Forever, it seems, the standard resume has existed as a chronological list of your job experiences, preceded by your educational credentials, your interestsm and some minimal personal information. Over the past decade, a kind of “mission statement” has been added to the top of the resume, a sort of elevator pitch that is supposed to tell prospective employers who or what you are. Almost completely left off of resumes are skills, with the possible exception of an entry near the bottom, after education, of your proficiency with Microsoft Office or other varieties of software.
Now, put aside your resume and pick up a “Help Wanted” advertisement. It says almost nothing about experience, except perhaps time in grade. “Five years experience” means that you have attained a certain level of proficiency, the type that comes from being on a particular job for five years. But proficiency is not skill; it is mastery of a skill. What want ads really look for, and what resumes overwhelmingly ignore, are the critical skills that make the difference between getting a job and not getting one.
I was watching “60 Minutes” last night and there was a segment narrated by Scott Pelley that talked about the fact that there are three million jobs in thee U.S. going unfilled because of a lack of skilled applicants. Not experienced applicants, but applicants with specific skills. I’ve been writing about skills for some time, and I agree almost completely with Pelley’s segment: Most people have never assessed their skills and as a result, they haven’t got a clue about what jobs they are capable of doing.
Pelley was interviewing the owner of a factory, who was looking for people who could operate complex, computer-driven machinery. The skills he was looking for were computational ability, particularly with trigonometry, and the ability to read blueprints. These are not college-level skills. Most people study trig in eleventh grade, yet I would be willing to bet that there are few readers who remember their trigonometry skills. And therein lies the problem.
Before you can accurately assess your skills, you have to think about them, or get somebody to test you. Back when my wife and I first moved back to New York City, my wife had a succession of jobs, none of which she particularly liked. I persuaded her to go to a testing service. Personnel Sciences at that time was located in Greenwich Village. For a very modest fee, it administered a week’s worth of aptitude tests and provided you with a detailed account of your skills, but also of how those skills stacked up against people who were already successful in a variety of fields. My wife’s organizational and planning skills matched up well with people who were lawyers, army officers, architects, and advertising account executives. She didn’t want to go into the military and didn’t want to go back to school for prolonged training, so she used the information gleaned from her tests and began applying to advertising agencies. All of this took place in the early 1970s, in the midst of a recession at least as deep as the one from which we are currently emerging. Of the dozen letters she sent out, my wife received half a dozen interviews and a couple of job offers. Out of that, she built a successful career in advertising account management that continues to this day.
So what kind of skills am I writing about? Mostly, they are what constitute the core of your learning. The ability to comprehend what you read, the ability to write clearly and persuasively, the ability to stand in front of a group and speak, basic computational skills and basic path-finding — the ability to figure out how to plan to get from here to there — are skills that you began learning in first grade. Yet you would be surprised how many people have let one or more of these skills atrophy or never really developed them. I know many people who are brilliant in their fields who cannot put ten words together to form a coherent sentence, or who are terrified about having to speak in public. I know notable writers who cannot do basic multiplication, division, or estimation and I know many more people who are easily flustered when they are asked to put together a plan. If these people were dyslexic or suffered from attention-deficit disorder they would have learned how to make adjustments in their lives to compensate. But the truth is, most people who lack skills are not handicapped in any way. They just didn’t absorb the necessary lessons when they were in the early stages of learning.
The problem is, without these fundamental skills, all of your highly developed artistic and creative talent cannot be harnessed to the all-important task of keeping you employed. There are about thirty more skills that make up the full kit of skills that a successful person employs to get ahead, but without the basic five, you can’t even begin. The nice thing is, just as it’s never too late to learn a new language, it’s never too late to learn your own. Basic literacy — reading for comprehension rather than simply reading for pleasure — and basic writing skills require nothing more than practice, while basic arithmetic requires the willingness to put your calculator aside and practice a little “mental math.”
The jobs are out there. I know people, particularly young people, who are well-skilled in the basics and have had no problem finding well-paying work. I know other young people, all of them talented in something, who cannot find anything more than part-time work or are scraping by on minimum-wage jobs. The difference between the two groups is basic skills.
Stephen Kindel is the Chief Operating Officer of The Bronx Project, a startup pharmaceutical company. He has had many jobs, written many books and hired many people over his career. His latest book, Skill Sets, is available by contacting him at
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