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A Lifetime of Learning
1997, Jan-Feb (September 22, 2008)
By Regina Caldanaro

What makes you a valued employee? If you believe the classifieds, you only need x number of years experience, training in tools or operating environment XYZ and ABC (or is it 123, 95, and 3.x?), and knowledge of the Web. Is that enough? No. If you believe the surveys of employers, you only need to write clearly and concisely, to negotiate and work effectively on a team, to be technically competent, and to have strong organization and planning skills. Now, is that enough? No.

Don't get me wrong, knowing WhizBang tools and "working and playing well with others" can be enough, but today's job market demands these things and more. An informal survey of articles and my own personal experience tells me that one of the most important things you can do to make yourself a valued employee is to engage in lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning. Continued education. Skills refresh. Training. These buzzwords and catch-phrases all mean the same thing — if you want to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment you are (or will soon be) working in, you need to be proactive and innovative (more buzzwords) in your lifelong learning. Look at your portfolio and your past experience. Look at where you want to be. Or look at where you might be asked to go. Need to learn C++? Java? Interleaf? Have you been puzzled about the mating habits of South American tree frogs? Will you be asked to write marketing information in addition to the planning and administration manuals? Are you going to have to create an online help system for the first time?

You could wait for these opportunities to land on your desk and then scramble to learn it after you deliver the product. You could watch someone else who already has the skills get the plum assignment. Or, you could be proactive and innovative and find a way to learn it before you need it. You could say "Boss, I know that new product (read "high profile") is going to need a writer and I've been reading up on the technology. I had lunch with the developer the other day and we were wondering who you're going to assign to the project." (This is also called political maneuvering, but that's another topic.)

Have I convinced you to be proactive? To take charge of your own destiny? Here are some ideas on how to get the education, skills, training, and so on that you need:
  • Read the book. Buy the book. Get the book out of the library. Go to the college bookstore and buy the lab books, and do the homework. Buy the answer book if one is available so you can check your answers. If it's hard to find time to read the book, set aside one lunch hour a week to read a chapter and make it a habit.
  • Teach someone. Nothing focuses your energy like having to present information to other people. You will find the time to prepare. If you want a refresher on writing clearly and concisely, teach someone to read (and you'll feel good too). If you know enough about Microsoft Word to get by, but want to learn more, try to teach it to someone else and together you'll find the answers (synergy, I believe it's called). I recently took a class in C++ with a friend and we learned more trying to explain it to each other than if we had just gone to the lectures and did the lab work.
  • Volunteer or do freelance work. If you need demonstrated experience editing, volunteer to edit papers for co-workers (and make sure your manager knows). Sign up at your place of worship to coordinate the holiday fund-raiser to get experience in project management.
  • Take a class. It doesn't have to be expensive. You can sign up for some decent classes at your local community college for $45 (cheaper than some books!). There are usually evening and weekend classes. And if your place of business reimburses you, then go for the big universities!
  • Use your professional associations. For example, our very own STC chapter has held a workshop in HTML. If you're interested in topics outside of technical communication, for example, training and development, check out the local chapter of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD). If you want to learn Smalltalk, go to the Smalltalk User's Group meetings. (Look on the Web for locations and schedules for all sorts of associations.)
  • Find a mentor at work. If Joe knows PERL, ask him to teach it to you. If Susan is an expert in Lotus Notes databases, ask her for a demo. Most people are happy to show you what they know. You can treat your new buddy to lunch and ask for an explanation of object-oriented programs, ATM technology, the reintroduction of endangered species into former habitats, or whatever it is that you need to know.

You have six ideas here, and being the creative, intelligent people you are, I'm sure you can think of even more ideas. The key point here is that lifelong learning doesn't stop (hence the word "lifelong"). Once you master one area, begin in the other. Showcase what you've learned in your portfolio. If you wrote an applet as part of your online Java tutorial, show it off. Tell your manager, toot your horn in an interview:

"At my last position I didn't have an opportunity to learn HTML and CGI, but I volunteered to create the Web pages for the Jaycees. Here's the URL so you can look at it."

"I notice that you expect the writers to handle system manuals and marketing brochures. I've created some sample brochures after a seminar I took in marketing writing. What do you think?" End of article.

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