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There is having tech skills, and there is working in tech. These are VERY different things.

The former is very broad, the latter is comparatively narrow. When it comes to career planning, it’s crucial to understand the distinction. Too many people are opting not to learn tech skills, either because they don’t want to work in tech, or don’t think they can. But tech skills get you hired just about anywhere, NOT just “in tech.”

A recent article in Investopedia entitled Most Valuable Career Skills in 2016 written by Shoshanna Delventhal offers an excellent summation:

“Ongoing acceleration of the tech industry is a main reason why tech skills are in demand. However, it’s not just the software and mobile app startups that are searching for tech-savvy talent. Almost every company needs these kind of skilled people.”

So, it’s not about working “in tech.” It’s about becoming one of these “skilled people.”

For example, businesses as diverse as education, fine wine, architecture, health care, music, fashion, sports, and insurance rely on data. And not just data. Data analysis. Making sense of the numbers. Aggregating, analyzing, and building strategy. Who performs this work? People with tech skills.

How about this: can you name a successful business that DOESN’T have a website? Right. So who builds all those websites? People with tech skills. Does every one of those businesses outsource their website to another company? No. Internal people often do the work. In fact, companies very often hire someone just to join the team, and take care of the website work. Or, someone already on the team learns the skills, and takes on the role. In either case, people with tech skills are doing the work. Are these people “in tech?” Pet stores have websites. Grocery stores have websites. Auto shops have websites. This is not tech space. But tech skills apply.

Let’s take another example. In virtually every city in the United States, there is a public library. And that’s a wonderful thing. People from all income levels, and from all segments of society, rely on public libraries for everything from personal betterment through learning to community connections. Do you know what most public libraries now offer? Apps. Apps that let their users access library services from their devices. Who builds these apps? App developers. Are these people “in tech?” In one way, certainly. But in another way, no. They’re using tech skills, yes, but they’re doing so to support a tremendous community resource: public libraries.

Finally, consider Machine Learning. It’s pretty techie stuff. Artificial intelligence, computer science, that sort of thing. Yet even here, the distinction between “tech skills” and “in tech” prevails. Let’s go to LinkedIn and enter “Machine Learning.” What do we see? Sure, lots of “in tech” jobs at lots of “tech” companies, many of them located right here in Silicon Valley. But do you know what else we see? Jobs at companies like these:

  • Context Travel in Philadelphia. They offer walking tours in 35 cities around the world.
  • CureMetrix, a healthcare innovator based in San Diego
  • Nielsen. The rating people. This is a position based in Boston.
  • Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Based in New York City.
  • Otsuka. A pharmaceutical company with an opening in their New Jersey offices.
  • Pandora. Music streaming. A position in Oakland, CA.

Travel? Healthcare? Real Estate? Music? This is tech? No, it isn’t. It’s tech skills.

No less an authority than The White House—with the launch of the TechHire Initiative—has recognized the importance of this distinction and how it impacts the hiring landscape. In their own words, “TechHire is a bold multi-sector initiative and call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need, through universities and community colleges but also nontraditional approaches like coding boot camps and high-quality online courses that can rapidly train workers for a well-paying job, often in just a few months. Employers across the United States are in critical need of talent with these skills.”

“These skills” are what we’re talking about when we look at the difference between having “tech skills” and being “in tech.” A recent article written by Vivek Ravisankar for FastCompany noted that, “By 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that one million programming jobs will go unfilled.”

What shall we do about that? Exactly. Polish up our tech skills, and start lowering that number.


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Christopher Watkins
Christopher Watkins
Christopher Watkins is Senior Writer and Chief Words Officer at Udacity. He types on a MacBook or iPad by day, and either an Underwood, Remington, or Royal by night. He carries a Moleskine everywhere.