The Complete Worker’s Guide to Professional Skills

worker's guide to professional skills


The professional skill set that you build throughout your career is much more important than any qualification you obtain. Any type of work experience that can be applied to your job is essential to building the competencies and personal qualities vital to success.

Professional skills have been a hot topic for quite a long time, particularly in the UK, where the skills gap is currently the biggest barrier to youth employment. In a keynote speech that Matthew Hancock delivered to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) and Work Foundation, he stressed the importance of skills and the problem the country is facing because there are too many young people leaving education without the skills that prepare them to excel in other areas of their lives. Essentially, the problem is that young people often possess the wrong competencies as they are about to go on the job hunt.

But, even though there is a lot of discussion about skills, has anybody ever attempted to explain what these are and what we should do with them?

What Exactly are Skills?



The Business Dictionary defines skills as the ‘ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carry out complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills).’  

While this may sound more complex than it really is, it’s something that’s difficult to explain. Skills are often better understood ‘through practice’ – or if you like, when you get involved in more practical applications. That’s when you figure out how well you can do a certain activity and you measure this performance in your ability to carry out a task.

Why Work on Them?

Job market competition is fierce, and if you want to succeed in your career, you have to learn to be flexible. This piece of advice isn’t only applicable to jobseekers, but everyone out there. So, whatever stage you are at in your career - whether you are a jobseeker, an established professional or a CEO, here’s how working on your skills can help you develop professionally.

For Jobseekers

Employers have become more demanding in terms of what they are asking for from jobseekers, and they don’t offer positions to just anybody. The annual CBI survey showed that almost 70 percent of employers are worried that they will not be able to recruit enough highly-skilled employees and they warn of a widening skills shortage. Employers are also concerned because of the lack of basic abilities such as literacy and numeracy.

What’s rather promising is that they are more likely to appreciate ‘a candidate's attitude to work’ over qualifications, and just like Rod Bristow, the co-sponsor of the survey said, ‘employers don’t just value what people know; they value what they can do. By far the most important ‘skills factor’ centres on attitudes and aptitudes such as the ability to present well.

As a jobseeker, you need to work on the abilities that will help you stand out from the crowd and present you as the ideal candidate. Skills are important because this is how you show that you have what it takes for a job. Working on these has a range of benefits to your job search as a whole and it can:

  • Make you more desirable to the eyes of recruiters.
  • Make you more confident during the job interview.
  • Make your CV, cover letter and job application stronger.

In essence, your skills are the testimony of your professional experience. They turn relevant real-life examples into a rich portfolio of work that employers are required to evaluate to make a fair hiring decision.

Employers are more likely to hire a candidate who cares about self-improvement – is well-rounded, has once been or is a volunteer, and has made an effort to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to do a job.

For Established Professionals

For professionals already working in the field, developing your skills means that you always stay up to date with industry trends. Most industries are developing fast, and the need to stay current is essential. Working on those areas that you need to improve can equip you with the knowledge you need to perform better in your job. It can also get you higher up the career ladder and bring you closer to getting that raise and/or the promotion you need.

Developing your skills is a chance to get more from the job you already have. It gives you a sense of achievement when you do something right, and it allows you to gain an insight into your character while paying closer attention to your strengths and weaknesses.

For CEOs/Managers

Who says that you don’t need to develop your skills when you reach the top of your professional career? No one knows everything and even if you have a very high position there is plenty of room for improvement. Remember what Socrates famous paradox says, “I know one thing, that I know nothing”.

Even when you are close to self-actualisation and at the top of the Maslow’s pyramid, there are still plenty of ways to improve yourself because the journey of learning is never-ending. If you are reluctant to learn, it means that you are not willing to open up your mind to new horizons, try out alternative solutions or apply that knowledge to what you already know.

This is exactly what lifelong learning is all about. It’s important to learn new skills and develop the ones you already possess at any point in your career. The European Commission provides the definition of lifelong learning and says that it refers to “all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training, however far this process may have gone.” In other words, lifelong learning is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge – for either personal or professional reasons, that aim to improve market competitiveness and employability.

There many different types of skills and that can make it easy to get confused. Hopefully, this article can shed some light on things so that you understand what each type of skills refers to and how you can improve them.

Soft Skills

These are the most important competencies you will need in your career. They are difficult to measure but are essential to every professional. Because of that, people are confused with what they are. It makes sense because they are constantly bombarded with buzzwords like ‘transferable’ and ‘employability skills’ and sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the differences between them.

But just to clear things up, all of these words describe the same abilities. Different words are used because they are often used in a different context. ‘Transferable skills’ are the abilities that can be applied to any work environment since they can be transferred from one job to another.

The term ‘employability skills’ is just another made-up term for ‘soft’ and ‘transferable skills’ though they serve a purpose and that is ‘to get, keep and be successful in a job’. The word ‘employability’ first started to be used and was further developed within universities to stress the importance of the core competencies and encourage students to work on them while at the University. Employability skills help to make you more employable and can also refer to your ability to market yourself effectively, either through building a better CV, crafting a winning cover letter, improving your interview techniques or even networking.

All three of these types are essential abilities that everyone has and makes use of every day. They describe relationships with other people and describe how you approach life and work. These are divided into four main categories:

  • Basic skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening and mathematics.
  • People skills: negotiation, leadership, teamwork and cultural diversity.
  • Thinking skills: creative thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and visualisation
  • Personal qualities: self-confidence, self-control/self-management and responsibility.

The University of Kent has compiled a list of the top 10 skills employers want to see in graduates that is based on a number of surveys conducted by Microsoft, Target Jobs, the BBC, Prospects, NACE and AGR amongst other organisations and explains what each category refers to. Most of these soft skills you're probably already familiar with because they are the most fundamental ones, but you might want to take note so that you can recognise them and improve them further.

Basic Skills

These are the most basic skills that everyone has:

Verbal Communication

Every job requires that you possess the ability to communicate effectively. As a basic skill, it’s probably the most important skill that you will ever need to use and apply effectively at work. Learning how to communicate with the people you work with is crucial because this helps you to express your opinion and ideas more clearly and confidently. Also, it allows you to resolve conflicts and disagreements that may arise in the workplace.

Written Communication

Apart from verbal communication, you also need to be proficient in written communication. Today, technology has made it possible to communicate with other people through a variety of means and the ability to express yourself clearly in writing, becomes more important than ever. Whether this includes writing a report, an email or communicating with others through a messaging app, learning how to write so that other people can understand what you are saying is necessary for workplace success.


Basic numeracy skills are essential to any job and aren’t only for scientists. While you may not work as a cashier or become an accountant per se, the ability to multiple and divide accurately, calculate percentages, use statistics, and interpret graphs is desirable to employers.

People Skills

People skills are often referred to as ‘social’ or ‘interpersonal’ skills because they describe interaction with other people.


The ability to work confidently as part of a group. This is all about cooperation, respect, and providing help to the other members of the team in the best way possible. Being a good team player means listening carefully to others, identifying common goals and working towards them. It requires being open, honest and offering constructive suggestions.

Commercial Awareness

Most degrees try to provide jobs to young people within a certain department of a business or in some other cases to start their own. So whether you want to work in accounting, marketing or any other business-related profession you first need to learn how these things work. Developing your business acumen is all about understanding the commercial realities affecting an organisation, the operational procedures and the role of the people who are taking part of the process.

Global Skills

‘Global skills’ is an umbrella term that reinforces the idea of developing cultural awareness and being in a position to understand the differing viewpoints of people coming from different ethnic backgrounds. Communicating with people across different cultural borders can be seen as a competitive advantage in the job market, and it’s a must-have quality for every professional who wants to excel in a workplace that is becoming more diverse.

Interpersonal Sensitivity

Interpersonal sensitivity is the ability to recognise and respect different perspectives and being open to new ideas and views of others. This is a skill that’s often associated with ‘emotional intelligence’ which has become one of the most important skills of the 21st century. The idea behind emotional intelligence is that every professional should be able to relate with other people effectively and it’s especially useful to those in leadership positions.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and of others. It refers to having self-control, showing empathy and getting in another person’s shoes so that you can relate better with them. Some experts say that in some cases, emotional intelligence is even more important IQ which means it’s worth paying attention to other people’s feelings whether these are your colleagues, customers or employees.

Thinking Skills

Analysing and investigating

This is the ability to gather and evaluate information systematically so that you can establish certain facts and principles. It’s a process of identifying the key elements, strengths and weaknesses of a situation or a problem, and then coming up with the most effective and practical solutions. It uses research skills as well as analytical and logic reasoning.

Planning and Organising

Planning ahead and organising your workload is what every responsible individual does. But this can also work on a personal level. Unless you come up with a plan of how you want your career to unfold, you can’t expect to get where you want. Being organised isn’t only a matter of producing good work, but also following a plan that can help you achieve your short and long-term goals. This is all about having a clear direction of how you want things to work out.


Flexibility is what drives change and development. It is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, taking on new challenges at short notice and dealing with changing priorities and goals. It often requires that you modify the direction of your work and your plans to adjust to new and unfamiliar work environments. The world of work is constantly changing, and you should be willing to work by the rules. Learning how to be more flexible and resilient has become so important that in a recent report by Right Management, 91 percent of hiring managers said that by 2018 people will be recruited on their ability to deal with change and uncertainty.

Negotiating and Persuading

The ability to influence and convince others is often related to professions in industries such as marketing, business and law but they are also transferable skills that can be used in any job. They are essential for when you are giving a presentation, promoting/selling something, discussing ideas and trying to reach an agreement.

Time Management

Time management is a skill that everyone talks about, and it’s extremely important in terms of maintaining performance. It’s a skill that helps you balance the demands of daily life - study, work, family, leisure and free time - and increases the chances of success in various areas of your life. Properly balancing work and play time is the difference between a successful professional and a mediocre one.


The ability to motivate and direct other people effectively is essential for everyone, not just for people who want to become managers or business owners. Building on your leadership skills is vital given that most employers are looking to hire leaders and not followers. That’s because they want to hire people who are positive, can lead by example and motivate others.

Computing Skills

The ability to use online databases, spreadsheets, the Internet, social media and email is essential. Employers are investing in the ICT skills of the young workforce. Anything that they can’t do that involves working with computers they expect young people to be able to do. Technology is constantly evolving, and those who know a lot about computers have an advantage over others in the job market and workplace.

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning is continuous learning to develop the competencies needed for current and future roles. It is often translated as a ‘willingness to learn’, to develop yourself either personally and professionally. For some, ‘lifelong learning’ means never settling with what have at the moment, and always looking for new ways to improve. People who believe in lifelong learning are more likely to take risks.

Stress Tolerance

The modern workplace is often fast-paced, loud and competitive. You need to maintain high levels of mental strength and be able to perform effectively under pressure.


Integrity is one of the most important values that professionals need to adhere to in the workplace. You need to be honest and ensure that you are following the standards and procedures set by your employer, maintain confidentiality whenever asked, and question inappropriate behaviour.


It’s not enough to be able to work as part of a team; you also need to be able to work on your own. Many job adverts highlight the importance of independence and often ask for jobseekers to be able to ‘work effectively on their own’. Independence means accepting responsibility for the tasks that you are given, working under your own direction and initiative.

Developing Professionalism

Striving for excellence and paying attention to every detail of your job is essential to success. It's not enough to simply 'do your job'. You have to be willing to progress in your job, take on more responsibilities and help others in any way possible. Developing professionalism is all about empowering others and viewing the success of the business as your own.

Action Planning

Action planning is the ability to come up with an effective plan that can help you achieve the goal at hand. It involves figuring out what you want to do, the next steps you need to take and developing some strategies to get there. Making plans and sticking to them requires putting some priorities either in your daily schedule or the way you work so that you stay focused and productive.


Your actions are the results of the decisions you make, and effective decisions can lead you to success. Decision making is your ability to analyse facts or data and then figure out what the best course of action is either for you or the organisation you work for.


Creativity is at the centre of change and innovation. It's desirable to any employer because it's the ability to generate and apply original ideas and practical solutions to problems. Even though it is often overlooked, creativity is critical, especially in business settings. Professionals who are creative can think outside of the box, analyse abstract ideas and use their inventiveness and imagination to produce meaningful results.

Personal Qualities

Many career experts believe that soft skills are more important than having a good CV and they value personal qualities such as punctuality, flexibility, and cooperativeness more than anything else. So, even though you may hold a bunch of degrees and qualifications, as an entry level professional, this won’t make you more employable unless you show evidence of certain personal qualities that are needed in the workplace. These are:


Nobody likes a lazy employee, and people who have a genuine interest in their work are the ones who get the most out of it. Being driven and self-motivated means having an excitement for the industry you are in and the job you are doing. Drive mainly comes from a willingness to get things done and constantly looking for better ways to do things. It also translates to having a strong work ethic, and every employer wants to see more of that.


The ability to act on your own initiative is crucial in the workplace. It shows that you can take the lead, identify opportunities, suggest interesting ideas and practical solutions. You are doing more of what’s required from you, going the extra mile and being proactive in everything you do. It also means speaking up, sharing your ideas, always prepared and asking a lot of questions.


The ability to recognise your strengths and weaknesses is one of the biggest tricks of successful people. Being aware of your achievements, abilities and values helps you evaluate the good and the bad and then come up with ways to improve yourself. It also helps you find out what you want out of life, how you are most likely to react to different work environments and in situations where there is a conflict between you and other people.


If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. Having the confidence to admit to your mistakes, stand up for yourself and prove to your employer that you can handle any assignment that is given to you is crucial. Having self-confidence helps to present a strong, professional and positive image to others – your interviewer, boss and colleagues alike; it generates respect, trust and support.


Hard Skills

hard skills

These are the abilities that are otherwise known as ‘job-specific’ or ‘technical skills’ – for some industries such as technology and IT. In contrast to soft skills, they are easy to identify and quantify. However, they are often harder to attain.

Whereas soft skills are more personality-driven, subjective and difficult to prove, hard skills can easily be proven with the qualifications and certificates you get. For example, a degree can confirm that you have gained knowledge in a specialised field and that you are ready to take on a job, fulfilling the demands of the work involved.

Usually, you get to develop these abilities through some training, work experience schemes or studies, because they can help you become more familiar with procedures and principles that are as necessary for a job e.g. handling heavy machinery or ensuring the safety of workers at a construction site.

  • Computer programming
  • SEO/SEM marketing
  • Translation skills
  • Proofreading/Editing
  • Graphic Design
  • Accounting/Bookkeeping
  • Project Management
  • Data analysis
  • Use of software such as Adobe, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.

This list of skills is endless because they can vary depending on the position. Hard skills are valuable to every individual depending on what field they are interested in.

How to Improve Your Skills


Your skills aren’t predetermined qualities of your personality; they can be acquired, developed and improved. Both soft and hard skills can be learned and developed and there are countless of work-based opportunities that can help you. You can choose when and how to acquire new skills so that the learning experience corresponds to your current career needs.

Extra-Curricular Activities

Perhaps the easiest way to improve your skills is through hobbies. Just think about it. As a kid, your hobbies helped you develop your interests in a couple of areas/industries. Your hobbies, whether these are related to sports, art, dancing, theatre, music, reading or chess, have equipped you with some valuable ‘tools’.

Let’s take sports, for example. Most sports teaches you what teamwork is and how important it is to work with other people as part of a group towards a common goal. Art, dancing, theatre, and music can help you improve your creative thinking, concentration, and lateral thinking. Reading amongst other benefits improves your writing and analytical thinking while playing chess improves your logic reasoning.


IIn-house training programs such as apprenticeships are a great way to learn new skills that are relevant to the industry you want to get into. If you are a school leaver who isn’t interested in going to university, you can benefit a lot from apprenticeships because this gives you an opportunity to develop your expertise in an occupation or trade. Having to compete with graduates for a place in the job market can be tough and you will need to equip yourself with a strong skill set.

For more information on apprenticeships, there are some useful sites like GOV.UK, which is a great starting point if you are in the UK.


It equips you with a range of skills that are useful for getting a job. As a volunteer, you can help your career a lot – especially if you choose to go abroad. Amongst others e.g. teamwork and communication skills, cultural awareness is an important skill that you get to learn while spending time and working with people coming from different backgrounds. Such activities can look great on your CV and there are many places to find volunteer work.


As a student or graduate, you can improve your skills with a number of work-based learning opportunities including work placements and internships. These are short-term periods of employment designed to equip you with the competencies you need to enter the job market. They can help you improve your leadership ability, initiative and other qualities that are valuable in the workplace.

Part-Time Work

Any part-time work can help improve your employability even if it's flipping burgers or waiting tables. Having to handle your studies and work can be a difficult task. It requires proper planning, setting priorities and time management.

What’s interesting is that most students or even graduates say that they haven’t got any real work experience or anything that would be relevant to a career except some bar or restaurant work and waiting tables. But, dealing with customers, handling money, working under pressure, being responsible for organising and planning different procedures are all important skills that shouldn’t be ignored at an entry level.

At College/University

College or University can equip you with an array of technical skills. Not only that, but you can also learn soft skills that are useful to your overall career development. For example, meeting deadlines and completing assignments on time helps you develop your organisational and project management skills. Working with a group and being in charge of a project shows teamwork, initiative and leadership. All of these are core competencies that are useful in your career and employers look for in their employees.

Work Shadowing

Work-shadowing can be part of a work placement setting. Even though this can’t offer you hands-on work experience, it can help you a lot if you are new to the field and you want to become more familiar with the industry, getting you ready to meet the demands of the occupation. Observing the work of a doctor as a medical intern, for example, can equip you with the knowledge of how to react in difficult situations, and what your responsibilities are.

Online Classes/Courses

Many online courses can help you build up your professional skill set and gain valuable knowledge about an industry or profession. They are usually applicable to a specific job or industry, which means they can help you improve your hard skills, e.g. web design, coding, photography, content marketing, etc.

Some online course providers also offer training for personal development skills such as confidence, productivity, managing finances, creativity, memory and motivation, which although often ignored are essential for career success. If you are interested, you might want to check these out:

edX – choose to study a course from a range of subjects and modes of study including micro masters, professional certificates and XSeries.

Udemy – popular platform amongst students that offers more than 40,000 courses you can take at your own pace using any device.

Udacity – course provider that specialises in modern technology offering nano degree programs in data science, software engineering and web development.

FutureLearn – offers a variety of online courses on big data, human anatomy, crime investigation and even moral values.

Career Events

Perhaps you think that you couldn't benefit from attending a career fair. But apart from networking and expanding your circle of contacts with some key people within the industry, it can also be a real eye-opening experience. That is what people have been saying about The Skills Show, which is an annual event for educators, employers and most importantly for young people and aims to give them a chance to become familiar with the huge variety of skills and career opportunities available to them in a fun and interactive environment.

There are also more specialised events for people who already know what industry they want to get into. Skills for Care and Skills for Health hold annual conferences that have an enormous amount of information and advice on how to develop the skills that are needed in social and health care, connecting professionals with employers and getting them into the field.

Try Taking a Skills Test

skills test

If you want to check your skills, you can take a couple of tests that are freely available online. The National Career Service’s Skills Health Check Test allows you to give your competencies a ‘health check’ using a set of online questionnaires that offer information about your abilities, interests and motivation in the workplace. It can also help you check where you are standing in regards to your current knowledge.

But, if you can’t assess your own abilities or simply don’t know what you are good at, you can always ask a friend or someone you trust e.g. your coworkers or friends, to tell you what they think you are good at and why. Sometimes it’s difficult to spot your strengths until someone else points them out for you.

Having said that, what’s important is for every professional to understand is that they should care about the progress they are making in their careers. Whatever the situation is, it’s important to take some time to reflect back on what you are doing and think about how you can further your career with new skills because this is the primary driver of professional development.

When you are always working on your skills, you won’t risk staying stagnant in your career. It forces you to keep moving forward, educating yourself along the way, enhancing your skill set and furthering your career!

What are you planning to do to stay up-to-date with your industry? Let us know in the comments section below…

See Also: The Key Employability Skills You Need For Your Next Job