General Education

Why Skill Stacking Is the Most Important Ability You Need to Learn

Why Skill Stacking Is the Most Important Ability You Need to Learn
Think of your skillset as an enormous puzzle: what pieces fit together, and what pieces may yet be missing. Image from Unsplash
Katherine J. Igoe profile
Katherine J. Igoe November 4, 2019

Skill stacking builds attributes that are perfect for your resume or a graduate school application.

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Business loves a buzzword. And right now “skill stacking" is the hot new term that means...well, what does it mean, exactly? And how does skill stacking relate to your life, especially if you’re considering a career change, going after a graduate degree, or finding a way to do something—anything—else other than what you’re currently doing? Never fear: the concept of skill stacking isn’t new, and it’s a lot easier than you think.

In essence, skill stacking, which was initially made popular by Dilbert writer Scott Adams, is about strategically building and layering skills so that they combine to do cool, unique things. It’s different from skill development, which we’re all trying to do 24/7, but the application of those skills together to give you new, advanced skills. That, in turn, will build more attributes that are perfect for your resume or a graduate school application, and get you further on the path towards career bliss.

A recent Gallup poll indicated that 60 percent of American workers think their job is “mediocre" or “bad," so skill stacking could absolutely help you if you’re in the majority here. The ultimate effect of skill stacking is to make you that elusive "purple unicorn"—you know, that job candidates with the perfect set of skills that's so rare they might as well be mythical?

Everyone wants to hire that person. Your unique mix of skills can help you prove your special worth, especially if you're using school or training to enhance yourself. Here’s a breakdown of exactly how to make skill stacking work for you.

What skill stacking looks like

From a basic standpoint this metaphor, courtesy of Glassdoor, does a pretty good job:

“Let’s say you’re pretty good with Excel. You can use basic formulas, you’re comfortable with data manipulation like filtering and sorting, and you can create simple charts and graphs to display the data. Maybe you use this for understanding some of your projects at work.

“Then you learn PowerPoint. Nothing fancy, but you can put some text and bullets in your presentations, and add graphics like screenshots and pictures. You have now learned two skills: Excel and PowerPoint. But you also have access to a third skill: Reporting."

In other words, now you can make reports that work in both PowerPoint and Excel, which in turn means your team can rely on you for that more advanced skill. That’s a pretty simple example, though—most people learn at least the basics of PowerPoint and Excel, and is that really going to help you get a job? So let’s look at a real-world example.

How to use skill stacking in practice

When I was working in a higher ed environment and helping academic professionals communicate their research, I primarily assisted with writing that would be digestible for a lay audience. Because the person in the job before me knew the basics of a simple animation program called GoAnimate, I was tasked with learning it too. GoAnimate provides templates of animated characters, props, and backdrops to help companies make basic videos about anything and everything—and the faculty wanted to use it.

I learned how to use GoAnimate, but then I stacked my skill of writing on top of that. Once my faculty member needed a video, I wrote a script, made a mockup so the team could visualize the end product, managed the various storytelling components, and put the whole thing together in a cohesive whole. All together, this made one super-skill: videography.

In my case, this is a skill that I wasn't necessarily looking for but has proven invaluable looking for other creative jobs. A writer can be very useful—but a writer who can also work on visual and multimedia components is rare, and invaluable. Think about skills that might be rare or unnecessary in your field but adds value, like communication, sales, or design. Consider boning up on those skills to make you stand out.

Even though my job title is one stated skill (writing), having a diversity of skills from which to draw makes me invaluable as a worker because I can adapt to changing situations and accept new work I’ve never done before.

What skills are good for stacking

You can start by making yourself a list or graphic of what you are good at (always a more appetizing prospect than, you know, counting up all the things you don’t know). You can group them by subject, such as math/computation, and list the skills within that subject. So, writing would also potentially encompass communication, editing, research, and spelling/grammar, for example.

Be sure to include things you’re still working on—it’s better to have skills that you might not be great at yet rather than not have them at all. Everything’s a tool in your arsenal, so to speak. Some of them may be more stackable than others, so concentrate on the ones that are. Knowing how to knit is a wonderful talent, but it’s hard to combine it with other skills, for example.

Then, once you have them laid out, see what skills can potentially be “stacked" to make new ones. To use another real example, I already know I have skills at writing and editing, and I’m just getting to know photo-editing tools like Photoshop. But by combining the two, I can add “photo-editing" to my skills, which entails finding a photo, tailoring it or modifying it, and being able to use it instead of relying on a bad image. That’s a skill I now practice every day, thanks to its usefulness.

Think of your skillset as an enormous puzzle: what pieces fit together, and what pieces may yet be missing. When in doubt, learning technical programs and platforms is always useful. Beyond the fact that technology is always changing and it’s good to keep up with the times, new programs may give you even more skills like organization, accounting, or time management. In addition to adding the program on your resume, you can also add your new skills and practice skill stacking from there.

What to do once you’ve worked on skill stacking

Once you know what skills you’re missing, by comparing yourself to peers or to people who have the jobs you want, you can use school—from a full graduate program all the way down to employee training—to add them to your collection. Once it’s there on your list, you can stack your existing skills to become even more diverse for future work.

This next bit will take a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and some project management, but once you know you can do something (reporting, videography, etc.), then you must go and do that thing. A skill is impressive all on its own, but for you to advance in it, you need practice. If you want to switch careers to a finance-heavy job, for example, but you’ve only worked in HR, you need to actually try working with numbers and reporting in order to get that job. Or, alternatively, you need formal training or coursework.

There are plenty of ways to do this, from graduate programs, to looking inside one’s own company, to online courses like Lynda and Udemy for when you’re not ready to commit to something so rigorous. In the meantime, you can continue to develop new skills, stack them so your skillset grows, and build upon every single thing you can do to make yourself unstoppable—not to mention highly desirable.

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Katherine J. Igoe is a full-time freelancer in Boston. She has direct experience working in education and higher ed, helping students make important academic decisions. Follow her, ask questions, or suggest story ideas on Instagram @kjigoe or on Twitter @kjigoe.