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Career Coach

Do you have the skills to succeed at work?

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Taking classes is one way to quickly upgrade your skills (Photodisc)

Taking classes is one way to quickly upgrade your skills (Photodisc)

What happens when new technology rattles the tectonic plates of your career?

For Jerusalem-based graphic designer, Dalia Ben-Moshe, the earthshaking changes in design tools meant she needed to quickly go back to school. The freelance designer, who used to work exclusively in print, found she needed to understand and delve into web-based design to stay abreast of client demands.

“The very definition of graphic design is changing so rapidly,” said Ben-Moshe. “As the world becomes more and more screen-based, employers seek designers with excellent technical skills as well as good old-fashioned, artistic flair. So it is essential to constantly build on [your] existing skill set.” 

Ben-Moshe knew she needed to learn design languages Flash and HTML, among others. She enrolled in a yearlong night course at a local technical studies school. And now, to brush up in advance of interviews, she uses Skillfeed.com, a subscription service, which offers short online video courses.

Graphic designers are not alone in the need to develop new skills and update current ones. Rapidly-changing job requirements have become commonplace in almost every field. In order to stay in their jobs — and to put their best foot forward for possible advancement — workers need to stay current with these changes. For some, it means going back to school. Others should focus on improving one or two vital job requirements such as communication skills or commercial awareness — that is, understanding the competitive realities for your company or industry.

Few jobs are secure these days, said Bruce Woodcock, a careers adviser at University of Kent in Canterbury, England. “You need to develop new skills to gain promotion or to widen and develop your role.”

Not just technical prowess

If your position doesn’t require constantly updating technical prowess, hone in on other employability talents, said Woodcock. He and his staff combed through a handful of UK-based studies and have compiled a list of the top 10 employability skills. They are (in order of most to least important): verbal communication, teamwork, commercial awareness, analysing and investigating, initiative/self motivation, drive, written communication, planning and organising, flexibility and time management.

Woodcock advises making a list of what you would really like to do in your career and asking yourself what new abilities you should develop to make that happen. “Set yourself goals that are stretching but not unattainable, challenging but realistic,” he said. “Set big goals and break these down into smaller goals.”

Back to school

For some people, learning new skills may involve going back to school. One option is a  Master of Business Administration degree, according to Doreen Amorosa, associate dean and managing director at Georgetown University’s McDonough MBA Career Center in Washington, DC.  “The MBA often allows [students] to change the direction and trajectory of their careers where they come out of the program with significantly higher pay and go into more senior roles,” she said.

But, at a top school, an MBA can cost $100,000 or more, plus lost salary during the program. There are faster and cheaper options, however, depending on your needs. Some workers look to online courses. Newer options, like Skillfeed, the subscription service used by Ben-Moshe, allow members an “all you can eat” approach. At Skillfeed, members pay a monthly fee and can choose from more than 1,200 short video classes in all things digital and creative, from Microsoft Excel to photo restoration.

If you had to get a degree for all of the skills today’s employers are demanding, “you’d be in school all the time,” said David Fraga, general manager and vice-president of Skillfeed, which is based in New York and owned by Shutterstock, a global stock photography agency. “Instead, folks are looking for things they can do in a few hours.”

Short, online courses offer possibilities for studying anywhere, anytime and quickly, he said, adding that the majority of Skillfeed’s customers are based outside the US.

Some workers are even turning to free sites like YouTube for quick, on-the-go courses. After taking on an intranet project for a company, Nicola Henderson, president of Atlanta-based public relations firm Selsi Enterprises, realised she needed a refresher course in HTML. She found one on YouTube and supplemented it with a course from Lynda.com, which, like Skillfeed, offers video tutorials for a fee.

“I can review some of the information from my phone or even during my commute,” said Henderson. “I think this is the way of the future."

One thing you should not do: decide to do nothing. If you don’t advance your skills, you’re going to get left behind, according to the experts.

“The world is dynamic and those people who don’t learn new skills and adapt along the way will undoubtedly face a major upheaval at some point, like tectonic plates shifting as a series of uncomfortable tremors, or as a devastating earthquake,” said David Foster, director of Rally Strategic Management, a change management company in Brighton, UK.

You also run the risk of no longer being considered “mission critical” or “top talent,” according to Georgetown’s Amorosa. “These designations are especially important in economic downturns, where redundancies and restructuring are most likely to occur.”

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.