The most profitable skills to learn (based on data) & the single best one

The most profitable skills to learn (based on data) & the single best one

Many of us look for the most profitable skills to learn but it is easy to mistake one that someone is profiting from as a generally profitable skill. 

Think about those that are paid to buy alcohol for teenagers that aren’t old enough to buy it on their own. And we can hardly even call that a skill!

Other important parts of profitable skills are the industry we apply them in and the timing itself. 

For example, we can be the world’s best salesperson but applying that skill to bring guests into a restaurant from the street is just not likely to be as profitable as using the same skill to sell business software to large corporations.

At the same time, the salespeople selling remote meeting software like Zoom probably hit jackpot when the Coronavirus came since everyone switched to remote work, while a restaurant seller might be struggling for business.

With that out of the way, let’s look at some of some skills that are generally known to be profitable, along with the single most profitable skill I know of and tips to learn any new skill you desire.

The most profitable skills to learn

What makes a skill profitable varies from person to person. Someone who grew up without access to a lot of money might feel that $50K a year is a lot of money while the royal families might think $50 million is a lot of money. 

It’s all relative but what I’d like to show here are skills that will be profitable for most of us if we master them. Skills that can earn you several hundred thousand dollars.

I’ll be avoiding data from general job and HR websites because the average is always both a representation of those that don’t take it seriously and thus don’t earn money and those that focus only on that and usually do well.

For most of us, that aspect has more to do with how profitable a skill becomes for us than the skill we choose until a certain level. Instead, I’ll be looking at what the top earners earn on the freelance platform Upwork since that data is somewhat openly available.

Again, the profitable skills will generally push us in the right direction but it is no guarantee for success — we also have to master the skill and how to present it. With that out of the way, let’s look at the list:

  1. Sales
  2. Copywriting
  3. Programming
  4. IT
  5. Digital marketing
  6. Video editing/Creative/Graphic design
  7. Data science/analytics

There are many more but the reality is that we don’t need a list of hundreds of potentially profitable skills. We need the few best ones. That is not to say that seemingly unprofitable skills can’t be made profitable (I’ll show an example of this in a few minutes). 

It’s difficult to prove any skill to be profitable because we can usually always find a couple of people that made anything profitable while at the same time having a bunch of people that couldn’t figure out how to make that same skill profitable. 

We can use sample data from Upwork to get an idea. I took the number of projects by Upwork’s top 12 skill categories and paired them with the number of freelancers working in that same category. 

The result is the graph below. It shows, on average, how many freelancers there are per project uploaded but it doesn’t show us how many are good quality. 

The number on the left-hand side of the graph shows the number of people available per project e.g. if it is less than one, it means there is less than one freelancer per project on the platform.

most profitable skills to learn - the number of freelancers per upwork project by skill category
The number of freelancers per Upwork project by skill category

We know that the closer to the money (usually revenue, profit, or cost) a skill is, the more profitable it tends to be because it helps other people make money. 

So that means, we can probably remove skills like translation, admin support, and customer service from the graph, which seem to have the most freelancers per project anyway. 

That leaves us with design/creative, sales and marketing, and web/software/mobile development with fewer freelancers than projects available!

There can be many reasons as to why they are profitable. One is that these skills have leverage. 

For example, a programmer can leverage the internet to reach a lot of people all over the world. In fact, all of the above skills can leverage the internet to have their work shown to millions of people compared to the neighborhood shop that will only be exposed to those passing by.

We can make a lot of skills profitable by using them differently. Take a language tutor for example. 

It doesn’t seem like the most profitable skill ever but there are many of them out there that turned their expertise into a great living, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, by offering products that help students learn languages.

My favorite profitable remote skills are

  • Sales
  • Copywriting (written sales)
  • Programming
  • Digital marketing

The reason I like these skills, in particular, is that they work well remotely which gives us a lot of flexibility because they are often powered by the internet.

The exception here is traditional sales which can be done remotely but often work even better face to face.

The most profitable skill of all

For a skill to be profitable it needs to create value for someone else which is often in the form of solving a problem. It will be particularly profitable if that skill is related to money such as revenue, profit, or cost. That’s why we tend to see people in finance earning well.

The most profitable skill is sales. We use it all the time whether it’s for selling a product, an idea, landing freelance clients, or persuading a friend to go to the movies with us. 

Even in a bad economy, salespeople tend to have the safest job if they are good at it. Why would a business owner fire a salesperson who is selling for more than they earn in salary? (Except if they are bringing the team down or overselling the product)

If we suck we will make nothing but we’ll get gold if we are great.

The problem most of us have with sales is that we don’t want to be salesy.. which is misunderstood because being a used car salesman isn’t the only way to sell.

As I’ve discovered there are people out there selling successfully by recommending products to the right people, if it can truly help them, and persuading the wrong people not to buy. 

Anyway, I’m going to dive into this too much since I can’t change your mind if you are one of those that hate selling. If you want to dive deeper, leave a comment below.

The best way to learn sales (or any skill)

There are a number of ways to learn new skills and what feels like an unlimited number of blogs with advice on how to.

So, instead of writing a paper, I’ll share my key takeaways from teaching myself new skills for the past ten or so years. The big wins.

Practice a lot

The best way to learn any profitable skill is to practice a lot. Often, we tend to feel that reading books or watching videos helps us learn. And in a way it does, especially, if we are completely new to the subject but it tends to be a false sense of practice. 

We only really get good by practicing.

It’s easy to do it when we feel motivated and have a good day but those don’t count (because they are easy). What really matters is practicing on the other days.. Even if it is just for a bit. It gets easier with time.

Break down the skill you want to learn

A tip that I like to learn a new skill is to break that new thing down into multiple sub-topics and then drill each one. It is a technique that makes it much faster to learn because of the repetition but it is also a bit nerdy and not for everyone.

Practice before spending money

This is a rule that I have created for myself and you might create your own rules for yourself as well. I noticed that I would get excited about something like practicing badminton and then run out and buy new badminton shoes only for them to die a slow death in the closet.

My rule is now to practice the skill for at least a month before spending any money on it, to see if I really want to go deep. Learning new skills is one of the few things we cannot solve only by throwing money at it. We also have to practice.

Work harder when you win and give yourself a break when you fail

Most of us go out celebrating when we see success and then beat ourselves up when we fail. 

I have had a good experience giving myself a break when something didn’t go the way I wanted and working harder when I had a good experience because it motivated me to do more.

Find someone your trust to learn from… but pick your heroes carefully

Getting help from someone who has already done what you want to do makes the world of a difference. Whether that is via a book, online course, coaching, or something else, they can help you avoid the big mistakes.

BUT the people that help us are not equally qualified. For example, there is a brand called Masterclass which is similar to Netflix but it is based on people that are world-class at something such as producing movies, negotiation, sports, etc. Think Gordon Ramsey for cooking for example.

It looks very exciting and in my experience, the classes are great as entertainment but horrible if you genuinely want to learn something. I saw a few classes with friends and the teachers, while world-class at their skill, were horrible at teaching.

They were rambling on and it was a dread to sit through. I don’t want to single anyone out and there could be classes that are better since I didn’t look at every single one but the point is that being able to teach a skill to others well, is another skill entirely.

The point here is to pick your heroes carefully. With top performers, we often have to look at what they do, not what they say because they are so good at their skill that it’s natural to them.

A common example of this is with anyone’s native language. For many of us, we don’t know why we express things in a certain way, that’s just how it has always been.

I’ll even go as far as to say that in certain cases, it might be better to choose a skill that isn’t the ultimate best if you have access to learning from someone that is amazing.


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