How To Advance Your Career Through Skills-Based Learning
Career Growth

How To Advance Your Career Through Skills-Based Learning

by Kate Finley
Photos Jessica Scott | September 19, 2014


Do you use what you learned in college in the workplace?

If the answer is “not really,” you’re not alone. According to new data released yesterday, while almost half of Americans say their higher education helped them get their first job, more than a third believe they use less than ten percent of what they learned in college in the workplace.

In other words, college might help you land that first job, but it may not help you once you’re there.

This finding is a result of the Udemy Skills Gap Index, an independent survey commissioned by online learning marketplace Udemy and conducted by ResearchNow. The data comes in the midst of a charged national discussion about the prevailing “skills gap,” or the disparity between the skills Americans have and the skills employers are seeking. The number of job openings in the U.S. economy—at its highest level in 7 years—has significantly outpaced the number of people being hired. According to the recent Talent Shortage Survey by ManpowerGroup, 40 percent of U.S. employers reported difficulty in finding qualified employees to fill vacant roles.

And the recognized disconnect between college education and workforce skills is not new. In a 2013 Gallup survey evaluating American public opinion on higher education, a scant eleven percent of business leaders strongly agreed that graduates have the skills and competencies requisite to success in the workplace. The recent Udemy data corroborates this narrative; Udemy CEO Dennis Yang stated “…while higher education may be effective at helping individuals score their first job, skills and knowledge learned at academic institutions become obsolete as Americans change professions and skill-set requirements change.”

College might help you land that first job, but it may not help you once you're there.

I had the chance to chat with Udemy’s Senior Director of Marketing Shannon Hughes, who is an expert on the findings and implications of the survey. We discussed the impact of the identified skills gap on the transition from college to the workforce, and how recent grads can take ownership of developing the in-demand skills required for both the jobs they have and the jobs they want in the future.

Let’s talk secret skill development sauce: here’s why you should be going the extra mile to build a useful, relevant skill set, and how you can leverage that skill set to accelerate your career.


The job market is radically different than it was ten years ago, as is the related speed of the skill development landscape. In the past, the need to engage in an ongoing learning effort – to learn new programming languages, to stay abreast of new pieces of technology – was largely limited to developers and employees in more technical verticals. However, in the midst of today’s fast-changing market, Hughes noted, skills depreciate quickly across a number of different functional areas. Keeping up with new techniques and learning new competencies to remain current has become compulsory for employees across many different industries.

A college education just isn’t the end of the road anymore. “Working and learning are no longer these discrete, separate worlds,” Hughes said. “Most successful folks are the ones who take lifelong learning seriously throughout their careers, and really take ownership of it.”

Most successful folks are the ones who take lifelong learning seriously throughout their careers, and really take ownership of it.

Freshly minted millennial graduates will especially benefit from cultivating side projects and building cutting-edge, pragmatic skills relevant to their desired careers. Employers are demanding much higher skills requirements at the entry level; a recent Georgetown University study found that the employment rate for young adults (21-25) declined from 84 to 72 percent between 2000 and 2012, and recommended that young adults mix work and learning at earlier stages to accelerate their launch into full-time careers.

Millennials are further notoriously finicky about where they work, and tend to change jobs three times more often than their elders, on average lasting no longer than three years with the same employer. Hughes pointed out that this tendency to change jobs frequently renders skills-based learning all the more important: “Skills are going to be such an important currency for millennials moving from job to job…keeping skills current is just incredibly important.”


Okay, so we’ve established that everyone – and recent grads especially – should be capitalizing on opportunities to learn outside of work to excel. But when faced with the veritable cornucopia of rapidly proliferating alternative learning options rushing to fill the emerging fracture lines in traditional higher education, how do you find the best option? How can you ensure that your limited time available outside of work or school is spent wisely?

This is, Hughes contends, where online learning has a distinct advantage. A sizeable pack of pupils demonstrably agrees: Udemy’s global community exceeds four million students and ten million course enrollments. For Hughes, the value proposition of learning online is manifested by students’ ability to experiment with content in a way that is very accessible, affordable, and easy to use. “On Udemy,” she said, “We see people coming in, testing out new skills, going to look at content that they think might be interesting or relevant to their jobs, and being able to experiment with it in a way that’s very different from going back to school.”

Online courses hold a further advantage over their brick-and-mortar counterparts due to their ability to adapt to rapidly changing technologies and methodologies in each industry; online content can be modified and updated to reflect current trends in the required skill set for a certain job.

In many cases, people would feel more comfortable learning from practitioners who are actually doing that work daily, because the work itself is changing so quickly.

Hughes brings up the fact that Udemy instructors are uniquely well qualified to teach, in that they are often actually employed in the field for which they are delivering online courses. In today’s quickly evolving job market, the ability to learn from a current practitioner in the field – and get concrete insight into the skills required to excel in a certain job – can be key to success. Hughes cites the difference between learning search engine optimization from an SEO Project Manager at Airbnb versus trying to find a pragmatic graduate program in marketing. “I think in many cases, people would feel more comfortable learning from practitioners who are actually doing that work daily, because the work itself is changing so quickly.”


This recognition of online education as legitimate training has come to the forefront of the alternative education debate; in the past, the only language recent grads could use to articulate their educational accomplishments was tied to the formal degree. Now, however, employers are increasingly inclined to forgo a reliance on brand-name education and acknowledge that the most dynamic hiring prospects are taking skills-based learning into their own hands.

As a job seeker, you can effectively integrate your online and traditional education to pitch a cogent argument to employers as to your marketable skills and workforce preparedness. Hughes noted that many Udemy students are adding completed courses to their LinkedIn profiles as a way of demonstrating to employers that they have a certain set of current, in-demand skills.

And if you’re looking to further establish yourself as an expert on a certain topic, go ahead and teach it! Developing and delivering an online course is a powerful way to illustrate your depth of knowledge and mastery of your skills. Indeed, one particularly proactive BYU grad put together a comprehensive Udemy course on Apple Swift – comprised of 79 online videos – just three days after it came out. The course has 7,334 students enrolled to date.

“That’s kind of the extreme example,” Hughes clarified, “but you can do that with Udemy. This was a way for him to transition from the college career to the working career, and a way of actually demonstrating to prospective employers, ‘hey, I actually know something about this topic, I’m teaching a course on it.’”

The importance of verifying your skills—validating that yes, you can actually do what you say you can do—cannot be overstated. In a highly competitive job market, hiring managers are going to want proof to back up your claims. Leveraging skills and competencies you’ve acquired online provides a more complete picture of your abilities, and of your potential to succeed within a certain role or organization.

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Ultimately, Hughes articulates the findings from the Skills Gap Index in one compelling takeaway: “For us, it just makes it so clear that we’re on the right track. It’s really a matter of how we can get the word out to more people that online education at Udemy is a great way to come in, get new skills in a very affordable, accessible way, and actually remarkably change your ability to perform your current job or get the job that you want.”

Online learning might not only be a way to close the broader skills gap, but also to advance careers, develop new interests and pursue passions. And that is something we can definitely endorse.

Psst—if you liked this article, you might like our full interview with Meg Evans, Social Innovation Manager at Udemy!