Kicking off an occasional series on career development, Kate Allen explores how you can jump up to the next level by tackling your skills gaps. But, she asks, how do you choose the course that's right for you?
With a few years' experience under your belt, it's only natural to want to give your career a boost. One way to do that is to pick up a few new skills. There has never been a better time to scrutinise your skills gaps. With increasing job market uncertainty and competitiveness, some tactical professional development might just give you the edge over your peers. The question is, are you going to wait for your human resources department to approach you or are you going to be proactive and address the issue yourself?

"These days everyone should take responsibility for their career development. We live in an uncertain world and there are no jobs for life any more," warns Professor Ian Turner, director of graduate business studies at Henley Management College. "So people need to show a commitment to lifelong learning and be proactive."

The Construction Industry Training Board agrees. It is keen to emphasise that courses aren't just for industry entrants. "Training ensures that individuals keep up to date in a fast-evolving industry and so increase their marketability and effectiveness in their current role," says Sheila Hoile, the CITB's director of training strategy.

Can't you pick up expertise from colleagues or by observing on site? Research group BRE's John Kempster advises against it. "People can learn on site, but they risk picking up bad practices and skills," he explains. "On a course you are taught the best practice and advice, and shown several different ways of doing things. It's a quick way of getting you up to speed to then go out and do it in the real world."

If you're hoping to move on from your present job, you can really win over potential employers by showing you're interested in learning and developing new skills, says recruitment consultant GlobeRoom. "When employers are looking for managers, they are often looking for aptitude and the ability to learn and adapt more than actual technical skills," the company advises on jobs website "For example, rather than expecting you to know their particular computer systems or whatever, they will be looking for someone who can learn them quickly. You can show on your CV that you take it upon yourself to keep learning and developing your skills – anything from an MBA to simple piano lessons will help to demonstrate your thirst for continuing development."

What course should you choose?
So you're keen to better yourself, but how do know what course is best for you? Neil Butterill, who has many years' experience of teaching short courses, advises potential students to go for something they'll enjoy, as well as considering its career benefits. "The individual should get something out of the course motivationally, tapping into what they want to achieve," says Butterill. "It's natural for people to want to stretch and reach and grow their knowledge base. And you become a more bankable commodity in the marketplace – a high proportion of people who complete MBAs move on to a new company within 12 months."

Technical and business courses are the obvious choice – but many people find a course addressing personal issues such as time-keeping or assertiveness can be beneficial. Jayne Cave, head of public courses at trainers MaST, says short personal courses can lay the foundations for huge changes. "Personal courses aren't as tangible as something like book-keeping but they're a real business need. A little bit of training and confidence can really make a huge difference. That can then give people the confidence to go on to bigger and better things and maybe longer courses."

You can find out about potential courses from many sources – the internet, learning and skills centres, the job centre, and your organisation's HR department. If you're considering a longer course you might want to look at national league tables, too – they're not the Bible, but they can be a useful guide.

There are no jobs for life any more, so people need to show a commitment to lifelong learning

Professor Ian Turner

How to decide which course is for you

Recruitment website suggests you consider the following points:
  • Why do you want to do the course? Does the curriculum match your needs? Are the teachers sufficiently experienced?

  • Do you actually need to go on this course in order to address your career needs or can you learn informally from someone in your company?

  • Can you or your company afford it? Will your expected increase in earnings, or the business advantage your company expects to gain, justify the cost of going on the course? This is especially important for longer courses such as MBAs.

  • Is it a practical possibility? Do your current commitments in your career and personal life leave you enough time to do this course justice?

  • Are you prepared for the workload? Shorter courses don’t have much in the way of homework, but those over several weeks or months will require some graft. One business school hands out tests based on real-life business problems that arise on a Friday afternoon – you’re expected to solve and write up the problem by Saturday evening.

  • What are the study facilities like? Is there a library, and what hours is it open? Does the course provide study materials or will you have to track them down yourself? What are the IT acilities like?

  • What is the age range of the people who’ve done the course? What kinds of companies and backgrounds do they come from? Do they hold similar qualifications and experience to you? All these things can indicate whether this course is pitched at the right level for you.

  • Do other reputable companies use this course? What about your company’s rivals? What does your company’s HR department think of the course?

Top tips for convincing your boss

  • In most larger organisations, there is an HR training function that sets a core curriculum of development programmes, so first check if your course is within that.

  • Most organisations run yearly staff appraisals in which training and development is meant to feature. Bring up your desires within this context.

  • Identify the gap in skills, then identify the course that fulfils that.

  • Understand yourself and assess what skills you have – buddying and mentoring can help with this, as we all have blind spots about who we are and who we think we are.

  • Identify from the job you have or the job you want what skills are required, and which of these skills you have already.

  • Demonstrate an economic benefit to your company from you attending the course.

  • Some organisations offer a training credits system – you can choose what subjects you want to use those credits on.

  • Go in the back door by speaking to the HR training manager rather than your operational line manager, who might not have a great deal of time to consider your proposals. The HR training manager often carries the training budget, so they’re the person you’ve got to convince anyway.

Considering an MBA?

The MBA has become almost a default qualification. There are 10 times more MBAs graduating in the UK now than there were 15 years ago. It has become the international standard for aspiring managers around the world, and it’s the only internationally recognised management qualification. It is taken mid-career, typically in your 30s, and people must already have a successful career, with eight to 10 years’ experience.

Prof Ian Turner of Henley Management College says an MBA is ideally suited to specialists who are contemplating a move into general management. ”They look ahead and aspire to move out of their specialism,” he explains. “This is something that engineers and QSs often find – it’s difficult to make that leap from line management to general and then senior management.”

How do you know if an MBA is right for you?
Scrutinise your current career stage, Prof Turner says. “Are you too young and not experienced enough for a MBA? If you have little management experience, you should wait a while. Or are you beyond MBA level in terms of your career? If the MBA won’t give you more value, consider a shorter senior executive course instead.”

What if you’re not aspiring to general management?
“If you just want to get better at what you’re already doing, look at your strengths and weaknesses and spot your skills gaps, then do a short course or several to remedy this,” he suggests.

If you think an MBA is for you, the first decision you have to make is whether you will study full time or part time. Full time means leaving your present employer, undertaking very intensive study, then having to re-enter the labour market with a new job.

If that’s not for you, there are a range of part-time options such as studying once a week, three times a month, evening classes, or distance learning.

Successful part-time study should take into account your individual work pattern, Prof Turner suggests. Can you manage regular attendance on set days each week or month? Are evenings or weekends preferable? And what’s your level of self-discipline?

Then you have to pick which MBA provider to go for. You can find out about them with The Amber Handbook, which lists all the courses, and There are annual MBA fairs around the country, with two being held every year in London.

Prof Turner advises contacting the study centres you like and arranging to go and visit them. If possible, get a flavour of their teaching by sitting in on lectures. “This is a big commitment of your time and money,” he warns. “For the rest of your life you will be identified with that place, so you need to be comfortable with their image, brand and reputation.”

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