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How to ‘Future-Proof’ Yourself at Work

A 'Stretch' co-author says: there's a looming 'sell-by' date on your skills

In their new book, Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, authors Barbara Mistick and Karie Willyerd conducted a massive global survey of employees and found that only 34 percent said their companies were giving them the training they need.

The upshot: it’s up to you, more than ever, to make yourself valuable in today’s workplace — and tomorrow’s. Don’t count on your employer to get you the right skills that’ll help you keep your job or land the next one.

I recently spoke with Mistick — president of Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., founder of a company that transported students with disabilities (Mobility) and a former entrepreneurship professor at Carnegie Mellon University to learn how we should all stretch ourselves. Turns out, she says, sometimes we have to “unlearn” some things, too. Highlights:

Next Avenue: Why did you and Karie Willyerd decide to write this book?

Barbara Mistick: The World Economic Forum says 5 million jobs will go away in the next decade and an Oxford study said one of two jobs will go away. There’s a tremendous shift taking place in the workplace and we have a sense that people need some skills to be prepared for the changes ahead.

Also, Karie and I enjoy what we do for a living and we wanted to help others feel the same sense of engagement. So many people are missing a sense of satisfaction from being engaged at work.

You need to recognize there is a looming ‘sell-by date’ on your skills today. So you need to be sure your skills are cutting edge.

— Barbara Mistick, co-author of 'Stretch'

What do you mean when you say ‘future-proof’ yourself? And why is that important?

You need to recognize there is a looming ‘sell-by date’ on your skills today. So you need to be sure your skills are cutting edge. By future-proofing yourself, you recognize the skills you must have to keep track with where the marketplace is going. That will involve some stretching.

Is it really possible to future-proof yourself in your 50s or 60s?

I hear regularly from people who say ‘I’m on the verge of retirement. I’m not sure I need to worry about this.’ But if you want to be on the verge, you want to control the point when you retire. You don’t want to find you have a short shelf life. The bottom line is that people hold their careers in their own hands.

If you’re in your 50s or 60s, don’t think your career is over. So many people are now working into their 60s and 70s; maybe not at the same positions or level of responsibilities as before, but they’re still in the workplace. Because life expectancies are longer.

You did a survey of executives and employees in 27 countries to find out what the future workforce is thinking, wanting and worrying over. What did it tell you?

The number one finding was: It’s on you. That’s what we call one of our ‘stretch imperatives.’ Your professional development is your responsibility. We heard from employers that they’re looking for people to be forward thinking on their own; they didn’t see that the organization had a responsibility to further their employees’ skill development.

Stretch Author and Book Embed

Why don’t employers think they should be doing more?

It makes logical sense for employers to do it. That’s what I would’ve thought. But what we see is that people are changing jobs more often than ever. The BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] says people have an average of 11 jobs over their career. Since people are going to move in and out of their positions, employers don’t see a loyalty track. So they hire people who already have the skills.

We also heard that employers plan to hire a lot more part-time people for assignments in the future and will buy those skills at the time they need them.

What does that suggest to you for older workers?

If you’re at the point where you’re thinking about a second career or a retirement career, keep in mind that the growth of the gig economy is huge. There’s a lot of potential in that arena.

How should people get the skills they need or want?

You have to change your mindset. Go to work to learn new things and to learn on the fly. Take advantage of new opportunities at work. Volunteer for assignments that give you extra experiences. Be greedy about experiences. When you change jobs, you want to be able to say ‘I’ve done something like that.’

If you’re open to learning on the fly, you’ll find lots of ways to be a better creative problem solver.

What about taking classes?

There’s so much learning available in so many venues, including free online classes — or MOOCs. Look for ways to add credentials in your field.

We say: Look at the person in the job you’d like to be in and their educational skills and see where you need to take yours to be qualified for that. Do an inventory of your skills.

Many people think we earn a living. But you learn a living.

And you also say sometimes we need to ‘unlearn.’

Yes, that was about me. I spend a lot of time writing and I grew up in a generation where you put in those two spaces between sentences. Karie had to teach me how to ‘unlearn’ that skill.

It happens in every field. It can be a little frustrating feeling like you’re going back to ground zero.

You also talk about the importance of not just networking, but of building a diverse network. Why?

There’s a commonly held belief that who you know is what helps you get the next position. Our research and others’ have found that those further afield from you may be able to introduce you to job opportunities. So it helps to have a diverse network with people who aren’t in your industry or geographic area.

You also write about the importance of ‘personal advocacy’ at work. What’s that?

You have to be an advocate for yourself and be able to publicly promote yourself. We live in a period where everybody has a social presence. What kind are you putting forth?

Personal advocacy has become an essential building block for how to establish your personal brand and how your brand is represented in the marketplace.

Your calling card used to be your resumé; now it’s your social presence.

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