How to Develop Complementary Skills

In Part 2 of this Labor Day series, I would like to offer my readers some take home advice on planning your future education with an eye toward employment.

Through my involvement in Military MBA, I have gained an understanding into the subject of developing complementary skills. Most MBA students we educate have 4-year degrees and backgrounds in Engineering. They are combining this specific area of knowledge with mastery of business skills and an MBA degree. Among other benefits, this gives our students an economic application for their technical expertise and makes them much more valuable to employers.

During the DoD Education Symposium this summer, Tom Stein – who is the Chairman for the Orange County Veteran Employment Committee – recommended that military students earn a degree, learn a trade and obtain a professional certification. Part of the reason he recommends all 3 is because each level of education allows veterans to be more competitive in the civilian job market. Doing so will also allow military students to pursue other interests and have a better chance of developing complementary skills.

I have also had conversations with employers and faculty in academia about this subject. A Physics’ Chair and Professor at Wake Forest recently told another Engineering student I counsel how important it is to “be more than an Engineer”. He went onto explain how pure Engineers typically “peak out” early in their civilian careers, 5-8 years after they get undergraduate degrees. This happens because they can neither translate tech speak nor communicate knowledge between the people who make products and the people who manage the business. Technical Engineers must also effectively communicate to markets of customers who use their products and in areas where they offer support to clientele. These situations are examples that indicate the value of developing, and using, more than one specific skill.

In closing, I would like to go back to my first Labor Day post. In it, I talked about an Engineering student and an Economics student. I was glad to hear the Engineering student has now become a Teacher’s Assistant (TA). Teaching is another way to translate technical speak and broaden his world. Doing so opens up the student’s mind to think about other things connected to his degree. This “opening up” and “broadening” effect allows students to step back and acquire general knowledge and skills that will help them further succeed. When this happens, please don’t ignore the opportunity to pick up a complementary skill set or add on a new base of knowledge. In fact, I would urge you to hoard as many skills as possible while you are still a student.  In this instance, the student has recognized an opportunity to broaden himself and is motivated to develop a complement skill set connected to his Engineering degree.

The flip side of this coin is equally important. If you have more general knowledge, such as the Economics student, it pays to wear your speciality on your sleeve and see the world through the prism of your domain area of expertise or degree/major. The Economics student could focus heavily on all aspects of economics in everyday life. From the economics of being a student, to the economics of business, to the economics of governments, to international economics and even Freakonomics.  By surrounding himself in his discipline through social conversations, work internships, industry events, professional associations, informal learning, and other tools of his eventual trade; he will develop depth of knowledge and more technical skills that he will certainly need to launch a successful career.

Along the way, all students must recognize that learning takes shape in many forms and in various places both inside and outside of the classroom. As a student you may learn more in a lab than from a lecture, or cement theories of the classroom by figuring out concepts during a summer internship. Above all, be open and realistic enough to pursue all of your opportunities. Developing complementary skills will result in greater returns on a more successful career.

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