The 21st-century career

In an age where skill sets can become obsolete in just a few years, many workers are scrambling just to stay current. How can organizations encourage continuous learning, improve individual mobility, and foster a growth mind-set in every employee, year after year?

Offering employees a rewarding career used to be easy: You’d hire a bright young person out of college, plug him into an entry-level role, and then watch him climb the corporate ladder over the years as he progressed toward retirement. The company could plan for this continuous process—hire people based on their degrees, help them develop slowly and steadily, and expect some to become leaders, some to become specialists, and some to plateau.

Today this model is being shattered. As research suggests, and as I’ve seen in my own career, the days of a steady, stable career are over. Organizations have become flatter1 and less ladder-like, making upward progression less common (often replaced by team or project leadership). Young, newly hired employees often have skills not found in experienced hires, leaving many older people to work for young leaders. And the rapid pace of technology makes many jobs, crafts, and skills go out of date in only a few years.

The training department used to offer a stable and well-architected career (I spent my entire first year at IBM as a “trainee,” with a 10-year career path clearly laid out). Today, many training departments are struggling to keep up, often pointing us to online courses and programs, telling us that it’s our job to “reskill ourselves.” And while they try to give us what we need to stay ahead, research shows that they are also falling behind: Employees rate their L&D departments a dismal -8 in net promoter score, lower than almost any product in the consumer landscape.

As technology evolves apace and more of us work part-time, these trends are only accelerating. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman believes that careers are now simply “tours of duty,”prompting companies to design organizations that assume people will only stay a few years. And data bears this out: 58 percent of companies believe their new employees will stick around less than 10 years.(LinkedIn research shows that, on average, new degree-holders have twice as many jobs in their first five post-college years now as they did in the mid-1980s.)

But hold on. The world of careers doesn’t have to be so difficult and unforgiving. Organizations can adapt their career strategies and help people learn faster and continue to stay engaged. It just takes a rethinking of the problem, and a need to be aware of how jobs, careers, and skills are rapidly changing.

The bottom-line question is this: How can organizations build career models that encourage continuous learning, improve individual mobility, and foster a growth mind-set in every employee, year after year? This is the opportunity for today; companies that figure this out will outperform, out-innovate, and out-execute their peers.7

The changing nature of careers

Let’s examine what a “career” really is. The traditional idea of a career has three components:

  • A career represents our expertise, our profession, and ultimately our identity. It defines who we are and what we do. This form of self-identity makes changing careers dauntingly difficult: What if we switch careers and fail? Then who are we?
  • A career is something that builds over time and endures. It gives us the opportunity to progress, advance, and continuously feel proud. When we are asked to change our career or path, what happens to all we have learned? Do we throw it all away? Or can we carry it forward?
  • A career gives us financial and psychological rewards. It makes life meaningful, gives us purpose, and pays us enough to live well. What happens if our career suddenly becomes less valuable, even if we still enjoy it? Should we continue to make less money or jump to a new path?

The changing world of work has disrupted all three elements: expertise, duration, and rewards. And as scary as this may be for employees trying to stay ahead, it’s equally disruptive for employers who must try to hire and develop the workforce of today, tomorrow, and five years from now.

Expertise has an ever-shorter shelf life

It used to be that only certain types of jobs—think of computer programmers and IT troubleshooters—needed constant training and upskilling. Now, all of us are expected to continuously learn new skills, new tools, and new systems. Just as COBOL programmers had to learn C++ and Java, administrative assistants have switched from typewriters and dictation machines to PCs and voice memos, assembly-line workers have had to learn to operate robots, and designers have moved from sketchpads and clay models to touchscreens and 3D printing.

In technical fields, there is constant pressure to master new technologies or risk becoming instantly obsolete. One of our clients anonymously surveyed its IT department about what skills people wanted to learn, and more than 80 percent said they were desperate to learn tools such as AngularJS (a new open-source programming environment for mobile apps), even though the company was not yet using the technology.

Today even experts find themselves disrupted. Few professions today are hotter than that of a software engineer . . . and yet many foresee automation taking over the work of coding in the near future. Artificial intelligence is doing the rote work of lawyers, simplifying the work of doctors, and changing skilled jobs from truck driver to financial analyst. As we describe later, it’s important for each one of us to learn new tools, adapt our skills, and become more multidisciplinary in our expertise.

What this means to employers is simple: Your employees are constantly feeling a need to “keep up.” Millennials, for example, rate “learning and development opportunities” as the number-one driver of a “good job.” Managers should give people time, opportunity, and coaching to progress; if you don’t, people often just look elsewhere.

The idea of a single, long-lasting career is becoming a thing of the past

Remember the 30-year “lifelong career” that companies promoted during the last century? Well, today only 19 percent of companies still have traditional functional career models.Why have so many organizations let multi-decade career models fade away?

First, business structures have changed. The iconic industrial companies of the early 1900s (steel, automobile, energy, and manufacturing) have outsourced to smaller firms many of their business processes and sales channels, as well as various parts of their value chain. The result has been a steady increase in innovation and profitability, but a dramatic decay in the security of a “company man” career.

When I entered the workforce in 1978 as a fresh engineering graduate from Cornell, I remember dozens of big companies looking for young engineers to train for lifetime careers, each offering job rotation, heavy amounts of training, and seemingly lifelong employment. I actually joined one of these companies—IBM—only to find my career options altered entirely when management launched a massive turnaround. (I decided to move to a smaller, faster-growing company.)

Similar stories can be told in automobile, manufacturing, financial services, retail, hospitality, and many other industries. In 1970, the 25 biggest American corporations employed the equivalent of over 10 percent of the private labor force. Today, many of the largest US employers by number are retailers, and the retail industry alone accounts for more than 10 percent of US employment.In the current economic recovery, the fastest-growing segment of work has been health care, including small and large hospitals, eldercare providers, and various types of personal-care work.However excellent these employers might be, their primary workforce is mid-level labor—service and delivery roles that neither pay as well nor offer the long-term “career professional” advancement that large companies once routinely offered.

This has created opportunities for some workers but has left others behind their parents at the same age. One study found that workers who entered the labor force in the 1980s and 1990s were more than twice as likely to stay in low-wage, dead-end jobs over the next decade compared with similar employees who joined the workforce in the late 1960s and early 1970s (at the high point of the corporate economy).Part of the reason: Big corporations have outsourced many specialized (and highly paid tasks), which can make it harder to “move up” in socioeconomic status.

Driven by opportunism (why stay at a company where advancement opportunities are limited?) and necessity (what else can you do when your job is outsourced?), the practice of switching jobs and companies grew more common, until job-hopping became the norm. People my age, for instance, typically worked for four to five companies during their working lifetime. Today, a college graduate may work for as many companies in their first 10 years after graduation.

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