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3 Ways Older Workers Can Build In-Demand Job Skills

Free online courses, volunteer work and other ways to boost your career

Senior woman working on laptop computer at the office coworkers are working in the background.
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While fluctuations in the labor market come and go, one challenge has remained constant for employers over the past several years: finding workers with the right skills. A 2020 report by management consulting company McKinsey & Company found that 87 percent of companies were either experiencing skills gaps now or expecting to face them within the next few years.

Those skills gaps represent an opportunity for more experienced workers, says Loretta Barr, senior consultant and career coach with consulting firm Korn Ferry. “Re-skilling is just basically determining what your skills are right now, where they can fit in, and then [matching them with] the kind of opportunities you can look for,” she says. By pinpointing and acquiring the skills companies are seeking, you become a more valuable employee for them, she adds.

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In addition, the pandemic saw a move to more skills-based hiring, says LinkedIn career expert Blair Heitmann. “Some industries and companies had trouble filling all of the jobs they were adding to keep up with demand, and they realized that hiring based on skills rather than industry experience opened up their talent pools significantly,” she says.

The shift to skills-based hiring means that while qualified candidates with the skills needed for a particular role previously might have been overlooked because of traditional criteria like degrees, now the focus is more on whether a person can do the job, she adds. Re-skilling can help employers see you as right for a particular role.

​But how can you understand which skills are in demand and then acquire or brush up on those abilities? This three-step process will help guide you.

1. Identify the skills you need for the job you want

The skill sets needed for specific jobs change regularly, Heitmann notes, so re-skilling should be an ongoing process for every worker who wants to stay marketable. “Skills that might have been required years ago could now be obsolete. With this in mind, it’s so important to keep up with the evolving skills for your industry and role,” she says.

Clues that can help you understand the skills hiring managers are seeking are all around you, says career coach Dawid Wiacek. Job advertisements and  descriptions often give you a laundry list of the skills companies are seeking for specific roles, so closely examine the postings for jobs you want. Staying informed about your industry or type of position is also important, he adds.

“Read the news. Follow the statistics. Every few weeks there’s another report on job trends and marketplace insights,” Wiacek says. “Often, these articles talk about hot job roles, top-paying job titles, coveted skills, etc.” You can even set up news alerts, like Google Alerts or Talkwalker Alerts, that will deliver links to articles to your email inbox.

Employers typically value soft skills most of all, which are the interpersonal skills that help people succeed in the workplace. Job website Monster recently published its “Future of Work 2022” report and found that the top three soft skills employers are seeking include teamwork/collaboration, communication, and problem-solving/critical thinking. The “hard skills” — technical ability and training necessary to do a job — most in demand were information technology, strategic skills, and operations and computer skills (tied for third).

On the professional skills development site LinkedIn Learning, the most in-demand courses have focused on goal setting, and speaking and communicating with confidence. Popular courses for technical skills have included those on web application security and data visualization for business intelligence.

Informational interviews can also be a low-key, low-stress way to learn about how to prepare for a particular job or career. “Set up an informational interview with someone who is already successful and thriving in your target job role, company, industry,” Wiacek adds. “Ask the person what skills they actually use every day: both soft and hard — technical — skills.”

The skills employers seek are varied, based on the role and its demands, Barr says. As you do your research, keep a list of the skills that are identified most often in the roles you’re seeking.

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2. Assess the skills you already have

In addition to figuring out which skills you need, you’ll also need to identify the skills you have, Barr says. Chances are that you have some sense of where your skills could improve, possibly from your own experience or feedback you’ve received in a performance review or from a recruiter. You may even have taken a skills assessment test as an employment requirement.

Think about the most essential skills for the roles you want, especially those skills that may make you uncomfortable now or which you have not yet learned, Barr suggests. It can be tempting to avoid the areas where you may have weaknesses, but that’s just going to cut off opportunities for growth. “Sometimes, as we get older, we have a tendency to approach things as a ‘know it all,’ and that may be a way of covering up what we don’t know. Approach things from a learner’s perspective — ‘I’m curious and I want to know more about it,’ ” she says.

Depending on your role, the skills you need to learn could range from learning to use a specific social media platform or software program to something as complex as how to manage hybrid teams or deploy an effective cybersecurity program.

LinkedIn can also help here. First, the site has automated features, which can tell you when you’re a top candidate for a job based on the experience, skills and other items you have listed on your profile. The site’s free Pathfinder tool can also help you find the most relevant skills for the jobs you want, along with course suggestions to help you build them.

3. Build the skills you need

Once you’ve identified the skills you need to develop, you have plenty of places to turn. Today, there are more opportunities than ever to find low-cost and even free opportunities to build your skills.

Contact local learning centers. Wiacek recommends checking out the opportunities nearby. “If you crave person-to-person skill development, research local universities and community colleges. “I’m always impressed by how many cool and relevant continuing education courses my own local college has to offer for working professionals,” he says. Local colleges and universities may also be home to resources like the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and U.S. Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), which can help you if you are thinking about developing the skills you need to start a business.

Check your company’s resources. Your current employer has a vested interest in helping you develop your skills and solving its own skills gap issues. Look into training and tuition reimbursement opportunities offered by your company, especially if you seek more expensive opportunities such as continuing education courses or a certificate.

Search online resources. Numerous online learning sites and programs give you a wide range of options when it comes to building skills. For example, LinkedIn Learning offers more than 18,000 courses on business and lifestyle topics. If you have a LinkedIn profile, LinkedIn Learning will make recommendations based on the content there.

AARP has a comprehensive initiative with online learning provider MindEdge to help older adults build their skills. Skills Builder for Work offers courses in categories ranging from communication to management to digital marketing. Many courses are free, and participants also get discounts on other MindEdge courses.

Other online options include Udemy, Coursera, Skillshare and even YouTube.

Volunteer. Donating your time and talent to nonprofits, schools or other entities can also give you an opportunity to build new skills and gain experience, Wiacek says. “Offer your social media marketing skills to help the local understaffed animal shelter drive more awareness. You can then add any and all of those experiences as pro bono [work] or consulting on your résumé,” he says.

How to spread the word about your new skills

Once you’ve acquired the skills you need to help advance your career, let people know. Half of employers said that candidates need to do a better job of explaining their skills on their résumés.

Heitmann recommends strategically adding your new skills to your LinkedIn profile. “We’re seeing more and more on LinkedIn that hirers also want to know how and where you’ve used your skills. So job seekers can — and should — add different skills to each of their job descriptions. The listed skills will then also appear under your profile’s Skills section and will automatically be surfaced for relevant job postings when recruiters are searching for skills,” she says. The company’s research finds that 40 percent of hirers explicitly rely on skills to search and identify potential candidates, which is up 20 percent year over year.

Internally, Barr recommends informing your supervisor and team about your new training, if appropriate. You can also share what you’ve learned through an informal “lunch and learn” or a meeting.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities to build the skills you need to find a new job or advance in your career. By using your time and resources to thoughtfully build the skills that complement your existing expertise and abilities, you become a solution for companies seeking to solve their own skills gaps.