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5 skills experts say workers should master right now

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As the U.S. economy begins to re-open, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that at least 16.3% of Americans, over 21 million people, are unemployed.

Some of these unemployed workers hope they will return to the jobs they had before coronavirus pandemic, but many may be forced to find new opportunities. For some, this might mean entering a new line of work entirely or learning a new skill. 

CNBC Make It spoke with business executives and education experts to learn what skills workers should pick up right now.

Data science

The most common skill that the experts mentioned was being comfortable analyzing, interpreting and harnessing data. 

Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly, an education company that offers classes in coding, design, data science and business, says the number one skill workers should work on is "data, data, data."

"Coming out of this [pandemic] there's no doubt that the world is going to become more data-driven," he says, noting that a wide range of businesses have been forced to reimagine how they sell products and services to limit physical contact — and are now using data to make even more business decisions than before. 

"With the shift to shelter-in-place, we're seeing more consumers go online to consume content, engage in an experience or buy something. As a result, there's increased demand from employers for skill sets tied to understanding consumer patterns and behaviors in a virtual world," explains Adam Enbar, CEO of Flatiron School, which focuses on teaching in-demand tech skills like software engineering, computer programming, data science and cybersecurity analytics. "This is especially evident in sectors like retail — since brick-and-mortar is out, even small retailers are investing more in their e-commerce storefronts — and fintech, which will help sectors like retail run in an online world."

One of the most in-demand data science languages is SQL, which stands for "Structured Query Language." The programming language, which allows users to manage databases, is commonly required for data science roles.

According to LinkedIn, mastery of data science is one of the most asked for skills on job postings and some popular data science courses include Data Analytics for Pricing Analysts in Excel, Data Science Tools of the Trade: First Steps and Data Science Foundations: Data Engineering

Communication

Many experts emphasized that post-pandemic jobs will require both hard technical skills and soft skills.

For instance, Alyssa Merwin, vice president of LinkedIn Sales Solutions says that as more and more sales professionals work primarily online without traditional face-to-face meetings, they will need even stronger listening and empathy skills.

"Active listening, problem-solving, critical thinking and relationship-building are the top skills and attributes required for performing sales professionals today," says Merwin. 

Vivek Ravisankar, CEO of HackerRank, a technical recruiting platform, agrees that soft skills will become more important in the years ahead. 

"With less human interaction in the physical world, the ability to clearly communicate with one another in more succinct, caring ways will be more in demand. Most of our communication will be via video conferencing, phone or written communications, so people need to start honing their skills in these areas to be effective remote workers," says Ravisankar. "Emotional intelligence and social intelligence will also be highly valued, as we will all need to learn to be more empathetic and understanding of technical difficulties, miscommunications and 'crossed wires' when communicating with one another. These types of soft skills will be complementary to 'hard skills,' not a replacement for them." 

While it may seem counter-intuitive to learn inter-personal skills such as these digitally, classes that teach emotionally intelligent communication techniques are among some of the most popular online courses

"Communication is one of those skills that's universal," explains Emily Poague, vice president of LinkedIn Learning. "It's something that everyone feels like they need to work on." 

Creativity 

Cecile Alper-Leroux, vice president of product and innovation for Ultimate Software, a company that develops cloud-based human capital management software, adds that adaptability and creativity — which are often considered soft skills — will also be increasingly important. 

"While skills like agility and creativity have always been valued in the workplace, they are more important now than ever before. Adapting to changes like working from home, attending virtual meetings and balancing work-life and family are all essential to maintain productivity during this time," she says. "Since the onset of our new work-from-home arrangements, many of us have taken on new responsibilities or shifted roles altogether. Agility helps us adapt to these changes, while creativity will help us utilize existing skills in new ways, ultimately setting ourselves and our teams up for success."

And as the demand for these soft skills increases, Alper-Leroux says the line between what is considered a soft and a hard skill will blur. 

"For example, conversations around 'soft skills' usually suggest that they're attributes that allow people to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. These descriptions of soft skills are always centered around our ability to step into the shoes of our coworkers, have tough conversations, and reflect on our failures. If empathetic behavior is central to 'soft skills,' that means they're not 'soft' skills at all," she explains. "Leaders will value empathy as a core skill critical to success and hire candidates who can demonstrate their ability to lead remote teams and problem-solve with a people-first attitude."

LinkedIn analyzed hundreds of thousands of job postings in order to determine which skills companies need most in 2019 and found that creativity was the most in-demand soft skill. 

For those looking to cultivate this skill, LinkedIn recommends the following courses: Creativity Bootcamp, The Five-Step Creative Process and Creativity: Generate Ideas in Greater Quantity and Quality.

Artificial intelligence

Many of those CNBC Make It spoke with agreed that the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the need for workers who specialize in automated intelligence and machine learning. 

Coronavirus "has caused an acceleration of some labor trends like automation," says Karen Fichuk, CEO of Randstad North America, an employment and recruitment agency.

Tara Chklovski, CEO of Technovation, an education nonprofit that focuses on giving girls entrepreneurship and technology skills, explains that becoming an expert in AI or machine learning often means gaining both technical and big-picture analytical skills.

"While certainly, skills in specific STEM domains like data science can help get your foot in the door initially, I agree with Jack Dorsey when he recently said that AI will eat the entry-level coding jobs and the way to futureproof your career is to get outside of being a rote coder," argues Chklovski. "The key is to become someone who can creatively solve real-world problems and tackle complex systems thinking in teams."

Python is one coding language often recommended to workers who are interested in a job in artificial intelligence. 

"Someone learning Python would do themselves a major benefit," says Harley Lippman, CEO of technology services firm Genesis10. "That's going to be around for a long time and there'll be plenty of opportunities for them."

If you are interested in studying Python, online education providers like EdX, Coursera and Khan Academy offer resources to help you learn for free.

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Cybersecurity

Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture of North America says that as more people work remotely, and more businesses shift their operations online, cybersecurity is another field that will continue to be in-demand in the months and years ahead. 

"There's no question that we're going to continue to see more attacks now that you've got more people working from home and there's already been a number of publicized attacks on Zoom," he says, referencing a wave of "zoombombing" attacks, where hijackers join a call to bombard others with toxic and sometimes pornographic content. 

And as more people work remotely, more workers will be needed to protect digital collaboration from such attacks says, Etheredge. 

According to a 2019 study from ISC2, the largest association of certified cybersecurity professionals, roughly 2.8 million professionals work in cybersecurity around the globe, but an additional 4 million trained workers would be needed to close the skills gap and properly defend organizations.

EdX offers free resources and classes for people who are interested in learning more about cybersecurity. 

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