You may already consider yourself something of a veteran at climbing the career ladder.
You have a polished résumé that you update frequently, the appropriate take-charge outfits, and you already know exactly how you’ll answer the tricky interview question everyone dreads: “What's your biggest weakness?”
But there’s a new career conundrum befuddling hiring managers: the “skills gap.” Even with the job market on a slow road to recovery, the bigger issue is not having enough candidates—it’s having the right candidates.
A 2016 survey from the National Federation of Independent Business revealed that 45% of employers reported few or no qualified applicants for positions they were trying to fill—and 15% cited the difficulty of finding qualified workers as their single most important business problem. A separate survey from Spherion painted an equally dismal picture from workers' point of view: nearly one in three workers believe their current skills will prevent them from earning a future promotion, and about the same share don't think their company has provided adequate training for advancement.
So what’s a job seeker to do? Here’s one answer: Build your human capital.
What Is Human Capital, Anyway?
Traditionally a human resources term—but also used by business leaders and economists—human capital is the sum of the education, influence, experience and leadership potential you bring to the organization, resulting in a wise investment for the company—and more importantly, higher earning potential for you.
"I think about human capital as a combination of the skills and talent that a person can bring to the table, but also the so-called soft skills: Executive presence, your network and a personal brand that help make up your whole package,” says Jennifer Zephirin, vice president of strategic outreach at the Center for Talent Innovation and former Diversity and Inclusion Manager for Morgan Stanley.
Another way to think of it is career marketability, says Alexandra Levit, author of "They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World" —and she says it's your responsibility to find a plan of action that will up your game. “You cannot rely on your organization, whose training budget has probably been cut, to refresh your skills and [help you] acquire new ones,” she says. “This is your responsibility and employers expect you to take the initiative.”
Read on to learn six ways to help build your human capital—and demonstrate to companies that you're an asset worth investing in, whether you’re applying for a new job or trying to get that corner office. These tips just might make your next offer sweeter.
1. Use Your Differences to Your Advantage
Yes, you want to fit into your corporate culture, but you should also consider accentuating what sets you apart, because your company can use your experiences and wisdom to its advantages both internally and in the marketplace.
It’s what Zephirin calls your “acquired” diversity, which could be skills like generational savvy, being bilingual or having military experience—things that have enabled you to develop an appreciation or understanding for cultural and social differences.
Maybe you’re not a Millennial yourself, but you’ve worked with so many that you’ve gained unique insights into social media trends. Or perhaps your time in the military has given you excellent managing chops. Emphasizing this acquired knowledge allows you to bring something to the table that your colleagues—or other candidates—may not be able to.
“Diversity does affect the bottom line of the company,” says Zephirin, “so in a competitive market it is important that you leverage whatever is special about you.”
2. Find a Mentor, a Sponsor—or Even a Protégé
"Don't underestimate the importance of having a mentor—all job seekers need a person who can talk with them directly and honestly about what they need to do, and how they can enhance their career marketability," Levit says.
A mentor ideally isn't your direct supervisor, but might be a manager who works in another department. Or he may be someone you know through a networking organization whom you’ve always admired. Ideally, he would have gone through the career phase you’re currently in so you can benefit from his hindsight, Levit suggests.
Approach your mentor-to-be as you would any other networking contact: Send a complimentary email that explains why you are seeking his guidance, and ask if he’d be amenable to meeting in person. (If so, be sure to pick up the check.)
You can take mentorship a step further by trying to find a sponsor. Sponsors are "people who have direct access to the table where decisions get made within your organization, and who will be an advocate for you, thereby increasing your visibility,” Zephirin says.
In other words, while mentors may give you advice on how to climb the ladder, sponsors create the next rung. They carry clout in your organization and can connect you with high-profile assignments or other career opportunities that lead to pay raises and promotions. Just remember that because your sponsor puts her neck out for you, you have to prove that you’re worth it and deliver.
And don’t forget about those below you. “I also recommend sponsoring other people, because your protégé is then part of your network and is yet another person whom you can call on,” Zephirin says.
Your protégé (or team of protégés) should be up-and-comers in your organization who are loyal to your company and consistently perform at a high level. Introduce them to your bosses and your boss’ bosses; tout their abilities to decision makers; or invite them to a meeting that may normally be above their pay grade. Sponsoring other employees not only builds good karma, it also drives home your leadership abilities.
“Helping junior people evolve into major producers for the firm is what leaders do,” writes Center for Talent Innovation CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett in Harvard Business Review. “So if you’ve succeeded in grooming a number of people for your position, you’ve made it that much easier for your superiors to promote you, as you will not leave a vacuum they have to fill.”
3. Use Social Media Strategically
Using social media to stay abreast of your industry might be something you already do. Maybe you follow the big CEOs on Twitter, or have liked an industry pundit’s Facebook page. But how about adding your own voice to the conversation?
Levit suggests starting an industry blog or finding opportunities to guest speak at conferences—this portrays you as an influencer and thought leader within your field. “It's also a time and learning commitment that employers find attractive because they want that knowledge and marketing appeal in-house,” Levit says. “Just stay industry-focused, and if possible, niche.”
For instance, if you’re a structural engineer whose blog about eco-friendly building materials has garnered a devoted following, you’ve not only built your own caché as an expert, you’ve also given your company some free PR—and demonstrated to your employers (or potential ones) that you’re passionate and knowledgeable about your field.
4. Show Off Your Global IQ
Few big businesses are completely local these days, so highlighting any knowledge you have about other countries is vital. "Increasing your global competence by traveling abroad, reading foreign publications, or interviewing foreign colleagues is a highly prized but rare skill,” says Levit.
For example, have you traveled widely? Worked closely before with international team members or managers? Did you grow up in another country, or do you make it a point to read news from different cultures each day? Consider how your global viewpoint could be an asset in your current organization, or in a role you're applying for. "The point is to understand how business is done in different cultures because all companies' operations are increasingly global," says Levit.
And if you want to increase your worldliness—or have always had a yen to learn a particular language—building those skills for professional purposes could be a potential tax write-off. “A formal language class or short immersion class could be a qualified education expense you could deduct," says David Blaylock, CFP®, a financial planner with LearnVest Planning Services.
5. Strike an Executive Pose
Ever walked into a meeting and known immediately who was in charge, or noticed that certain coworkers wield unspoken influence over their colleagues? Those are folks who have “executive presence.”
Zephirin says executive presence is a must-have if you want to make it to the C-suite. She boils it down to three major pillars: The first is gravitas, otherwise known as the It Factor or je ne sais quoi that enables you to own the room. It can be hard to describe, but it might be the ability to be decisive when a situation calls for it, or an uncanny knack for reading your audience and being flexible to their needs. “We’ve done research that shows [gravitas is] at least two thirds of what people say executive presence really is,” Zephirin says.
The second pillar is communication: Having a clear, concise message, which involves not just knowing what to say, but how to say it. That includes your command of your body language, knowing how to grab the attention of a room, or when to banter or inject humor when necessary.
RELATED: 4 Ways to Be More Charismatic
Third is your appearance. It’s not the most important pillar, but it is the first that people notice. “Are they polished? Are they sophisticated? Are they on the same wavelength as their audience?” is what hiring managers may ask themselves when they are trying to read a first impression, Zephirin says. Just keep in mind that your look should fit in with the company. “If you are in finance, your appearance would look different than at a tech start-up. It’s knowing how to be groomed and polished for the right culture.”
To develop your executive presence, she advises getting real, honest feedback from both your sponsors and trusted colleagues to know what you can improve upon.
6. Invest in the Right Education
If your dream job requires an advanced degree, or you truly believe it’ll give you the hiring edge, you could consider going back to school full- or part-time—but just make sure you’ve prepped yourself and your budget for the change.
“The first thing you want to contemplate when you go back to school or pay for any additional training is what your real end result is,” Blaylock says. Is it a raise? Moving to a new level of management? Or pivoting to a field that would offer better work-life balance?
Once you’ve pinpointed your ultimate goal, think about the resources it will require. Can you afford the time commitment? The strain on your personal or family life? Have your colleagues completed similar degrees with a positive result—or was their degree dead upon arrival? A cost benefit analysis of your earning potential pre- and post-degree is also crucial. Career sites like Salary.com and Payscale.com often compile rankings to determine the degrees or universities with the best ROIs.
If you ultimately decide to go back to school, you’ll need to give yourself time to save up. Blaylock suggests setting up a Career & Education savings fund and connecting it to your Money Center, then funneling savings for that goal every month for at least a year before you start your program.
You should also investigate ways to make continuing education cheaper. Levit encourages enrolling in a single graduate-level course or auditing a class until you are absolutely certain that your new field is the one you want to pursue. You could also attend a public school that offers the same degree and coursework as a pricier private university, or find a program that teaches the same skills in six months as opposed to 18. “While most people do experience a monetary reward for added education and training, those that don’t are the ones who went in blindly, not thinking about the time, sacrifices and stress involved,” says Blaylock. “And then they quit the program midway through.”
And remember, there could be free ways to learn transferable skills, Levit says. “If it isn’t currently practical to take such a big step to change your career, consider making a smaller change for now, like moving to a different department in your current organization.” You’ll not only be learning new skills, you’ll also make inroads within your firm—and potentially set the stage for your next big move.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.