Growing your human capital: 11 ways to boost your income-producing ability

Unless your last name is Rockefeller, Hilton, or Walton (as in Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart — four of the seven richest Americans are Sam's heirs) chances are you had to work for the money you have. If you're not yet retired, you still have years of that work ahead of you. And you retirees aren't completely off the hook, either: Houses and cars need to be repaired, meals need to be cooked, and taxes need to be filed. If you don't do these things yourself, you'll have to pay someone else to do them.

Your ability to turn your labor into a paycheck — or to do things yourself, so you don't have to fund someone else's paycheck — is your “human capital.” This combination of knowledge, experience, talents, work habits, and social skills is perhaps your most important income-producing asset (as I wrote in January).

I've been thinking a lot about “enhancing human capital” over the past couple of years, especially as we've entered the toughest employment environment since the early 1980s. Few people can take their jobs for granted. Too much can change: the economy, technology, competition, even health (affecting one's ability to do a job — approximately one-quarter of retirees stopped working due to health problems).

Then there's the question of how to grow your net worth these days. Cash and bonds are at decades-low yields, and we all know now that the stock market doesn't always go up. Thus, the asset we have the most control over is the one we take a shower with (assuming you do it alone, at least some of the time). A great career can result in a great retirement, because a higher income allows for more savings and retirement benefits.

But let's face it: Earning a higher paycheck isn't easy these days, so it takes deliberate planning, extra work, and perhaps bringing a higher-up into the shower. Since I'm not a human resources expert, I asked one of my Foolish colleagues — Angelique Keenley, Vice President of HR at The Motley Fool — for suggestions. She passed along these 11 ways to improve your income-producing capacity.

  1. Keep acquiring degrees and certifications. We can increase our human capital throughout our lives by getting more education and professional certifications and by doing other things that enhance our résumés. Which skills, professional designations, or degrees could you acquire that would make you more valuable? (Don't spend your time or money on just any old degree — get one that counts in your current or desired industry.)
  2. Join professional organizations and build a strong network. Higher-level positions are almost always filled by “someone who knew someone,” not by a stranger applying for a job opening.
  3. Continue to seek out excellence in your field. We at The Motley Fool call it “deliberate study,” and you don't attain it by just showing up and doing your job every day. Spend time reading blogs, attending conferences, and talking to others in your field who are smarter than you.
  4. Network inside your company. Don't pass up opportunities to have lunch with the CEO or other senior leadership. As well as making important friends, you'll learn things about the business that will make you more valuable — and help further your career.
  5. Get (or become) a mentor. Seek out someone you admire, either inside or outside your company, who would be interested in helping you grow. And look for ways to mentor those less experienced than you; besides the whole “good karma” thing, it's another way to demonstrate the value you add to your company.
  6. Stick around awhile. It's a good idea to stay with your company for at least two years before moving on. A résumé that shows a lot of jumping around can be a definite red flag.
  7. Work for little to nothing. If you're looking to make a career change, offer to serve as an intern for someone who's established in the profession you're interested in. You'll see what the job is really like, acquire a few skills, and begin making contacts. And you can always do altruistic volunteer work, even if you're unemployed. You may just meet your next employer there.
  8. Take on additional responsibilities. Employers hate it when someone says, “I'll only take on this additional responsibility if you raise my pay.” They love it when you say, “I took this on three months ago, and this is the success I've brought to the company. Can we talk about a raise?” We know someone who took this approach; instead of the $1,200 raise a previous boss had promised, the person's new boss approved a $15,000 increase.
  9. Make a difference. Is there anything about your company you can point to and say, “This is all thanks to me” (besides the stains on the carpet)? What about the way you work would be hard to duplicate?
  10. Research the trends in your profession and industry. Keep an eye on relevant trade journals (you know, such thrilling real-life publications as Welding Journal, Pig International, Modern Brewery Age, Seed World, Professional Candy Buyer, and Portable Restroom Operator). You'll get the inside scoop on where your industry is headed.
  11. Become a do-it-yourselfer. Are you spending a lot of money on something you could learn to do yourself? Besides the monetary benefit, studies show that lifelong learners are less likely to suffer cognitive decline.

J.D.'s note: I'm a huge proponent of personal development. Your career is your most valuable asset, and by becoming a better worker (whether for yourself or for others), you boost your ability to earn. And that doesn't just pay off now — it pays off for decades to come. Here are some other articles on this subject from the GRS archives: “How I Gave Myself a Raise“, “Five Steps to Six Figures in Seven Years“.

More about...Career

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
34 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
10 years ago

Employers hate it when someone says, “I’ll only take on this additional responsibility if you raise my pay.” They love it when you say, “I took this on three months ago, and this is the success I’ve brought to the company. Can we talk about a raise?”

Yes, evidence of responsibility does increase the likelihood of a raise as well as receiving job offers from other companies. Also, a person can look for additional opportunities that may not be spelled out clearly at a job: what potential does your job offer that others may be missing?

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

All good suggestions, but easier said than done! How about suggestions for doing this on a budget? I’d love to do everything on this list, but I don’t have the money. My company won’t pay for any professional development or memberships (nor have they given out raises in more than two years), so I’m on my own.

I know these ideas are all worthwhile investments, but to what extent? Is it worth cutting $1000 from my retirement savings budget to take a course and join the local chapter of my professional organization?

A
A
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Dude, you can join tons of groups for free. Subscribe to mailing lists. Create your own groups, this is not something that you have to pay for.

Tom
Tom
10 years ago

@Beth: I think that’s your judgement call. If spending the $1000 means you will get a certificate that will bump you up into the next pay level, say a $1500 increase at your company, then I think it makes sense to spend that money. From what people in my field (mechanical engineering) tell me, the easiest way to increase your pay is first ask for it. And if you make a strong case but they don’t agree, then look into other opportunities and come back to your current employer with those offers. Hiring and training someone new to do your… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

I like suggestions #2-11. Developing your network and seizing opportunities to learn more. As to #1 (Keep acquiring degrees and cert.s): Take caution in following this one. Acquiring a new degree can cost a HUGE amount of money – and won’t necessarily pay you in a comparably larger salary. I know lawyers and post MBA people who are not making much more than college grads – some make less. You might pay thousands of dollars for the degree and end up earning the same salary. You might spend years working on that degree and miss out on opportunities for advancement… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

I would like to add to keep your resume updated and never turn down the opportunity to talk to other companies in your industry. I know this advice conflicts with ‘stick around for awhile’, but it is always good to be prepared. You never know when a company is going to lay people off, and it is always best to be prepared. Plus, I know many people that were very successful in their careers because they were willing to take risks and try other opportunities.

andyg8180
andyg8180
10 years ago

I disagree with #1 depending on your field. In many fields, employers seem to take experience over degrees.

sjw
sjw
10 years ago

Beth @ 2 – Depending on the relevant professional organization, there might be events that non-members can participate in for only a slightly higher cost. So, for example, there is a quarterly training event held at a pub that is $10 for members, $15 for non-members (they do ask that you order something from the pub since they have booked a private room). They also run courses that are in the $500-$1000 range, so it’s not like this is a cheap organization overall. (If the local chapter is small enough, they might discount the cost of a membership or event… Read more »

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

Unfortunately, most of these suggestions assume that they’ll all pay off within an environment where the old employee/employer relationships still apply. Better to implement these suggestions with the goal of being eventually self-employed (at least part-time) in mind.

Elysia
Elysia
10 years ago

These seem like good ideas, but how do you figure out #1 (assuming one doesn’t accrue any debt to get the degree). I don’t know *what* to do with myself, and at this point I’m mainly relieved that I have a flexible job and can spend time with my family as my kids are little. But I have no idea how to get a job that would let me be around for the kids but be more challenging to me. I really think the whole human capital/growth thing totally sucks for moms or anyone wanting to be a good and… Read more »

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

I like the ideas in this post. I recently read that volunteering is one of the best ways to land a new job. It may also be a way to land a better or more desireable job.

I found mentoring a good and new idea I hadn’t thought of. Either channel, opens up good networking avenues.

This was a nice change of pace post.

Mike

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
10 years ago

All great ideas. but the one that I think is most important is networking and not just with people in your field. You can learn a lot about other industries and ideas and apply the best to your current situation.

In today’s world, you can never count on your current employer, so be prepared to move or better yet go into business for yourself.

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

Beth, there are ways to do it on a budget. For example, I’m currently working in the field of emergency preparedness. There are online courses from FEMA that are free and give you certificates. It really depends on what your field is what the possibilities are. I don’t think you can judge whether it’s worth $1000 from retirement savings unless you know what the course is and what kind of job you’re looking for/how much they value this course. I think if you have no job and you need serious networking help then joining the professional organization is probably worth… Read more »

Ely
Ely
10 years ago

@ #9 Elysia, what if you could be mom to your kids and also get paid to be “mom” for neighbors’ or family members’ kids? How much time/money would it take to acquire some kind of childcare certification in your area? Do you have a field of study that would make you useful to older kids as a tutor? what about sports coaching?
I’m just pulling ideas out of the air, but it does seem that a mom who wants to be with her kids should be able to improve her capital in kid-friendly ways.

Brenton
Brenton
10 years ago

I have to vehemently disagree with #6. If your employer is unwilling or unable to furnish you with the oppurtunities you need to grow your career, then you should absolutely seek out another position. I’ve had 3 jobs in the last 5 years, and each time I’ve acquired a higher salary and useful experience I could not have gotten at my previous job.

Everything else on the list sounds right. Nice post.

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

I totally agree with #8. Often people don’t realize that they need to ‘show’ how they will take on extra work. I did this once and the company ended up giving me back-pay for the previous months when I started the additional work. I spent the last several years climbing the ladder, making more money which included more time at work and more stress. I love career growth but have found it much more enriching to find ways to cut back in my budget so I don’t have to work as much. This past spring we cut back so much… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

There are a lot of ways I could make more money. I just don’t want to. Too stressful, too time consuming. I also disagree with #6. That’s old advice. Since moving around is more common than it used to be it isn’t a red flag signaling that you’re unemployable like it used to be, just that you’re a hot commodity. Obviously this will differ by industry and occupation, but if there’s a lot of movement in your field, take advantage of it, or take advantage of the outside offers to buff up your salary. Besides, if it is a red… Read more »

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy
10 years ago

In regards to #1, I would say that’s an iffy one. The author has already qualified it with “Don’t spend your time or money on just any old degree – get one that counts in your current or desired industry.” I would just like to emphasize that. As someone who’s doing quite a bit of hiring these days, I see a lot of useless degrees. People spend 4 to 8 years and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars on these degrees and they’re meaningless. I appreciate that you want to study eastern philosophy but if you want to… Read more »

Lyn
Lyn
10 years ago

@Elysia, I was fortunate enough to be able to work part-time when my kids were young. I realized that I would not be able to move up the ladder while working part-time, but boy did I ever do a lot of sideways within the same company ( a government agency), giving me some incredible experience. When my kids hit high school, they encouraged me to put in for a full time job that had a great career ladder and was a great challenge. Because of the breadth of experience I had from all of the part time, I’ve suceeded way… Read more »

MikeTheRed
MikeTheRed
10 years ago

I think #6 is still valid advice, even in today’s extremely fluid employment environment. Switching jobs voluntarily every 6-12 months means you likely never finish significant work (depending on the industry, projects can be 1+ year endeavors). It also for me raises red flags on the person and how they may fit in with my office environment. Do I want to invest the time and money into a new employee that shows a history of jumping ship as soon as something more immediately attractive comes along? That said, loyalty has a limit. If it’s a bad situation, and you’re getting… Read more »

Techbud
Techbud
10 years ago

A number of companies reimburse you for education, always take advantage of that. Try and attend industry conferences/ seminars to increase networking.

I often suggest bring training on site to reduce cost and offer it to more employees within my department.

Carla
Carla
10 years ago

I think I already failed at number six. I have had a lot of jobs over the past twelve years for one reason or another: I was laid off a few times, had to leave an abusive situation (didn’t know my rights at the time) and a less noble reason of just plain boredom. Cant change the past now…

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I agree with Wayne: networking is key. And I’d like to point out that networking isn’t just a matter of hanging out at conferences or hotel bars with others in your field. I am constantly seeing working professionals, in their non-working capacity, presenting themselves as capricious, impulsive nitwits. Would I recommend an accountant, realtor, or counselor like that to a friend? No, I would not. Every single person we interact with in daily life has the potential to be a business lead. Yes, even the barista. You don’t know what his/her second job might be. Presenting one’s self, and behaving,… Read more »

AC
AC
10 years ago

I think it all depends with #6 on your occupation and salary. If you are jumping from one entry level to another then that is a red flag, but if you are an established professional it may look good. Neitzsche warned about staying in a position “too” long: You eventually become the enemy…

Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom
10 years ago

This is all awesome advice! One other piece of advice that I try to keep in mind is to take on the projects that are the biggest challenge – which are usually the ones nobody else wants to do (if you’re capable of it). You not only learn a lot and it’s personally satisfying, but it gets recognized as well. I couldn’t agree more with the networking advice. I received 2 job offers yesterday thanks to my network, one out of the blue. That’s one of the benefits of job-hopping quite a bit though – you get to know a… Read more »

beth2
beth2
10 years ago

@Gal I own a tech firm and I think it would be neat to hire an eastern philosophy major to do a tech job!

@Elysia I’m a mom of two kids and have managed to have a great career as well. Some careers that work well: be an architect’s helper, geospatial engineer, graphic designer, garden designer, etc. You can teach yourself these careers and work your way up. Work from home, set your own hours. Give it 5 years to get to a point where the business runs on referrals and is doing well.

mike
mike
10 years ago

As a guy with both a BS and an MS, I too disagree with #1. In several previous interview situations, I’ve found that “professional student” job applicants can be liabilities, because they spent so much of their adult lives in the classroom at the expense of real world on-the-job training. And many of them approach interviews with entitlement complexes, assuming the degrees speak for their abilities. IMHO, a degree indicates one’s propensity to learn, but does little to indicate one’s potential to generate profit or product in the workplace. I’d say #2 – networking – has been my best career… Read more »

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
10 years ago

1. I’m still working on my degree and thinking about getting several certifications under my belt. At what point should you stop (how many certifications is “enough”?) 2. Considering joining a few organizations. 3. I read about news in my field everyday and I’m finding it’s expanding my knowledge, which, in turn (hopefully) will expand my pay 🙂 4. We network everyday! 5. I’ve acquired a mentor who’s been teaching me a lot. Her network, in turn, is also expanding my “human capital” 6. I’m definitely planning on staying at my company as long as I can 7. I’ve interned… Read more »

mike
mike
10 years ago

@9 Elysia,

My wife is an at-home mom. She provides volunteering support at my eldest kid’s school, networking with other moms in similar situations. She also looks for volunteering opportunities around town.

She’s not yet ready to go back to work, but when she does, she will be able to mention her various volunteering gigs and other events (neighborhood clean-ups, etc) that she’s organized that have filled the gap since her last J-O-B.

Just a few ideas to ponder.

Debbie
Debbie
10 years ago

After reading the comments, I agree with what was mentioned by all. But I have to admit that my first thought was the importance of investing in your health along the way. The author mentioned that many retirees are forced to stop working due to health issues. You may just boost your income by showing up to work. This can be thought of in both the small ways – missing days here and there for colds, viruses, coughs, etc – and in the big ways – weeks/months or more off for heart attacks, catastrophic illnesses, etc. A forced early retirement… Read more »

NJ Paust
NJ Paust
10 years ago

May I respectfully ask what is wrong with getting rich faster? I’m talking about ethical ways using technology such as the Internet and putting up a website about a heavily searched person, place, or thing. There’s one niche I looked at that has 310,000,000 popular searches and very little legit competition. Based on the research I’ve done myself and have in hand, there’s also quite a few people looking how to get rich faster without working. I think that the way the job situation is currently. and the attendant structural deficiences in infrastructures (physical and financial) — college & old… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
10 years ago

Ha! Funny thing is, I go to school with Sam Walton’s granddaughter… yep. She’s rich. 19 driving her Mercedes… now, to get a date with her! That’s the REAL challenge!

US certified accountants
US certified accountants
10 years ago

All good suggestions, but easier said than done! How about suggestions for doing this on a budget? I’d love to do everything on this list, but I don’t have the money. My company won’t pay for any professional development or memberships (nor have they given out raises in more than two years), so I’m on my own.

I know these ideas are all worthwhile investments, but to what extent? Is it worth cutting $1000 from my retirement savings budget to take a course and join the local chapter of my professional organization?

New York  certified pilots
New York certified pilots
10 years ago

@Beth: I think that’s your judgement call. If spending the $1000 means you will get a certificate that will bump you up into the next pay level, say a $1500 increase at your company, then I think it makes sense to spend that money. From what people in my field (mechanical engineering) tell me, the easiest way to increase your pay is first ask for it. And if you make a strong case but they don’t agree, then look into other opportunities and come back to your current employer with those offers. Hiring and training someone new to do your… Read more »

shares