With summer days winding down, it’s time to make your job search a priority, but your technology skills are holding you back. You’ve been out of the workforce for 5, 10, maybe 15 years or longer, just as technology has rapidly changed how we work. You haven’t stayed current with the latest software required for the jobs you desire. Sound familiar? The honest truth is that having good technology skills is expected in today’s work environment, and weak technology skills remains a top concern for employers hiring career re-entry candidates. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn new skills. Not sure where to start? Follow these steps for a new, tech-savvy you:
Step 1. Identify the BASIC Technology Skills Needed in Today’s Workplace.
The challenge is that the skills you need differ widely from job to job. In fact, how you use a certain software will vary from job to job. An accountant, for example, uses MS Excel much differently than how an administrative professional uses the same software. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to determine what skills are needed for the positions you want. Start by mastering these BASIC proficiencies:
- Microsoft Office Suite. Specifically, proficiency in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
- An email platform and calendar tool typically used for business, such as MS Outlook, Google/Gmail, or Amazon Web Services. If you understand how one works, you will be able to transition to another. So pick one and master it.
- Use of a SmartPhone for email, texting, apps, calendar, notetaking, reminders, etc.
- Familiarity with video conferencing technologies, such as skype, GoToMeeting, webex, Adobe Connect, or google hangouts.
- Understanding of how internet browsers, such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Mozilla Firefox, work.
- Understanding of how social media is used in the business environment. Start with LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
- Ability (and confidence!) to troubleshoot minor technical issues on your own, instead of rushing to your supervisor or IT support for simple requests. Get comfortable “clicking around” and accessing web tutorials to solve a problem or learn something new.
Step 2. Identify SPECIALIZED Technology Skills Needed for the Work You Love
So what other skills will you need? You will have to do some research. There are challenges here too. First, you will quickly discover that there are literally thousands of software products used in business, and company size and even industry has an impact on the types of software used. A larger company, for example, will use a more expensive, robust or complex digital marketing software, while a smaller company may use a service as simple as Constant Contact or MailChimp. Second, remember that technology continues to change rapidly. Depending upon your career goals, you may want to wait until you get your foot in the door before your invest too much money on a specific technology, especially if it is expensive to learn. At a minimum, however, you will want to have enough of a familiarity with software used in your industry or field of interest so that you can comfortably navigate a more technical conversation with a potential employer. Here are a few tips for figuring this out:
- Search major job boards like Indeed for job descriptions of interest to you and for which you are qualified. A good job description will list required and desired technical skills. Compile a list of common software skills and make note of any patterns with regard to industry, company size, etc. Another good resource is the Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (O*NET). O*NET is a robust database that contains in-depth intelligence about industries and occupations, including technical competencies required for specific jobs.
- Interview friends or contacts that work in the industry, field, or specific job in which you are interested. Ask them to educate you on what technologies and software are most common and how they are used. Make sure you get feedback from as many people as you can and ask enough questions to figure out if it is worth your time and money to learn the software, i.e. will knowledge of the software make you more marketable and to what kind of company? Use LinkedIn to find friends and contacts.
- Explore Capterra, an extensive, online collection of 300+ software that businesses and nonprofits use every day to run and grow their businesses. Search by category, and you will find links to software provider sites, reviews, info guides, and other resources.
Step 3. Take a Skills Assessment Test or Two or Three
My general sense, after years of interviewing and placing career re-entry candidates, is that people are all over the map when it comes to how accurately they rate their own technology skills. Whether you think your skills are good, bad or somewhere in between, take a skills test to obtain a more accurate benchmark of where your skills are currently. We use Total Testing, which caters to small businesses and individuals, to assess MS Office and other technology skills of our job candidates. As a job seeker, you can purchase an individual test for $20, and there are 800+ tests to choose from. Start with their Microsoft Office Skills Tests. Here is a Sample Score Report that identifes exactly what you need to learn to be considered basic, intermediate or advanced in MS Office. Use this service to assess your skills and identify your weaknesses.
Another, free option is to use these MS Office Skills Checklists that we found on the internet. They do not appear to have been updated recently, but they are still extremely useful in helping to identify – and ultimately learn — the variety of tasks you will need to perform in the workplace using MS Office software.
Step 4. Learn as Many Skills as Practicable BEFORE You Apply for the Job
Once you determine the skills you need and where you are deficient, be proactive. You do not want your lack of technology skills to be the reason a future employer does not hire you! You will be pleasantly surprised at the number of great resources out there – especially for basic technologies – that are very affordable. Some are even free! Check out our Job Seeker Resources page for an extensive list of online classes, tutorials, videos, etc. for gaining the technology skills you need to be competitive in the job market. Scroll down to the gray “Skills Development” heading and start learning!
Step 5. Find Opportunities to Apply the Skills You’ve Learned in a Work Setting
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not enough to acquire the technology skills you need to do the job. Some prospective employers will want to see that you’ve used these skills in work settings. Create opportunities for you to practice, sharpen, and solidify the skills you’ve gained. Find a way to use a new technology in the volunteer and community service work you already do. Or find a new organization that could use your help, and present them with an offer they can’t refuse. Find a company you’d like to work for, and offer to complete a short, well-defined project for free. Just make sure that project is one that will allow you to use the technology skills you have acquired. Ask a friend who is an expert in the technology you’ve learned if you can help them with a project. If possible, save your work products so you have “proof” that you know a certain software.
Step 6. Demonstrate to Employers that Your Technology Skills Are Strong
Here is the kiss of death interview scenario:
Interviewer: “Tell me about your technology skills?”
Interviewee: “Well, I will need to brush up a bit since I have been out of the workforce for a while, but I am a fast learner. I pick up new technologies quickly.”
Unless you can give super concrete and impressive examples of picking up a new technology quickly, you are basically telling your prospective employer that your skills are weak. I once had a candidate describe a situation in which she was asked by her boss to hire a bunch of temps to enter a large amount of data located in an antiquated database into a new system. Instead she figured out how to write a computer program to extract that data from the old system and import it into the new one, saving significant time and money while improving accuracy. Now that was a great story that convinced me that she did indeed pick up new technologies quickly. If you have a story like this to tell, tell it.
Here is a more convincing interview interaction:
Interviewer: “How well to you know MS Excel?”
Interviewee: “In my previous jobs as an accountant, I always used MS Excel for data reporting and analysis. At XYZ company, I was considered the in-house Excel expert, and staff at all levels came to me for help. I used Excel extensively to produce commission, sales forecast, and budget vs. actual reports. I can import and export large datasets; create complex formulas; link spreadsheets; use pivot tables, Vlookups, and Hlookups; and create charts and graphs for presentations. Here is a sampling of reports I produced using Excel for the school PTA. I am currently taking a refresher course to learn how to use macros, which is considered a pretty advanced feature of Excel. I really love using Excel to crunch data and numbers.”
Always answering with honesty and accuracy, give concrete examples of how you use a technology required for the job. Weave into the conversation stories, comments and some technical jargon that reflect that you are up to date with the technology and understand how it relates to the job at hand. By doing this, you will be in the best position to convince your prospective employer that you have the skills needed to get the job done.
Because weak technology skills is a top concern for employers hiring re-entry candidates, another effective strategy is to answer the “how are your technology skills?” question before it is ever asked. A good job candidate addresses potential concerns head-on, rather than waiting for the interviewer to raise the concern.
Embrace technology NOW, on your own time and with your own money. Consider the investment as a critical part of your job search and a valuable networking activity. Honestly assess your abilities, determine what skills you need for the jobs you want, refresh your skills, and learn some new ones too. Follow this simple plan and, as an added bonus, you will gain a tremendous amount of confidence along the way. Lack of confidence is another top concern of employers hiring career re-entry candidates. So now you’ve killed two birds with one stone!
Sheila Murphy is Co-Founder/Partner of FlexProfessionals, LLC, a niche staffing agency that matches professionals seeking meaningful, flexible work with growing businesses looking for top talent. Karen Eye, FlexProfessionals Career Re-Entry Intern, contributed to the research and writing of this article. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.