16 Professional Skill Building and Career Development

Sonji Nicholas

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe skills for a career, including hard, soft, and transferable skills

painting of a cobbler and his apprentice

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 healthcare field back then, just like today, employers looked for professionals with scientific acumen, active listening skills, service orientation, oral comprehension abilities, and teamwork skills. In the financial field back 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 that there 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; 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!

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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.

Specific Skills Necessary for Your Career Path

A skill is something you can do, say, or think right now. It’s what an employer expects you to bring to the workplace to improve the overall operations of the organization.

The table below lists four resources to help you determine which concrete skills are needed for all kinds of professions. You can even discover where you might gain some of the skills and which courses you might take.

Spend some time reviewing each resource. You will find many interesting and exciting options. When you’re finished, you may decide that there are so many interesting professions in the world that it’s difficult to choose just one. This is a good problem to have!

Professional Skills Resources
1 Career Aptitude Test (Rasmussen College) This test helps you match your skills to a particular career that’s right for you. Use a sliding scale to indicate your level of skill in the following skill areas: artistic, interpersonal, communication, managerial, mathematics, mechanical, and science. Press the Update Results button and receive a customized list customized of career suggestions tailored to you, based on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can filter by salary, expected growth, and education.
2 Skills Profiler (Career OneStop from the U.S. Department of Labor) Use the Skills Profiler to create a list of your skills, and match your skills to job types that use those skills. Plan to spend about 20 minutes completing your profile. You can start with a job type to find skills you need for a current or future job. Or if you are not sure what kind of job is right for you, start by rating your own skills to find a job type match. When your skills profile is complete, you can print it or save it.
3 O*Net OnLine This US government website helps job seekers answer two of their toughest questions: “What jobs can I get with my skills and training?” and “What skills and training do I need to get this job?” Browse groups of similar occupations to explore careers. Choose from industry, field of work, science area, and more. Focus on occupations that use a specific tool or software. Explore occupations that need your skills. Connect to a wealth of O*NET data. Enter a code or title from another classification to find the related O*NET-SOC occupation.
4 Suggested Courses to Develop Skills that Prospective Employers Want (Psych Web) If you are trying to strengthen particular skills, certain courses may be helpful. The list at this site is based on courses offered on many campuses and some of the skills the courses emphasize.

Transferable Skills

Transferable (soft) skills may be used in multiple professions. They include, but are by no means limited to, the 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.

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.

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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.

Note that the video above has no narration. You can view the transcript for “10 top skills that will get you a job when you graduate” here (opens in new window).

How to Find a New Job—Transferable Job Skills

If you are an international student, or if English is your second 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.

You can view the transcript for “How to find a new job—Transferable Job Skills” here (opens in new window).

For more extensive exploration, visit this checklist of transferable skills from Community Employment Services in Woodstock, Ontario.


Acquiring Necessary Skills

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain how to acquire necessary career skills, both in and out of class

Lifelong learning is a buzz phrase in the twentieth-first century because we are awash in new technology and information all the time, and 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?

Strategies for Gaining Skills

Personal Projects

Engaging in personal projects is a great, self-directed way to gain skills. Not only will your personal project be motivating because it’s something solely designed and implemented with your own interests in mind, but you will likely need to learn new skills to complete your project. This project means that you’ll have a concrete and (hopefully) exciting goal to help keep you motivated to learn new skills, and at the end, you’ll have a finished product you might potentially be able to make part of your work portfolio.

Online Courses

You are likely to take at least one online course while you’re pursuing your formal degree program.  Additionally, there are lots of opportunities available to take online courses on pretty much any skill you’d be interested in learning. You can learn more informally from YouTube videos or you could sign up for a course on Udemy or another platform that offers a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

Part-Time Work

You may already be working part-time while you are in school, or perhaps you’re considering it. Taking on work can be about more than just a paycheck if you have the opportunity to pick a job that will continue to build your skillset. Think about what skills you’d like to learn and then take a look at the job offerings around campus to see if there’s a good match. You might find the experience invaluable.

Volunteer Opportunities

Another way you can build your skills and your social network is through volunteering. Volunteering could be a weekly or monthly commitment, or maybe more often. Take a look at what opportunities are available around you for volunteering, and if any of those opportunities seem like a good fit for you both in what your passions are and in helping you grow in ways you’re interested in growing.

Join a Friend

You’re likely to meet a lot of people in school who have many different experiences and interests. Make the most of your differences by joining your new friends in the things they love to do. Maybe you could join your friend on a volunteer day or take up rock climbing with an experienced partner. You can tap into your social network to learn new skills and experiences if you’re brave enough to try something new. Let your friends help you out on this one!  There are numerous diverse events taking place on all FSW campuses and centers each week during the semester so check Bucs Corner frequently for information on student engagement activities.

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 joining 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 Meetup.com 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. These are a great way to network with people and meet them face-to-face.  Your professors are a great source of information on conferences within their disciplines so let them know of your interest.
  • 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!

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.

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Career Development

Learning Outcomes

  • Explore factors in career development including the development stages and career development resources

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 barcodes. Each day in your life you could have seen a hundred people doing various jobs. Surely some of the jobs drew your interest and appealed to your imagination.

What Is 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 growth as our identity forms and our life unfolds.

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

Five Stages of Career Development

Which stage of career development do you feel you are in currently?

1: Growing

During the “growing” stage, 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

In the “exploring” 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

By now, in the “establishing” stage, 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

In the “maintaining” stage, 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 the “reinventing” stage, you might be 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. Reinventing might also happen if you choose to switch careers, which is a common switch.

Keep in mind that your career-development path is personal to you, and you may not fit neatly into the categories described above. Perhaps you have had many establishing stages and have then moved on to reinventing. Perhaps you are a freelancer and work in many different areas at once, continuing to explore your opportunities for a time. 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.

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Career Development Resources

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. Seek opportunities for career growth and enrichment. And take advantage of the rich set of resources available to you.

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. At FSW, the Career Services Office can support, guide, and empower you in every step of the career development process, from initial planning to achieving lifelong career satisfaction.

Books on Career Development

Going to college 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. This book 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 view the transcript for “The Secret to Getting a Job After College” here (opens in new window).

the best career books

Check out this article on the Best Career Books of 2021 for additional resources to help you explore your career options.

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. This roadmap 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.

Carry Out Changes with Plan, Do, Check, Act

Arrows pointing in a circle. The arrows say plan, do, check, and act.
Figure 1. PDCA

PDCA (plan, do, check, act), shown in Figure 1 above, is a four-step strategy for carrying out change. You can use this strategy to evaluate where you are in the career-development process and to identify your next steps. The strategy is typically used in the business arena as a framework for improving processes and services. But you can think of your career as a personal product you are offering or selling.

  1. PLAN: What are your goals and objectives? What process will you use to get to your targets? You might want to plan smaller to begin with and test out possible effects. For instance, if you are thinking of getting into a certain career, you might plan to try it out first as an intern or a volunteer on a part-time basis. When you start on a small scale, you can test possible outcomes.
  2. DO: Implement your plan. Sell your product—which is YOU and your skills, talents, energy, and enthusiasm. Collect data as you go along; you will need it for charting and analyzing in the Check and Act steps ahead.
  3. CHECK: Look at your results so far. Are you happy with your job or wherever you are in the career-development process? How is your actual accomplishment measuring up next to your intentions and wishes? Look for where you may have deviated in your intended steps. For example, did you take a job in another city when your initial plans were for working closer to friends and family? What are the pros and cons? If you like, create a chart that shows you all the factors. With a chart, it will be easier to see trends over several PDCA cycles.
  4. ACT: How should you act going forward? What changes in planning, doing, and checking do you want to take? The PDCA framework is an ongoing process. Keep planning, doing, checking, and acting. The goal is continuous improvement.

Internet Sites for Career Planning

Visit the Internet Sites for Career Planning page at the National Career Development Association’s website. You will find extensive, definitive, and frequently updated information on a wealth of topics there.


Strategies for Networking

Learning Outcomes

  • Define network and identify strategies for networking


In the context of career development, networking is the process by which people build relationships with one another for the purpose of helping one another achieve professional goals.

When you network, you exchange information.

  • You may share business cards, résumés, cover letters, job-seeking strategies, leads about open jobs, information about companies and organizations, and information about a specific field.
  • You might also share information about meet-up groups, conferences, special events, technology tools, and social media.
  • You might also solicit job “headhunters,” career counselors, career centers, career coaches, an alumni association, family members, friends, acquaintances, and vendors.

Networking can occur anywhere and at any time. In fact, your network expands with each new relationship you establish. And the networking strategies you can employ are nearly limitless. With imagination and ingenuity, your networking can be highly successful.decorative image

How to Get Started

We live in a social world. Almost everywhere you go and anything you do professionally involves connecting with people. It stands to reason that finding a new job and advancing your career entails building relationships with these people. Truly, the most effective way to find a new job is to network, network, and network some more.

Once you acknowledge the value of networking, the challenge is figuring out how to do it. What is your first step? Whom do you contact? What do you say? How long will it take?Where do you concentrate your efforts? How do you know if your investments will pay off?

For every question you may ask, a range of strategies can be used. Begin exploring your possibilities by viewing the following energizing video, Networking Tips for College Students and Young People by Hank Blank. He recommends the following modern and no-nonsense strategies:

  1. Hope is not a plan. You need a plan of action to achieve your networking goals.
  2. Keenly focus your activities on getting a job. Use all tools available to you.
  3. You need business cards. No ifs, ands, or buts.
  4. Register your own domain name. Find your favorite geek to build you a landing page. Keep building your site for the rest of your life.
  5. Attend networking events. Most of them offer student rates.
  6. Master Linkedin because that is what human resource departments use. Post updates.
  7. Think of your parents’ friends as databases. Leverage their knowledge and their willingness to help you.
  8. Create the world you want to live in in the future by creating it today through your networking activity. These are the times to live in a world of “this is how I can help.”

You can view the transcript for “Hank Blank – Networking Tips for College Students and Young People” here (opens in new window).

See the LinkedIn for Students Website.

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International Student Series: Finding Work Using Your Networks

If you are an international student, or perhaps if English is not your native language, this video may especially appeal to you. It focuses on the importance of networking when looking for jobs and keeping an open mind. Simply talking to people can help you move from casual work to full-time employment.

You can view the transcript for “International Student Series: Finding work using your networks” here (opens in new window).

Networking Strategies at College

  • Get to know your professors: Communicating with instructors is a valuable way to learn about a career and also get letters of reference if and when needed for a job. Professors can also give you leads on job openings, internships, and research possibilities. Most instructors will readily share information and insights with you. Get to know your instructors. They are a valuable part of your network.
  • Check with your college’s alumni office: You may find that some alumni are affiliated with your field of interest and can give you the inside scoop.
  • Check with classmates: Classmates may or may not share your major, but any of them may have leads that could help you. You could be just one conversation away from a good lead.

Young man sitting at a computerNetworking Strategies at Work

  • Join professional organizations: You can meet many influential people at local and national meetings and events of professional and volunteer organizations. Learn about these organizations. See if they have membership discounts for students, or student chapters. Once you are a member, you may have access to membership lists, which can give you prospective access to many new people to network with.
  • Volunteer: Volunteering is an excellent way to meet new people who can help you develop your career, even if the organization you are volunteering with is not in your field. Just by working alongside others and working toward common goals, you build relationships that may later serve you in unforeseen and helpful ways.
  • Get an internship: Many organizations offer internship positions to college students. Some of these positions are paid, but often they are not. Paid or not, you gain experience relevant to your career, and you potentially make many new contacts. Check CollegeRecruiter.com for key resources.
  • Get a part-time job: Working full-time may be your ultimate goal, but you may want to fill in some cracks or crevices by working in a part-time job. Invariably you will meet people who can feasibly help with your networking goals. And you can gain good experience along the way, which can also be noted on your résumé.
  • Join a job club: Your career interests may be shared by many others who have organized a club, which can be online or in person. If you don’t find an existing club, consider starting one.
  • Attend networking events: There are innumerable professional networking events taking place around the world and also online. Find them listed in magazines, community calendars, newspapers, journals, and at the websites of companies, organizations, and associations.
  • Conduct informational interviews: You may initiate contact with people in your chosen field who can tell you about their experiences of entering the field and thriving in it. Many websites have guidance on how to plan and conduct these interviews.

Networking Strategies at Home and Beyond

  • Participate in online social media: An explosion of career opportunity awaits you with social media, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and many more. You will find an extensive list of suggested sites at CareerOneStop. Keep your communication ultra-professional at these sites. Peruse magazine articles, and if you find one that’s relevant to your field and it contains names of professionals, you can reach out to them to learn more and get job leads.
  • Ask family members and friends, coworkers, and acquaintances for referrals: Do they know others who might help you? You can start with the question, “who else should I be talking to?”
  • Use business cards or networking cards: A printed business card can be an essential tool to help your contacts remember you. Creativity can help in this regard too. Students often design cards themselves and either handprint them or print them on a home printer.

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Sources for Developing Professional Networks

The bottom line with developing professional networks is to gather information from as many sources as possible and use that information in creative ways to advance your career opportunities. The strategies listed in the section above provide you with a comprehensive set of suggestions. Below is a summary of sources you can use to network your way to career success:

  • meet-up groups
  • social media
  • volunteer organizations
  • networking events
  • headhunters
  • coworkers
  • classmates
  • conferences
  • career centers
  • internships
  • magazine articles
  • career counselors
  • vendors
  • administrators
  • special events
  • alumni association
  • part-time job
  • websites
  • family members
  • college professors
  • coaches
  • technology tools
  • professional organizations
  • job club
  • career coaches
  • advisers
  • guest speakers


career development: a lifelong process in which we become aware of, interested in, knowledgeable about, and skilled in a career

hard skills: clearly defined, more job-specific abilities such as working with computers, speaking a language, or operating a machine

lifelong learning: a popular phrase that acknowledges the many resources available to us for ongoing professional self-improvement, it refers to a broadly applicable understanding of the learning process itself and not to any one skill

networking: the process by which people build relationships with one another for the purpose of helping one another achieve professional goals

soft skills: more universal and transferable abilities such as habits of mind, ways of communicating with and listening to people, and collaborating effectively



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Professional Skill Building and Career Development Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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