Managing Continuous Learning As A STEM Professional


March 25, 2024


180 Engineering

As a professional engineer or information technology specialist, continuous learning, upskilling, and reskilling are essential. Our world is moving very quickly with evolving technologies, emerging frameworks, and shifting job duties. To keep up with changes to your area of specialization, as well as to remain competitive and on track with your career goals, it’s important to seek out learning opportunities.

When it comes to seeking new roles, having relevant specialized skills is especially critical. With the rapid technological changes, many businesses are seeking employees who can help fill newly-created skills gaps. Identifying those skills gaps and investing in upskilling or reskilling can give you a significant edge in the job market.

As a STEM professional, you likely entered your field with the understanding that continuous learning is a life-long requirement. However, it can be a struggle for busy professionals to stay up-to-date and relevant in their fields. In addition to identifying suitable learning opportunities, it may be difficult to find the time needed to pursue them. There may be financial considerations to work through as well.

Continuous Learning: Upskilling, Reskilling, and Professional Development

“Upskilling” and “reskilling” have become buzzwords in recent years and are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are different concepts.

Upskilling involves improving your existing skills and acquiring new, needed skills to stay relevant in your current role and field. Reskilling is undertaken when you want to transition into a significantly different role or field and lack the necessary skills to successfully navigate the transition. Both upskilling and reskilling are usually done in the workplace under the guidance of your employer.

Upskilling and reskilling are critical in some fields. As pointed out in a piece by Lance Harvie, “both processes help engineers adapt to new technologies, improve their expertise, and ultimately increase their value to employers. By investing in upskilling and reskilling, engineers are better equipped to face the challenges of a rapidly changing technological environment and seize new opportunities for career growth.”

In addition to upskilling and reskilling, there are other types of professional development opportunities. Many of these are undertaken outside of the workplace and may include mentorships, networking, workshops, conferences, online courses, boot camps, certifications, and continuing formal education. Although your employer may have some funding for these types of professional development opportunities and may allow you time away from work to pursue them, in many cases the onus will be on you to find the time and money needed.

Focussed Learning: Identifying Skills Gaps

Learning is never wasted but, as a busy professional, it’s best to identify skills gaps to focus on. Whether those skills gaps are personal or exist within your industry (or an industry that you want to move into), focussing on skills that will help you successfully navigate your chosen career path will give you the best bang for your buck.

Assessing Your Personal Skill Set

It’s possible that you already know which skills you want to develop or enhance. For example, if you’re an IT professional hoping to transition into cybersecurity, you already know that the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) designation is one of the most highly-regarded cybersecurity certifications.

However, you may not have a specific role or area of expertise in mind as a career goal. Instead, you may just want a way to add heft to your resume in case an incredible job opportunity comes your way. Or, you may be actively looking to shift into a considerably different role or field and you want to ensure that you have the needed skills for the transition. In that case, it’s best to start by assessing your existing skill set.

Which relevant skills do you already have and excel at? Which skills could use more development? It can be difficult to objectively assess your own skills but some exercises can help you do so, including:

  • Self-assessment;
  • Reviewing comparable job descriptions;
  • Seeking feedback from your co-workers, managers, and mentors; and
  • Analyzing your past performance reviews.

Understanding your skills strengths and weaknesses is the first step to determining which skills gaps are best for you to address.

Determining Your Industry’s Needed Skills

The next step in figuring out skills gaps, so that you can effectively focus your learning, is examining emerging methodologies and technologies in your field (or in the field you want to transition into). Employers are most likely to experience skills gaps around new ways of doing things or new technology, since their existing employees may have not yet had the chance to develop needed skills.

Identifying newly emerging trends and technologies that require new skills can be done in a variety of ways including:

  • On-going reviews of literature and online resources;
  • Attendance at workshops and conferences; and
  • Networking and attending events held by your professional organization(s).

Defining Your Personal Skills Gap

Once you have a solid understanding of your own skill set, in terms of both strengths and weaknesses, and you have also identified emerging industry trends and technologies, you’ll be able to see where your own skills gaps exist. This is critical for focused learning.

Once you know which skills you need to develop, you can choose which to prioritize, determine the best way to develop the skills you need, create a learning plan, set goals, and find a way to monitor and measure your progress.

Identifying Opportunities For Upskilling, Reskilling, And Professional Development

As mentioned earlier, there are three main ways of developing needed skills: upskilling and reskilling (both of which are commonly done on the job) and professional development opportunities (more commonly done away from the job site). The learning opportunity that you choose will depend on a number of factors, most importantly the skills that you need to develop and the role or industry that you’re seeking to work in. If you’re hoping to leave your current employer and move into a completely different industry, then on-the-job upskilling or reskilling likely won’t be an option.

However, the cost associated with developing needed skills, and the time needed to do so, may also factor into your learning choices. A boot camp might not be a good choice for a professional who is working full-time and dependent on a steady income, but it could be a relatively quick way for someone recently laid off to pick up needed skills to enter a new field.

The following learning opportunities are the most common ways for professionals to address their personal skills gaps:

  • Formal continuing education via degree or certificate programs;
  • Online learning platforms, such as Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and MOOCs;
  • Relevant industry certifications;
  • Upskilling and reskilling opportunities with your current employer; and
  • Mentor relationships, which can be particularly helpful in developing soft skills.

Overcoming Barriers To Learning Opportunities

Although continuous learning is important for professional engineers and information technology specialists, sometimes it can be difficult to seek out or take advantage of learning opportunities. The most common issues are related to time, funding, and confidence.

Finding Time

Most professionals already have extensive demands on their time. Their workdays may be hectic, they may be required to work overtime at times, and they likely have a variety of commitments outside of work, including family and community/volunteer responsibilities.

Although it can be a challenge to find time for learning opportunities, effective time management techniques might help you find the needed time. In particular:

  • Prioritize learning by blocking off time for it in your calendar;
  • Break down your learning into smaller tasks and goals so that it doesn’t seem overwhelming; and
  • Minimize or eliminate interruptions and time-wasters by doing things like muting notifications, delegating tasks, and using time usually spent on social media or watching TV. for learning instead.

Most of us don’t have a lot of free time in our days, so learning time management techniques can be critical to addressing your skills gaps and enhancing your career opportunities.

Finding Funding

Learning opportunities related to your career can run the gamut of costs from free to several thousand dollars. If the best way to learn seems cost prohibitive, there are a few options for you to consider:

  • Similar free or low-cost options, such as online courses and certifications;
  • Professional development funding from your employer; and
  • Scholarships, grants, or other types of financial aid.

If you’re unable to cover the costs of the learning opportunity that seems best suited to your needs, a second-best choice can still help develop your skills and is better than not working on your skills gaps at all.

Finding Confidence

Sometimes the biggest barrier to our learning (and subsequent career advancement) is ourselves. Fear of failure, self-doubt, and/or imposter syndrome can make it difficult for some people to seek out learning opportunities, especially in relation to career advancement.

If lack of confidence is an issue for you, a few small changes in the way you approach learning may make a difference:

  • Set small, realistic goals that resonate with you and that are aligned with your interests (just because a skills gap exists, it doesn’t mean you have to fill that particular one);
  • Celebrate your achievements and milestones;
  • Embrace a growth mindset so that you come to view challenges as opportunities to grow and learn; and
  • Surround yourself with your biggest supporters, including family, friends, mentors, and peers to keep you motivated and accountable.

Upskilling, reskilling, and other professional development opportunities are critical to professional engineers and information technology specialists. Not only does continuous learning help you stay up-to-date and relevant in your field, but it provides a foundation for career advancement. There are all kinds of options to explore when it comes to learning opportunities but the best ones are those related to addressing skills gaps in your industry.