The career decisions we face can all seem quite overwhelming – reading the regular reports on unemployment, layoffs, etc. – and it is overwhelming for so many students and job seekers trying to react to changes in the job market with little or no guarantee of the best way forward. We as a society are in many ways sailing uncharted career waters, creating our own individual maps along the way.
Last month I attended the National Career Development Association‘s (NCDA) annual conference. This is one of my favorite events of the year, pulling together career counselors, coaches, and advisors from all areas of education and industry. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty supportive group that fosters an encouraging and optimistic atmosphere. At this year’s conference, the overall positive vibe was there, and needed, as one emerging theme across keynotes and sessions was the uncertainty of the future. In the context of careers and employment, we’re seeing more of this uncertainty, related not only to the economy, but also the changing world of work. The message resonated with me – someone who strives to make a connected career out of often seemingly unrelated jobs – and maybe it speaks to you, too.
“The future is not what it used to be.”
This quote from conference speaker and career development scholar Mark Savickas, drew a round of head nods and audible agreement. Gone are the days of working for one company, or even within a single industry, from entry-level to retirement (with full benefits). The NCDA speakers challenged all of us – as individuals, students, job seekers, and career practitioners – to reconsider how we approach career planning and development to better prepare for an unknown future.
Here are a few additional highlights from this year’s program that address a new way of thinking about employment and careers:
- Author and educator Tony Wagner shared the need to not only gain knowledge through our educational experiences, but also have the “skill and will” to transfer that knowledge to solve problems in the workplace.
- “We are jobless. It’s all about projects.” Savickas highlights the move from full-time salaried positions to part-time and contract-based work.
- What can students do to prepare themselves? Wagner focuses on achieving innovation, an approach that includes taking risks with the expectation to sometimes “fail and keep going.”
- Keynote speaker Temple Grandin stressed the importance of avoiding general labels related to potential, and instead “find out what you are good at doing … take that thing and expand it out. Find someone who wants it” and can put you to work.
- Savickas emphasized the importance of using your “own authority to make a move in a new direction.”
Career Development vs. Career Management and Opportunity Development
The term career development means, to me, deciding on a general field and establishing a purposeful plan for advancement that includes potential job opportunities, as well as continued training and education. But this scenario isn’t as realistic as it might have been in the past. How many of us have faced career change or know someone who has switched fields not by choice, but from necessity? And sometimes we do this on short timelines.
Career management, encouraged by Savickas, could also be described as ongoing and forward moving. However, this term connotes a closer connection to evaluation and assessment, testing, efficient use of available resources, and calculated risk. Wagner recommended moving to opportunity development, with a focus on the identification of, and initiative to move toward, the possibilities around us.
On the surface these ideas make sense, but can be difficult to translate into actionable steps. Making decisions of career magnitude in unfamiliar territory also requires a certain degree of confidence. Without clear paths, we have to make some choices of our own. Build your confidence through opportunities, big and small, to reflect and take action:
- Embrace experiences as learning opportunities. Grandin suggests “trying on jobs … to see if that’s what you want to do.” Learn from your employment experiences, internships, class projects, volunteer activities, and other opportunities. Assess the results of decisions you’ve made, so that you can then apply lessons learned. All fuel your ability to make future decisions and potentially build your skills, opening up additional options along the way.
- Reframe your passion. Career advice to “follow your passion” has both proponents and opponents in the field of career counseling. What are you motivated to do? Is there a market for it? According to Wagner, “passion is something that evolves over our lives … as we grown older it becomes a purpose.” Finding a purpose can inform career decisions and present opportunities.
- Avoid decision paralysis. My PhD advisor served as a professional reference for me, and let me know during the process that she was asked if I had “analysis paralysis.” What a wonderful real world, workplace question. Was I the type to just keep collecting information, or did I know when to make a decision and could I commit to it once made? She, thankfully (and I like to believe accurately, since I ended up getting that position), responded that I did not suffer from this particular problem. We must research our career decisions carefully, but there comes a time for action, with the understanding that even well planned moves involve risk.
- Step outside your comfort zone. Change isn’t easy, even when we see it coming. This can be especially true for those of us who began our careers in a more traditional way with defined paths and progression. Wagner advises us to put ourselves, intentionally, in unfamiliar situations. “Disorient yourself … to see the world in a new way.” Think of the potential of travel, volunteering, internships, new networking and social groups, etc. to develop a new perspective.
- Reach out for help. While the picture painted in this post may be of an individual and personal endeavor, connecting with others who are going through the same experiences can be very beneficial. Contact alumni from your program and peers in your field’s professional organizations for conversations about career management and opportunity development. There are also career services professionals both at your school and in your community who are available to help you fine-tune your approach.
Jim Bright and Robert Pryor from Australian Catholic University presented their Chaos Theory of Careers, which addresses the expectation of change: “Our careers are subject to continual change. …We (and therefore our careers) are too complex to be easily captured and put into simple boxes.” In the pursuit of jobs and careers we need to be adaptable and resilient. Some of these ideas can also be found in Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills (e.g., agility and adaptability, curiosity and imagination) developed with business leaders.
There’s some solace in the fact that everyone is trying to figure it all out. Most industries are seeing some impact related to economic realities, new technologies, and changes in the nature of the work to be done. We don’t always know how things are going to turn out. But we can set ourselves up to, as Savickas said, “construct the best possible future” one day at a time. Accept that there will be uncertainties, develop confidence in your own decision-making, and be ready to take the next step.