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Innovation Economy

Staying competitive in the workplace

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2011

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Two scenarios for you to ponder:

Scenario 1: You are called into a conference room Monday morning and told your job no longer exists. Here’s a cardboard box, and let us know if you ever need a reference.

Scenario 2: A more senior position is posted at your company, paying 20 percent more than your current job. More responsibility, more direct reports, bigger budget. Your application has to be in by the end of the week.

In either scenario, what would you wish you had done over the months and years to sharpen your skills and make yourself more competitive?

For everyone who works a demanding job - and maybe has a family or social life on the side - learning new tools, maintaining professional networks, and keeping up with industry trends can feel like a few more to-dos that sometimes drop off your priority list.

“This notion of being proactive, and figuring out where your field is heading and what you might need to learn, is really important for long-term success,’’ says Larry Israelite, manager of human resource development at Liberty Mutual, the Boston insurance giant. “The employee really has the obligation and the responsibility to look at where she’s trying to go - in the same company or another one - and doing what’s necessary to prepare.’’

This month, I’ve been talking to busy worker bees and executives responsible for human resources and employee development, asking what they do - and what they suggest their employees do - to stay on the cutting edge. Here are the seven things I heard most frequently.

Get out of the office. There’s no better place to learn about new trends - not to mention expand your network and hear about issues other companies face - than going to a conference, trade show, or monthly meeting of an industry group. Many local events are free; some cost $10 or $20. Aaron Severs, senior product manager at Constant Contact, a Waltham company that assists small businesses with digital marketing, says he often attends events like Mobile Mondays, Social Media Breakfast, and Web Innovators Group to stay current. Severs, responsible for adding features to Constant Contact products, also tries to go to bigger events that require travel, such as TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco.

Test what you know. Sites like oDesk, Brainbench, ExpertRating, and Smarterer offer tests on topics from yoga to accounting principles to medical transcription. Some are free, others aren’t. They can help you understand how well you know a subject and where to improve.

Read voraciously. Engineers like Gregg Favalora of Arlington say they pore over patents to see what others are working on, and peruse technical journals and conference proceedings.

Scientists like Olivier Boss, cofounder of Cambridge’s Energesis Pharmaceuticals, say they read scientific journals on the Web, in print, and via e-mail. Boss sets up keyword alerts for his areas of focus - “brown adipose tissue,’’ for instance - using a government service, called MyNCBI, to see what other researchers are doing. ( Google Alerts offers something similar, sending instant e-mails about new web content that may be of interest.)

Following people in your field who are active on Twitter is another way to keep up, since Twitter users often share links to articles, videos, and live conference broadcasts.

On the networking site LinkedIn, you may notice your contacts belong to different “groups and associations’’ - like Fidelity Investments Networking Group - that feature online bulletin boards where people share articles, advice, and job openings. Join them.

Consider courses. If you look at listings for jobs you’d like to land, are there capabilities they expect you to have, or technologies they expect you to know? Consider a course or workshop, online or at a local college.

But first, says Israelite at Liberty Mutual, talk to others who’ve done it. “With the online options particularly, it can be a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff,’’ he says.

Create things. Doing the occasional side project can give you a chance to experiment and stretch. For a graphic designer, that might mean taking over the quarterly newsletter for your favorite nonprofit.

Drew Volpe, chief technology officer of a start-up called Locately, used to work for a bigger company in the Web search business. To stay up to speed in the constantly changing field, he created a search engine called Giggle Bang, to help programmers search databases of information specifically about programming.

“Side projects can be hard to manage when you work full time,’’ says Seth Sivak, a game designer at the Boston office of Zynga, an online video game company, “but I try to have at least one or two going.’’ (Currently, he’s designing a board game.)

Seek opportunities to speak or teach. Give a talk to students at your alma mater, participate in a panel discussion, or teach a semester-long course.

“Organizing your thoughts into a lecture causes you to refresh your knowledge,’’ says Favalora, a consultant with Arlington engineering firm Optics for Hire.

Sivak is teaching aspiring game designers at Northeastern University. He says, “There is always some knowledge that I take for granted, or that doesn’t seem fully realized to me, until I need to explain it to someone else.’’

Who you work for matters. Some companies encourage employee development - even on the clock - and some seem utterly indifferent. When I spoke to local employers like Zipcar, Constant Contact, and Liberty Mutual, they rattled off ways they support continual learning, from tuition reimbursement to company-run courses.

Israelite at Liberty Mutual says, “People who take personal accountability for improving themselves are more successful on just about any dimension than people who wait to be told by their manager, ‘Hey, you really should learn this.’ ’’

And prospective employers, I’d add, might not say anything. They just might not call you back for a second interview.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.