Building a Skill Set That Employers Want

As I was working on

this morning’s roundup, one quote kept ringing back at me:

“If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it.”

I think this is the single most valuable lesson of the modern workplace.

There are a lot of people out there who can simply follow directions. If all you do is follow exact directions and nothing else, you’re replaceable, and you’re likely to be replaced by someone else who can do the same thing – follow directions – for lower pay.

There are only two ways around this. One, you need to take some initiative for yourself. Two, you need to have skills that aren’t easily replaced.

First, let’s talk a bit about taking initiative. An employee that’s valuable is one that’s going to anticipate needs in the workplace and just take care of them. If you see that the stock of an item is running low and you make sure that it’s ordered without having been told, then you’re more valuable to the company. If you see a problem with the computer code your team is working on and you optimize one little part without being told, you’re more valuable than before.

The catch is that in order to be able to take initiative and handle situations when they pop up, you need skills. Skills are what set you apart from other, more replaceable employees. Skills are what you need to earn more pay while maintaining job security.

So, how do you build them? There are a lot of routes toward building skills that are valuable in your workplace. Here are some of the routes you can take.

The first – and perhaps best – tactic is to ask a lot of questions. This is a great step that almost anyone can take. Ask questions about everything going on in the workplace. Understand the reasons behind the things that people do in the workplace.

When you start doing this, you’re going to start to understand quite a lot about how your workplace actually works. If you know why things are the way they are, it starts getting easier to anticipate needs around the workplace, and a person who understands that has a powerful skill, indeed.

Yes, it can be annoying to have an employee who asks tons of questions, but I’d far rather have that employee around – particularly when I can see them thinking about the answers and putting pieces together – than an employee who doesn’t ask questions and just follows instructions. It goes beyond impressing a boss, though – when you actually utilize those answers to take care of tasks at work that go beyond your straightforward instructions, then you’re adding to your job security.

Another tactic is to minimize downtime and wasted time. If you’re standing around doing nothing at work, just chit-chatting with someone else, you’re wasting time. If you’re surfing the web at work, you’re wasting time. Find something to do with that time.

If you can’t think of anything to do, think back on what you know about your job that you’ve learned by asking lots of questions, then look. Is there something that can be cleaned up? Is there something that needs to be fixed? Is there something you can get ready in anticipation of a future problem?

If you can’t think of anything in that regard, look at yourself. Is there a skill you can be building? Is there a professional contact or a professional relationship you can build up?

Being efficient with your time is an incredibly valuable skill at virtually any job. If you can fill your work hours with genuine, thoughtful productivity, you’re doing far more than most employees and you’re likely securing your long-term employment.

I also highly recommend spending free time building your “skill muscles.” I like to think of skills as “muscles.” The more you use them, the stronger they get and the easier it becomes to lift heavy loads.

In most workplaces, people tend to develop just a few “skill muscles,” but those particular muscles get very strong, indeed. There are two or three tasks that they do over and over again that they know quite well and can execute very well.

The problem comes when something changes at work and they’re suddenly required to use a new “skill muscle.” Often, that muscle is very weak, indeed. Not only does it take some time to get that skill up to speed, you’re also in danger of straining it – in other words, essentially refusing to learn new skills under stress. I have personally witnessed this many times.

The best way to avoid this – and to be a perennially valuable employee – is to build your “skill muscles” during your spare time.

How do you do that? Taking classes is certainly one way, but the best way I’ve found is to freelance on a project that uses some of the skills from work and some different ones. For example, if you write computer code at work, get involved in an open source project in your spare time or write your own iOS or Android app. If you’re a security guard, spend your spare time getting into better shape and serving as security at different types of events.

You don’t want to do the exact same thing you do at work, but you want to work on similar things that stretch your skills in new directions. A new programming project can stretch your computer programming skills. Cross-training and different security details can make you a more effective security guard. You can find something that parallels almost any job that you have.

If you consistently take these steps to heart, you will always have a valuable skill set and employers will want to hold onto you. I’ve witnessed this time and time again – the employees who find productive things to do on their own and work to build their skills are the ones that you’re going to want to hang on to.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.