Peter Cappelli writes in Talent on Demand that companies are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay for training because there are so many experienced workers in the job market and they figure employees who have been trained are more likely to leave after training. (Training of upper management is the one exception to this new trend.) This is a big change from the days when employers took the responsibility for keeping employees skills up to date.
Contractors are more likely than traditional employees to recognize they need to manage their own skill development. But too often they assume that their work experience is all the training they will need or believe they don’t really have the time for educational efforts. In today’s fast changing working world that is a career limiting assumption.
Building independent skill development into your working life involves consciously adding two new activities to your personal to-do list.
Activity 1: Choose a Focus
Employers used to pick a focus or give choices for training. Now employees have the freedom (and responsibility) to do that for themselves. Make a list of major problems currently being discussed and new processes being piloted in your work. You may see these on the job and/or discover them through networking or scanning industry/professional web sites and publications.
When you have a list, select your target considering:

  • Personal interest: Learning independently takes time and persistence. You need to be interested to keep going!
  • Importance to Multiple Enterprises: What problem does this skill/knowledge specifically address and will it be a priority for managements? Are there likely to be multiple organizations that need this skill/knowledge?
  • Do the new skills and/or knowledge build on your past experience in ways that give you an added edge in working with this new focus? While this is not an absolute requirement, it certainly helps you get that first engagement using the new knowledge/skills.

Activity #2: Build and Execute a Learning Plan
This is what the trainers do to structure learning and it will accelerate your process as well.

  • Set learning goals and a reasonable timeline: Setting goals has been shown to speed learning whether you achieve them or not! Objectives focus your attention and help you to see how the real-time experience differs from your expectations faster. A time line gives you something to measure your progress by.
  • Identify resources: You will need both experience and “book learning” – what groups might you work with? Are there resources on the web? Can you find others interested in the problem and work with them? Building learning groups also builds your network and gives you access to situations that you can observe and learn from. For example, Talencio has a peer group for contractors working in clinical research; they meet either in person or via conference calls.
  • Set up a learning structure: Recognize that this learning process is likely to be a long-term project and need persistence on your part because you will do most of it while working. Use a notebook to keep track of objectives, resource quality, and your process. The beauty of this long-term approach is you can reassess and refocus as you go. Also set aside time on your calendar for these activities to make sure other pressing duties do not encourage you to forget to follow up. Plan to spend concentrated time during downtime.

While these are not “new” activities – the fact that you need to take the initiative to make them happen is. Embrace the freedom to keep your career interesting!
Talent on Demand by Peter Cappelli (2008, Harvard Business School Press)

Sally Power, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and personal consultant accelerating successful career transitions.

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