8 All-Important Skills for Work Life That You Don’t Learn in School

Image shows three skyscrapers disappearing into clouds.School is meant to equip us with the skills we need to succeed in adult life, and to an extent, it does.

You should also read…

It gives us academic knowledge and discipline, allows us to develop our social skills, and gets us familiar with the idea of time management. These are all useful skills for life and work. But there are many aspects of working life that school doesn’t really prepare you for, with the result that work can often be a bit of a shock to the system. In this article, we look at some of the skills you’ll need once you enter the world of work, and how you can go about acquiring them now so that you’re ready when the time comes for you to make the move from university to office.

1. How to talk to clients and customers

Image shows someone looking at their watch during a meeting.
You’ll have to get used to the etiquette for meetings.

Up until now, most of the people you’ll have been mixing with on a day-to-day basis will be teachers and fellow students. You adopt an easy, casual manner with your friends and a more deferential – but perhaps sometimes cheeky – attitude towards teachers. But when you get to working life, you’ll need to learn to conduct yourself in a very different manner, that of the professional businessperson. Customers and clients are the people who ultimately pay your wage, and they command the utmost respect (no matter whether you like them as people or not). You’ll have to learn what kind of language is appropriate when talking with them, and where to draw the line with friendly banter. You’ll learn to gauge from the demeanour of the customer or client whether they are likely to respond to a more casual tone, but even when you’re laughing or joking with them, it’s vital to retain professionalism and refrain from coarse language or inappropriate humour. Even if the customer or client uses such language, and they’re particularly jokey or friendly, you’re still representing a company, not yourself. Such judgement is something you pick up over time; there’s no substitute for experience, so go to the next point for a suggestion for how you can gain this experience now.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Careers articles."2. Dealing with difficult clients and customers

Image shows a large shopping centre.
Retail experience will help you deal with angry or impatient customers.

Dealing with the inevitable tricky customers or clients takes some getting used to. Whether it’s an angry customer shouting at you for something that isn’t your fault, or a demanding client who wants an impossible task accomplishing within the hour or they’ll complain to your boss, dealing with difficult people is a fact of working life that you’re unlikely to have experienced if you’ve never had a job. Though you’ll have experience dealing with friends being moody with you, or perhaps teachers telling you off, a work situation involving a difficult person is altogether different. You’re not a free agent: you’re representing someone else’s company, and your response must be defined by company policy. You can’t tell the difficult person exactly what you think of them, much as you’d like to; you have to deal with the situation calmly and professionally, no matter how much the person is winding you up. And that’s very hard sometimes!
You can gain some useful experience for dealing with these sorts of situations just by getting a Saturday job in a shop or restaurant. There will always be someone who isn’t happy with something they’ve bought, the service they’ve received or the food that’s been placed in front of them. Some people sadly choose to take out their disappointment on the poor shop assistant or waiter/waitress because these are the people they immediately deal with – it’s not your fault, but the way the customer rants and raves at you makes you feel as though it is. Only experience in dealing with these situations will toughen you up and help you not to take it personally – it’s definitely not something that can be taught in school!

3. A good telephone manner

Image shows an office telephone.
Despite the internet, a good telephone manner is still necessary for many jobs.

It’s one thing talking on the phone with your friends, but answering the phone to clients or customers, making scheduled sales calls or worse, cold calls, is a whole different ballgame. Talking on the phone to people you don’t know – customers or clients – can be really scary. Many people dread having to make calls – or worse, answer them, because you don’t know who’s going to be on the other end of the line or how nice (or not nice) they’re going to be. In the age of the internet, we’re less accustomed to talking on the phone because so much communication is now done by email, text and instant messaging. But in the world of business, it’s still necessary, partly because some things are just easier to explain over the phone, partly because email can lead to misinterpretation or unintended offence being caused, but mostly because personal relationships are incredibly important in business, and that personal element of talking on the phone is something that can’t really be conveyed over email.
So, a key business skill is a professional telephone manner. You’ll need to know how to make outgoing calls and answer the phone in a manner that befits the company you work for. You’ll learn from hearing other people do it what’s meant by a good telephone manner; a calm, reassuring way of speaking, not too loud or rushed, and always incredibly polite. Other telephone-related skills include leaving polished voicemail messages with the right information, making cold calls (when you phone someone who isn’t expecting your call), and conference calls, which have an etiquette all of their own. Because most weekend jobs are directly customer-facing – in restaurants, cafes and shops, for example – it’s difficult to pick up a good telephone manner while you’re still at school or university. Some universities run telephone campaigns over the summer to try to raise money from alumni donations, so this might be one way of gaining some telephone experience. Another might be to volunteer for a helpline, such as the Samaritans, although you’ll need to be over 18 to do this. Until then, you could simply observe the telephone manner of customer service representatives of companies you need to call and learn from them.

4. Using appropriate work email/internet etiquette

Image shows someone typing furiously on a keyboard.
Another email faux pas is using CC instead of BCC for multiple recipients.

Another new concept you’ll be faced with in the world of work that you probably won’t have encountered to quite the same degree before is email and internet etiquette. For example, clicking “reply all” so that everyone included in the original email can see your response is generally frowned on, because it wastes people’s time if the response isn’t relevant to them. Gauging what’s appropriate to email around to all staff is another area of judgement that you’ll pick up and perhaps learn the hard way. What’s more, it’s advisable not to say anything potentially incriminating over work email, as the chances are it’s being monitored – so keep it strictly professional, even if you’re emailing a work buddy. You probably won’t be able to check personal emails, Facebook and so on while at work, nor look at inappropriate sites (when you something shared on Twitter with the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, don’t click – it stands for “Not Safe For Work”!).

5. Responding to personal criticism

Image shows three people having a meeting in a glass office while a fourth person walks past.
Remaining professional when you get negative feedback is an important skill.

You’ve had school reports and parents’ evenings to deal with throughout your time at school, but this sort of ‘feedback’ doesn’t finish once you leave school. In the world of work, you’ll almost certainly be subjected to the horror of the “appraisal”, in which a manager patronisingly tells you how well or how badly you’re doing your job and sets “goals” for you to improve. This could happen as often as every month, but every quarter, six months or year is more probable. The difference from school is that your parents won’t be involved, and the criticism will probably be quite a bit more personal than the academic feedback you’ve been used to (which is why we’re including this in an article on things school doesn’t teach you!). For example, you might have to hear comments about how you didn’t handle a particular situation appropriately. It’s probably going to be more personal feedback than you’ve had before, and it’s much easier to get upset by it. Again, experience will give you a thicker skin and a Saturday job is good preparation.

6. Networking

Image shows two people exchanging business cards.
Networking will help you make useful contacts for the future.

Business, as many people will tell you, is all about networking. But while you may have your own ‘network’ of friends at school, business networking is rather different. It involves hobnobbing with the right people, swapping business cards, making contacts in places where contacts might be useful, upon whom you might be able to call at some point in the future or who might give you a job (or whom you might hire!). The online place for networking is LinkedIn, which is a bit like Facebook but for business contacts. You essentially put a version of your CV on it and you ‘Connect’ with the people you meet in the business world (it’s a good place to find jobs, too). But real-life networking is important too, and to this end, you may find yourself attending business breakfasts, evening dos, conferences and so on. Although you learn things from conferences by hearing industry speakers, most people acknowledge that it’s the networking that makes conferences worthwhile. You can’t be the shy one in the corner, not talking to anybody. Being personable and able to hold a conversation is paramount in business, and you don’t even have to talk about business to the contacts you make. If they like you as a person, that’s half the battle won.
You might think that the world of business sounds all scary and grown-up and maybe even boring, but in fact it’s still about personal relationships and getting on with people. Interpersonal skills, therefore, are essential. School teaches these, but to a limited degree. To succeed in business, you need to be able to interact effectively with people of all ages (not just your own age group, as in school) and walks of life. You can get better at this by taking up a hobby that allows you to mix with people of all ages, beyond your circle of friends at school.

7. Negotiating

Image shows a busy street market.
Practise haggling at markets.

While academic discussion and debate is a little bit like negotiating, in that there are two opposing sides arguing over a point and each trying to be persuasive, negotiating is probably not something you’ve ever experienced in school. But negotiating skills will come in handy in a range of business contexts, not just for negotiating a deal. You’ll probably find yourself negotiating the terms of your employment contract at some point. You might negotiate the sale of a product. You might negotiate a job offer, persuading them to give you a higher salary if you exceed certain targets. You might negotiate with a supplier to give you a bigger discount. The ultimate goal of business is to make money, and negotiation – bargaining, essentially – is a fundamental skill in making money. If you’re someone who enjoys bartering at markets, you’ll probably do well in business. If not, it’s a skill you’ll have to develop. In fact, bartering at a market is a good way to start developing this skill. Many people feel awkward about asking for more money off, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get – and it’s exactly the same in business. And those aforementioned interpersonal skills will be crucial in driving a hard bargain – people find it harder to say no to people they like!

8. Marketing and branding

Image shows someone blogging with a cat on their lap.
Blogging is a good way to learn the basics of marketing.

When you’re at school, pretty much the only people who see your work will be you and the teacher who set it. In business, you want as many people as possible to see your company, and you want a professional image for that company – it’s your brand. Marketing is the art of getting that brand – or sometimes more specifically, a particular product or service – in front of as many people as possible. Fresh from school, you probably won’t have much of a clue about how to do this, because it’s not something that you learn at school (unless you did Business Studies). Even if your job isn’t directly to do with marketing, it’s still something you need to know about, because it will almost certainly be someone else’s job in your company and marketing is something that everyone in the company should be working towards. Blogging gives you good practice at marketing and branding while you’re still at school. Create a brand for your blog and experiment: see how many people you can get to visit and subscribe.
As you can see, work life is rather different from school life, and with it, you’ll need to pick up a whole new set of skills. There is some good news, though; that there are still plenty of skills you’ve already picked up in school that you can take with you to the office, and in many ways, working life simply continues the routine of school life. Except that in your free time, you’re actually free, without homework to worry about, and you’ll have money to spend on enjoying yourself. We told you it wasn’t all bad news!


Your email will not be shared and you can unsubscribe whenever you want with a simple click.

Image credits: banner; meeting; shopping centre; telephone; typing; appraisal; networking; market; blogging.