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Increasingly, basic job skills aren’t so basic

Technology, global economy raise bar

By Gillian Rich
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Not so long ago, the basic skills sought by employers were pretty simple: be literate, speak English, know some math, and understand specific roles in the company.

But as technology has exploded, and competition has increased, basic skills demanded by employers today are more advanced. Carpenters need to know how to use a smartphone and Excel spreadsheets as well as a hammer. Librarians not only need to navigate book stacks, but also the Internet. Almost everyone should know how to type.

“The bar has been raised, and expectations are higher, even for entry level employment,’’ said Patricia Hunt Sinacole, chief executive of First Beacon Group, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton.

“We are becoming a more sophisticated, knowledge- and technology-based economy, so if people don’t adapt and rise to that, they are left behind,’’ said Sinacole, a regular contributor to Boston.com.

In addition to fundamental skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, career counselors and recruiters say job seekers should know commonly used software. The applications in Microsoft’s Office are at top of the list, including Word, the word processing program; Excel, a spreadsheet; and Powerpoint, used for making slides for presentations.

Nearly everyone should know how to navigate the Internet, and recognize that Facebook isn’t just for college students anymore. Familiarity with social media is increasingly important as companies are turning to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to conduct business, connect with customers, and screen job candidates.

Classes to add or update computer skills are widely available through adult education and other programs. Each of the state’s 34 One-Stop Career Centers offer free introduction to basic computing workshops. Other classes on specific software such as Powerpoint have nominal fees, which can be waived for those who qualify.

With business communications largely conducted through e-mail, the ability to write clearly, carefully, and succinctly is more important than ever, said Phyllis Stein, an independent career counselor and coach in Cambridge. Many universities have online writing labs that feature style and grammar guides as well as templates for professional writing. Donald Anderson, director of Workforce Central Career Center in Worcester, suggests Purdue University’s online writing lab, OWL.

Communication skills, of course, have always been high on the list of job basics, but employers are beginning to raise expectations on this front, too. In a rapidly globalizing economy, knowledge of foreign languages is increasingly valued.

Foreign language classes are offered at adult education programs, as well as specialized schools such as The Boston Language Institute, which offers instruction in 140 languages. Other options are to audit a foreign language class at a local university or study-at-home programs such as Rosetta Stone.

“Today, when many American corporations receive as much as 50 percent or more of their profits from overseas business,’’ said Larry Elle, director of Success Associates Career Services in Boston, “it pays them to hire people with language skills.’’

Finally, career specialists say, job hunters today need a battery of so-called soft skills, such as empathy, cooperation with co-workers, and flexibility. The willingness to work outside normal business hours, adapt to changing circumstances, and take on additional responsibilities is increasingly sought after by employers competing in a global economy that never shuts down.

As a result, job seekers should hone organizational skills, which are vital in multitasking work environments. Employees can read up on how to be organized in books or online. The key is finding a method that works and sticking to it. Show up to a job interview with a neat folder with notes and your resume, instead of a messy pile of scraps of paper, and your potential boss will already see you’re organized, career specialists advise.

“In both the job search and success on the job, the more organized you are in what you’re doing and how you’re going about it, the more successful you’re going to be,’’ Stein said.