6 ways to build career skills on your own

Author Amanda Elliott from Mashable

At some companies, your boss will actively suggest that you attend conferences or provide opportunities for on-the-job training. But, there are also many jobs that rely on you to develop your skill set.

Even if your organization won’t pay for (or doesn’t offer) training, there are several things you can do to work your way toward that next promotion or remain competent and coveted in your field. And — better yet — most of them don’t cost much at all.

1. Read (or listen to) books, articles, and forums

Reading is fundamental, and whether you choose short blogs or books, it will make a difference. So instead of your daily browse of BuzzFeed, make a plan to read content that will educate, inform, and introduce you to new tools, skills, and people.

To start, dedicate 30 minutes a day to learning about your industry from top thought leaders. When reading books, use the appendix and notes to see where the author got his information and how he is researching and learning in his field. You can also follow industry experts on LinkedIn or Twitter to see the content they are sharing, the companies they follow, or groups they are in. Finally, don’t just look for people to follow — organizations also publish great information! Companies like WordPress have blogs and forums that you can read to learn about functional skills.

Feel like you don’t have the time to sit down and read? Listen to industry-specific podcasts on your commute, during a workout, or even while you do chores. For general advice, The Work Talk Show (which is currently on hiatus) has two years worth of interviews with professionals in various fields regarding how they get work done and what their favorite apps are.

2. Join a professional organization

Professional organizations are great resources that too often go overlooked. Many provide training and conferences, connect professionals with mentors who can offer advice, and give you a bit of validation in your field to boot. In the PR world, for instance, there’s the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or The PR Council. Fundraisers have The Association of Fundraising Professionals, and someone in IT could join the Association of Information Technology Professionals. Most fields have numerous organizations — a national group (or sometimes more than one), regional groups, and so forth. Not only will you have access to top industry news, but also to the people influencing that news. It’s a win-win!

You can also join informal groups through Facebook and LinkedIn. In this setting, people often feel less intimidated asking questions or participating in discussions — so no matter what you’re interested in learning more about, ask away!

3. Take classes

Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to go to class. One resource is Coursera, an online platform for taking classes from top universities like Northwestern and Duke. When you sign up for class, the description includes an estimate of time you will need per week. I took a class called “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” from Professor Owen R. Youngman at Northwestern, and it included the opportunity to meet up with some of the local students at the university for a live class (hello, networking opportunity!).

Another option is to listen to class lectures online through Apple’s iTunes U. And platforms like Udacity, Udemy, Skillshare, and Lynda offer short lessons on almost everything imaginable, delivered by experts. Get creative and set up your own curriculum through books, podcasts — you can even assign yourself homework!

Just remember, your goal is to hone in on a skill or gain expertise in a certain subject matter. It can be tempting to take classes in everything, but try to start with one area of emphasis.

4. Attend events

Even if your company doesn’t sponsor learning events, other organizations will. For example, Astek, a B2B web design company in Chicago, hosts monthly “Think-n-Drink” events, where a panel of local experts discuss trends in marketing and graphic design. Hubspot, a national company, hosts events about UX design and product marketing in cities such as Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco. Check out Meetup or Eventbrite, to find company-sponsored events in your area and industry, or look into nearby co-working spaces, which also tend to host functions regularly.

Oh, and if you miss out on a local event, you can often find notes on SlideShare, another great resource for learning!

5. Look around your office

Even if your company’s budget is tight, don’t underestimate the opportunity to learn some new skills at the place you go to work every day. Look around the office and see what your colleagues are working on. Are there projects or issues you’re interested in learning more about? Ask another team member or department if you could help out on an assignment — or even shadow someone for a day. For instance, let’s say you’re tasked with writing blog posts, but the marketing team is responsible for getting them out into the world. You can learn more about SEO and social media — for free! — just by sitting down with a teammate over coffee or lunch.

6. Volunteer

OK, so your company may not want you to take a project requiring a skill you have minimal experience with, but often times volunteer organizations are in serious need of additional bandwidth, and OK with you learning as you go. Plus, different organizations have different methodologies, so, working somewhere new — yes, even for free — can teach you new ways of doing things.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “67% of middle-skill jobs demand proficiency” in basic spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel and SAP SE. A lot of nonprofits use these simple programs, and this could be your chance to advance your abilities. And, of course, help out your community.

Your skill set is your responsibility — not your company’s. For best results, pick an area of expertise, develop a plan, and consistently practice.

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