Sunday, November 8, 2020

What is professional development?

Exploring the concept of professional development, and how we can harness its power to score pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and a lot more. 

Aaron S. Robertson

For this post, I'd like to spend some time, using a variety of concrete examples as a guide, discussing how you can stand out from the rest of your co-workers and other job applicants with a simple concept: professional development. Take advantage of professional development to win pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and more. Let's dive in and explore.

For starters, this Wikipedia article defines professional development as,

...learning to earn or maintain professional credentials such as academic degrees to formal coursework, attending conferences, and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage. There is a variety of approaches to professional development, including consultation, coaching, communities of practice, lesson study, mentoring, reflective supervision and technical assistance.

Now, let's back up for a moment. In all employment situations, you and your co-workers are all equal in skill level and dispositions, but only in the very limited, very superficial sense that you've all met, and continue to meet, certain qualifications and standards that your employer wants, at a minimum, for all of you to meet. If you and your co-workers fail to meet this minimum threshold, you wouldn't have been hired, and/or you wouldn't be there now.

But that equality in skill level and dispositions ends right there, with you and your co-workers all meeting and retaining that employer-mandated minimum set of standards. You're all the same, on paper, in this limited regard. Other than that, you are totally unique. You are truly one-of-a-kind, with an irreplaceable combination of skills, dispositions, experiences, hobbies and interests, education, and more. And this is where you have the opportunity to stand out from the rest of the pack and rise to the top. This is where professional development can come in to make your resume truly shine and get employers to take a closer look at who you are and what you have to offer.

Here are some of those concrete examples I was talking about:

Bilingual abilities - The ability to communicate in another language, like Spanish or one of the Hmong languages, for example, is a highly-desirable, and hence marketable, skill to have. So let's say you're an attorney, doctor or nurse, teacher, call center or 911 operator, law enforcement professional, or really any kind of small business owner, to name just a handful of examples here. As I stated earlier, you and your co-workers are all equal in the very limited sense that you're performing at a minimum set of standards that your employer has laid out for all of you. But you also happen to be fluent in a second language. With this skill, some additional doors are open to you. How many of your co-workers also happen to be bilingual? I'm guessing not very many. In the case of being a bilingual small business owner, you can utilize this talent to tap into new markets for your product or service, markets that may otherwise be under-served by your industry or profession. In short, what an impressive skill to have on your resume.

Professional development in the hospitality industry - Let's say you're currently working as a server at a restaurant. Plenty of high school and college students have jobs waiting tables, so this should be a great example to easily relate to. So you're currently waiting tables, and you're starting to have thoughts that you may really like this broader industry of hospitality and food service. You're thinking that you may want to stick with this business long-term and learn different aspects of it. You're wondering then, "How can I stand apart from my co-workers and other job applicants? How can I make myself more marketable and valuable to my current or future employers?" There are plenty of ways to do this. Some examples: When you're old enough to do so, assuming you're currently in high school, you may want to consider training to become a bartender and getting licensed by your state or local authorities to be able to do so. As a server, there are classes and workshops you can take that help you identify what foods pair well with one another, or what drinks (wines, beers, cocktails) pair well with certain foods and meals. Having this knowledge can equip you with the ability and confidence to upsell or cross-sell  items to your customers, which benefits both you and your employer. Your employer is going to like your ability to generate more revenue by increasing sales, and you're going to like the higher tips! If you're interested in learning the kitchen and working hands-on with foods, you may want to consider a culinary arts degree from your local technical college, which will not only help you develop your skills in the kitchen, but also provide you with a basic, introductory-level business education tailored to the culinary/hospitality industry. And don't forget - we're not just talking restaurants here. There's a whole world out there where you can learn/apply these skills and move up the ladder. This world includes hotels, cruise ships, banquet halls and catering businesses, and resorts.

Are you working in, or just starting to learn, a skilled trade? Consider adding a business degree to your resume down the road. Here's why - As I explained in a previous post, "Manufacturing and the trades in schools,": 

Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.

Certainly, this example also pertains to what we just discussed with the hospitality industry, as well. That big-picture business/management/leadership education can really complement and enhance all of the great hands-on expertise you're acquiring on the job, and can open many additional doors in your profession or industry.

Building true specialization in one or more areas - If you're an auto mechanic or auto body repair technician, or interested in becoming one, specializing in a particular make or model of car, either modern/current or vintage/classic, can be very beneficial for you. If you know that certain make/model inside and out, you're a true expert, and you can perhaps dominate an entire market, either locally, regionally, or yes - even nationally. Ditto if you're a computer/software programmer, or wanting to get into this line of work. Some months back, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and state unemployment systems instantly found themselves slapped with a massive surge of claims, a computer programming language called COBOL unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight making news headlines. COBOL is a 60+ year-old programming language that many state governments still use for systems like - you guessed it - unemployment. This Fast Company article from April 2020 explains the high demand and pay for those who can still work with this language, which the vast majority of universities and computer science programs stopped teaching in the 1980s! Certainly, many doctors, lawyers, educators, and investment professionals have specialties, as well. They've become the go-to experts for advice, news interviews and stories, and more.

Professional development can be formal or informal in nature, and it doesn't need to be time-consuming.

So far, we've discussed some instances where formal education via academic degrees can make for great professional development. But formal education is not always necessary, and it's not for everyone. In fact, some of the best ways to expand and build on your professional capabilities are very informal in nature and can either be free of monetary cost or very inexpensive. They also do not need to be very time-consuming or take up any additional time beyond your typical day, either. 

In fact, you can build professional development activities into your current work schedule. If there are additional skills you'd like to learn or continue to strengthen in your workplace, explain your interests to your manager(s). Perhaps they can work with you to build some time into your work schedule to focus on these goals. Perhaps it's a hard skill, like learning how to use a particular machine, tool, software program, or process that's applicable to your current work environment. Or maybe you'd like to focus more on building your soft skills, like the ability to communicate more effectively and collaboratively with co-workers and customers.

Sometimes, professional development may mean having to learn on-the-fly...

With the world of education (both K-12 and college-level) having gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators, myself included, all of a sudden found themselves having to learn all about Google Meet, Zoom, and a variety of other online learning tools and resources on a whim. But that's certainly okay. There's the old adage that goes, "With crisis comes opportunity." I'm now proficient in these virtual assets. Before the pandemic, I didn't really have to think about any of this stuff, simply because there was no need for me to do so. But the pandemic has forced me to add to my skills and hence broaden my horizons in this regard.

In closing, here are some more examples and ideas of informal ways to grow professionally:

Self-education through intense reading or project-based learning on a particular subject

Take courses through for as low as $11-12 each. I love Udemy and find it to be of great value. Read my recent review of Udemy.

Work on building your network of trusted experts and professionals

Seek out a mentor

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