What’s in Your Skills Box and How Can You Use It?


When employers ask about your employment history what they really want to know is what is in your skills toolbox –technical skills, soft skills and interpersonal skills. Hold tight to this mindset when writing your résumé and discussing your accomplishments during employment interviews.  Guide your career by consciously adding to your skills toolbox. Below I will discuss two ways to do this.

Identify your core capabilities

These are the skills you build on to develop a capability-driven career. To identify these begin with a self-appraisal. Look for distinctive Talents, Skills, and Knowledge (TSK) that will make you highly competitive for certain lines of work. These are the reasons an employer would hire or promote you rather than someone else. Help identify these core capabilities by consulting with mentors and trusted colleagues. Recalling your past performance appraisals can also help identify your TSKs and where you need to improve.

Suppose you are a product development chemist or manage a group of product development chemists. Empathy, the ability to understand the needs of customers, is probably the origin of your biggest success. This means understanding the customer’s technology needs, and how the customer’s profitability can be improved. Empathy will help you imagine new products, create business relationships, and build productive teams – including joint teams with customers. Empathy is supported by technical skills in the relevant areas important to the customer and good listening skills.

Consider Charles McLaughlin, a product development chemist for Halliburton Services before his retirement. His knowledge of the behavior of subterranean rock behavior in the presence of flowing oil, natural gas and aqueous fluids led to the design of chemical treatments that maintained the permeability of oil-bearing rock and thus oil well production rates. He demonstrated empathy when discussing permeability – related oil and gas production problems with customers. This led to increased sales for his employer. (How did he demonstrate this skill?)

When seeking a new job or a promotion, emphasize what makes you distinctive and how this leads to your success. If Mr. McLaughlin had been job hunting, he could demonstrate customer empathy in his résumé, cover letter, and during interview discussions. It is unusual for a chemist to do this and would help make him a memorable job candidate.  (Why unusual?)

Identify capabilities you need to strengthen

Having identified the capabilities you already have, consider what you need to develop. Possible targeted new capabilities can be expertise in a technical field or in a function such as management. You can build new capabilities or strengthen current ones by taking short courses or working in a new area.

Adding new capabilities can shift your career direction. For example, strengthening my technical writing skills enabled me to write more technical papers while strengthening my management skills.  It also enabled me to shift the core of my job assignments to management.

When making this kind of switch, people sometimes abandon their existing capability base. This is a dangerous course to take because careers often take unexpected turns. Often you may want to shift back or leverage what you already know to do something new. For instance, an extended period of low oil prices led me to change my focus from oil production to paper recycling technology. However, after about ten years I refocused on oil production and refining technology when these businesses recovered.

Sometimes the skills you need may be obvious. For instance, an April 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) compared the skills gap between older employees (not just chemists) nearing retirement and younger colleagues just starting their careers. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that basic grammar and spelling were the top “basic” skills among older workers in which their younger coworkers were deficient.

Career development through capability growth is a way to build a career that’s right for you. Are you building your career path based on what’s in your skills box?

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

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4 Responses to What’s in Your Skills Box and How Can You Use It?

  1. Cynthia Fuhrmann says:

    I was reading and enjoying this article as I have so many of John’s, and just saw the biographical note about his passing. What sad news, and a major loss to Chemistry and scientific career development. Thank you, ACS, for continuing to publish his articles; please consider recycling older ones, so that newer readers can benefit.

    John, you have truly contributed to the success of many chemists. You will be missed.

    Cynthia Fuhrmann
    Assistant Dean, Career and Professional Development
    University of Massachusetts Medical School

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