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Why You Need to Keep Up Your Professional Skills

professional skills

There are more jobs– 4.7 million —available now than in any time in the last decade. But almost 10 million people are unemployed.

The often-touted explanation for that disconnect is that companies can’t find qualified people, the so-called skills gap.

But nothing is that simple when it comes to the economy. The problem might be less about workers’ skills than employers’ expectations. Workers are no less qualified than they used to be, according to a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. “There is very little evidence consistent with the complaints about skills and a wide range of evidence suggesting that they are not true,” writes Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Indeed, a reasonable conclusion is that over-education remains the persistent and even growing situation of the US labor force with respect to skills.”

But employers have changed how they view new hires. Fewer companies are willing to train employees. Instead, they look to hire people who already have the skills for a specific job from Day One.

Training is expensive. And as the workforce has become more mobile, employers are less willing to sink money into someone who will soon leave for another job. In 2011, an Accenture (ACN) survey of U.S. employees found that only 21 percent had received any employer-provided formal training in the past five years. What is more, economic shifts have made it easier for companies to find people who already have the skills they need, according to economist Allison Schrager. “When jobs required unique, specific skills, training paid off,” she wrote in a recent BusinessWeek post. But technology has standardized and broadened our skills. An employee who has mastered Google Analytics can use that skill in many companies and jobs, making it easier for workers to change jobs–and easier for employee to save money on training.

The burgeoning service industry also requires different–and highly transferable–skills. “Service jobs place a higher premium on good interpersonal skills and access to a large network—the kind of skills often developed precisely by changing jobs,” wrote Schrager.

For job seekers whose skills are a clear match to a job, that’s not a problem. But an imbalance can develop. Further, the fact that employers are less willing to train actually encourages people to change jobs more frequently to keep learning. Changing jobs also expands a network, which will in turn make it easier to find the next job.

The bottom line is that in this new economy, taking responsibility for your brand, your skills and your contributions is essential to stay employed over the long haul.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.