately. Another great way is to treat your experience as a “side project.” Maybe your boss will let you spend five hours a week setting up some customer service metrics at work so that even if it doesn’t work out it’s not a big loss to the business.

It’s going to take some significant spare time to learn these skills, and probably some cash, too. Building skills takes time. It’s not something you can just do in an evening. You have to work at it. Not only that, certifications in general aren’t free and university courses are very expensive. If you’re going to commit to building a skill, commit to it. Block off time each day for building that skill, whether through reading, practice, coursework, certification, or something else.

In the end, it’s all about taking that next step in your career path so that your earnings and opportunities go up and up and up. These skills are an investment of time and money; they just happen to be ones that seem to have a great opportunity to earn a nice return on your investment.

Good luck!

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