This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

There seems to be no end in sight to the shaky economy. Companies are still cutting and trimming back when it comes to salaries and staff. Growth is stagnating, while workloads are increasing.

Job stress and career worries, obviously, are elevated by these conditions. But, while it may not seem appropriate, it’s actually a great time for IT professionals to hone in on the basics and strive to improve skills. Anything you can do to set yourself apart from the crowd or better direct your career path is worthwhile. When unemployment hits or layoffs loom large, you might as well make the best of a bad situation by gearing up for a major job hunt and by adding something helpful to your resume.

The big question, however, is whether you should learn new skills in your current area, move in a totally different tech direction and learn something entirely new, or focus on necessary, but nontechnical, business skills.

Consider the goals
Realize, up front, that there is no one road to take, as each professional’s career situation is unique. Nonetheless, training for any career path is always important.

How to approach this training—or, more often, retraining for the management level—depends on an individual’s goals.

“My advice is to first determine how happy they are doing what they are doing,” said Gina Schiller, VP of technology recruitment for the executive search firm JB Homer Associates. “It’s obviously a different answer for somebody in a good position who is doing well than for somebody who is not doing well.”

Those who are unsure should take an assessment test that can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and help recognize job aspirations that would otherwise remain hidden. Assessment tests are often available via a company’s in-house HR unit or can be found at third-party organizations, such as the MAPP career assessment test offered by WetFeet.

Implementing a self-driven training plan can be a critical factor for those employees whose jobs are in danger of being cut or professionals who have limited career opportunities in their region.

“If you happen to be in one of those environments where the array of tech jobs is relatively small—say outside a major metropolitan area—you better be flexible and have a wider-than-average set of tech job skills,” said Dennis Dickens, the chief generalist of Dickens Design Development, a professional IT services firm. “If you don’t, and the organization you are with is forced to make cuts, you may find that getting your next job is tough.”

Mike Jones, a network analyst at Placon Corp., a packaging company in Madison, WI, is taking career enhancement courses through SmartCertify Direct. Jones wants to develop a specialty in security and, perhaps, gain CISSP certification. He said that this could help him gain a promotion in the future.

He said that SmartCertify offered him unlimited access to all programs for a year, so he took the plunge. He believes that IT professionals should consider becoming generalists, as it expands potential employment opportunities. IT workers seldom get called on only in their specialized area, he noted. In many more cases, an IT professional has to do everything from network security to PC and printer networking, especially at small companies. Continuing training is key in this and can open new career paths, he said.

Training doesn’t have to be tech related
One interesting new trend is the belief by experts that today’s training efforts don’t have to involve technology.

Folks who may be looking for a new job—either willingly or not—are advised to think of training in “soft” skills. The idea is that many employers look for things beyond the programming languages or types of networks workers are qualified in and similar narrow skill sets.

Important skills include the ability to effectively communicate, a good understanding of business in general, and the ability to see where in the corporate landscape IT resides.

“One of the biggest problems—in IT particularly—is that people are looking for the next technology but don’t have communications skills, and can’t write a memo that conveys a clear idea,” said Matthew Moran, an IT consultant and author of The I.T. Career Builder’s Toolkit. “It’s difficult because in their personal networking, they stay in their peer group.”

To Moran, the ability to communicate and be an advocate for the department, the company, or even the industry is a better training goal than learning new tech skills. The tech skills, Moran pointed out, will likely become obsolete within a couple of years anyway—if the employee doesn’t grow out of using them first.

Another important aspect of any training today is incorporating real-world experience. Simply adding skills via classes is not the most efficient course of action, according to Moran. He said that IT professionals who expand their horizons solely in classroom or online learning settings are often ill prepared for real-world positions that utilize those new skills. The only way to really grow, he stressed, is to put the new skills to work.