These days, job hunters must be sharper than ever, constantly seeking new skills and knowledge.
As the economy slows, companies are thinning out their management ranks. That limits potential openings, while swelling the ranks of job-seekers. So, getting an edge on the competition -- the hundreds of other people seeking that choice job -- is crucial.
How do you go about remaking yourself for the workplace, picking up new skills and knowledge that will enhance your marketability?
Before formulating an elaborate plan of attack, experts say, the first thing to do is gaze within.
"Look at your career objectives, do an assessment of your skill level and validate it with the boss, other colleagues," said Curtis E. Plott, executive vice president of the American Society for Training and Development. Only after completing that first, critical step should an employee worry about crafting a game plan to build upon existing capabilities, he said.
A common mistake made by someone trying to learn new skillsis that they tend to overlook existing ones. "I think lots of people sort of undervalue their skills and their ability," he said. "Basically, they don't know how much competence they've been able to achieve."
It's difficult to overhaul your work capabilities effectively without having a specific goal in mind, said Jody Johns, a management consultant with the Maryland Consulting Group. She's divided the process into a series of steps.
"I think first of all, people need to figure out what it is they want to do," Ms. Johns said. "And then they may need to do some information-gathering about what it takes to qualify to do what they want to do.
"Then the next step is to do some analysis of those qualifications to break them down into discrete skills," she said. "Because a lot of times you can learn how to do something in one job that is relevant to another job. But first of all, you have to figure out what those skills are.
"What I'd like to emphasize, in making one's self marketable, is the sense of purpose," Ms. Johns said. "This is what so many people are lacking. When one knows what one wants to do, that makes the individual so much more attractive to employers or other people who can help."
Being able to lock in on a goal and constantly strive toward self-improvement does pay dividends, said Robin Reid, a CSX Corp. marketing executive who deals with the transportation of coal to utilities. Six years ago, she was in a "dead-end job" with a Michigan college when she decided to move on to better things.
"One thing that I was doing was thinking through where I wanted to go, what my career goals were," Ms. Reid said. After cataloging her strengths and weaknesses, she decided to "fill in the blanks in my business background."
Ms. Reid quit her job as director of personnel and purchasing at Albion College in Albion, Mich., and enrolled full-time in Michigan State University. She earned an MBA in marketing in 1986 and joined CSX the same year.
"What I learned in school has paid off," she said. "I won't say I couldn't have done [my present] job, but I couldn't have done it as well."
Although a promotion may appear glamorous from the outside looking in, take time to investigate the job responsibilities to determine if it's something you'd really be comfortable with, she advises.
Michael McCastle, a Reisterstown-based consultant, said employees looking to become more marketable need to do two things: "Know what it is you want and don't settle for less. While these two thoughts may sound simple, they're all too easy to ignore in the press of everyday events within a constantly changing business environment."
The road to increased marketability can sometimes involve taking on skills that lead to lateral positions, Mr. McCastle said.
"In today's flatter, leaner organizational structures, a move up may mean a lateral move to achieve your ultimate goal," he said. "Opportunities to move up will be fewer and less frequent than they were in the past. All the more reason to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
"Keep your goal in mind, but recognize that the shortest distance between two points may no longer be a straight line. Be prepared and be flexible so that you can take advantage of a wide range of opportunities that can help you get where you want to be."
Mr. McCastle stresses the need for total commitment.
"This is a process of self-development, and the emphasis is on 'self,' " he said. "No one can do it for you or to you. That responsibility rests almost entirely with the individual."
Not long ago, workers looking to make themselves more marketable ran the risk of encountering a daunting obstacle: their company.
"One of the reasons that lots of employers didn't do more training is that they felt that if they made the investment by providing the training, potentially the employee would leave and then they wouldn't get the return on their investment," said Mr. Plott of American Society.