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Brushing up on the skills your job demands is more than just a necessity – it’s the ideal way to discover your untapped potential too.

Since qualifying as a personal fitness trainer four years ago, 56-year-old Gill Phelps had continued to learn additional skills, including special training on working with people who’ve suffered heart attacks and with pregnant women or new mothers.

The latest course taught Gill how to incorporate Nordic pole-walking into a fitness regime. As she’s self-employed, a major reason for her on-going learning is to meet other professionals. ‘The courses keep me motivated and interested,’ she says.

Without the input of of the latest expertise, Gill admits, ‘I wouldn’t feel nearly as confident in my job. Staying on top of developments is vital. It’s definitely worth the time and money.’

Aside from the fitness-focused courses, she found first-aid training the most beneficial. ‘If someone collapses in the street, I can now rush up and assist,’ she says. So the benefits of upgrading her skills are very clear: it gives her greater confidence and self-esteem, and provides a better service to her clients as well as to the public.

Whether, like Gill, you take courses, read up on new developments or go to conferences, keeping your abilities up to date is a key element of career success. Here's how to go about it.

10 top tips for updating skills

1. Imagine the future

Think about what you'd like to be doing five years down the line. Do you see yourself in the same role or somewhere different? You might change your views along the way, but a specific target gives you something to aim for.

For example, you may enjoy what you’re doing, but you know that you want to be in a more senior position in five years.

2. Play with your options

Even with limited funds you can release your dreams. The secret is planning, so list two or three life options on paper. For instance: stay in same place but with a better job; fulfil your heart's desire by selling Harley Davidsons; move abroad and be self-employed. Then ask yourself a few key questions: what can you afford to do? What skills do you need? Think creatively, as well as practically.

3. Pinpoint your skills shortfall

If, say, you want to move to the countryside and be self-employed, you’ll need to be able to drive; it will also help if you’re at ease making friends. Of course, you’ll have to be able to earn money too.

Income could be generated by anything from gardening to computer consultancy to dinner-party catering. Read magazines aimed at people doing what you want to do and check the back pages for details of relevant courses.

4. Get some experience

Volunteer for training courses at work. Is there an institute for your field of interest that provides further training? If you’re in a union, speak to a rep about available training. You could also shadow someone who's doing the kind of thing you’re interested in.

If you’re thinking about changing professions, try to get experience in that area – for instance if you want to write for a living, offer articles to your local paper or a website.

5. Upgrade your computer skills

Libraries NI runs free introductory courses around Northern Ireland

Computer training, through your local college, can make you a more appealing employee – try the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) and Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT). Both introduce you to computers and familiarise you with the internet, email, word processing, spreadsheets and databases.

6. Check what rivals are doing

Competition between organisations and individuals is one of the great engines of progress. Employees should see what staff training rival companies offer – its a powerful way to persuade your boss to develop you further.

If you’re a one-man band, find out what competitors are up to. Painter and decorator Dave Parnell, 60, says, ‘I need to know about new equipment to keep up with the latest techniques, so I talk to suppliers regularly.’

7. Call a recruitment agent

If you want a new job – or you want to ensure you’re doing yours to the best of your ability, get an independent reality check from a recruitment agent. They will tell you frankly what your chances are in the job market, and in which areas your skills are weak.

8. Embrace change

How you look sends out a powerful message and can transform your view of yourself too. Jo Bond of Right Coutts, a human resources consultancy, says you need to ask yourself, ‘Do I look like someone living in 2010 or 1986?’

But it’s not just about how you look. You can also keep up with change by finding out about iPods, Skype (a system for making phone calls through your computer) and other technological developments. Reducing your fear of change is important and will give you more confidence.

Read magazines (including those for 20-somethings) and watch TV that’s not on your normal viewing list to find out what new gadgets and trends the younger generation are talking about and trying out.

9. Think modern

Being able to communicate across generations in a working environment means learning to talk in a relaxed way to 20- and 30-somethings.

John Mattock, 56, of business communications consultancy, Right Brain Training, says, '30-year-olds will, in general, be literal-minded due to their more specific, vocational education and young managers value ideas for their immediate relevance.’

Also, younger people tend to have shorter attention spans, so consider updating your presentation style or the way you contribute to meetings.

10. Choose a role model

Study the techniques of people who are successful. What is it in their behaviour that makes them so? How can you incorporate it into your approach?

‘Find a role model who has achieved a career change and watch them,’ says Jo Bond, ‘or befriend someone of a similar age and profile to you. It can be reassuring and inspiring.’

If you choose a good role model, you will probably learn far more than just technical points; you will also see, in practice, the importance of dress, presentation, optimism, goal-setting and getting on with other people.

For more information: Call Age NI Advice: 0808 808 7575

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