NEWS + ADVICE
What You Need to Do at Every Stage of Your Career
Whether you’re starting a first job or thinking of an encore, careers keep changing shape. Some of this is based on technological change plus the implementation of existing technologies. Add in the spread of artificial intelligence, the impact of robotics, the development of tools for gig work and we have large changes in the nature of work which many people and organizations have not adapted to yet.
Additionally, increased longevity means more people working longer. Almost no one, except for the few who still have pensions with cost of living increases, can afford to work for 30-40 years and retire for 20-35 years. The FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement offers earlier retirement, but few seem willing to live as frugally and save as much for long periods as it requires.
Recent studies indicate that while Boomers averaged about 12 job and career changes in a career span, younger cohorts will see 15 – 17. Technical knowledge has a short lifespan. Career fields that once seemed very stable morph. Many of the top jobs shown in recent annual lists of ‘hot jobs’ did not exist five years ago – and that change rate is expected to continue. Fewer people are willing to move for job opportunities than in past decades. And remote work and ‘gig’ careers offer difficult challenges for many people.
At every stage of your career, there are several basic practices you need to develop.
The first of these is networking. Building connections with people in your chosen field, with others outside it, and maintaining connections with people you know is vital to career success at every age and stage. You need to develop a process that works for your temperament and interests. Then you need to be persistent in building and maintaining your network across your life.
The second practice is investing in yourself. Few companies do much investing in their employees now. This is your life though and you need to keep growing your knowledge. This can be done through formal education, seminars, training programs, certifications, and professional organizations. You might read deeply in areas which interest you. Or take online courses from a wide range of sources. I’m a night owl but I know a lot of people who get up very early to have 45-60 minutes to study or read. I do that late at night. You have to figure out what works for you now. And then change as needed by forces in the rest of your life.
The third practice is to make a career plan that is always looking at least 2-3 years into the future. This may be based on longer-term goals but what you need to achieve is an action plan that you work consistently. Review it each year and modify as needed. This plan should focus on what you need to develop and learn as well as trends in your career field and the broader economy.
These three basic career practices will support and sustain you across your entire career spectrum. Yet I see many people who have not paid attention, or know they should but don’t actually do so.
EARLY STAGE CAREER CHOICES
In the first ten years of your career, your work is usually influenced by where you started. Perhaps it is your parents, a degree, or military service that led you to your current career. If you’re lucky, it has been an interest for several years.
In the early years it really helps to build your own support systems.
- Seek out mentors at work.
- Learn from those people in your field and organization who are recognized experts.
- Volunteer for projects or task forces that offer you a chance to develop new skills.
- Join a professional or trade association as a way to learn and to meet people who can become a part of your network.
- Be active in meet-ups and social media groups, or wherever those in your profession gather.
Look at the path forward – does it appeal to you? What do you need to learn and what achievements do you need for the next interesting job within your field? Do you want to build depth of knowledge and become an expert? Are you interested in managing people? What are your career goals?
It’s critical to learn ‘soft skills’ during this period. These include all the skills you need to effectively work and communicate with a diverse population within and outside your organization. It’s smart to learn what works for you in productivity terms too – figuring out time management, how you organize your work, and what tools you need to learn/use effectively – as these help you succeed and grow.
How do you explore other options if you find you’re not in the right field?
While career changes happen at many stages of life, early ones are often the most upsetting. College grads discover that their chosen field does not appeal after all. Many people have to deal with one or two employers which are bad matches for their needs. Far too many people are offering you advice that is not helpful. If you have qualms about your early career, talk to people you trust in your network to help identify what the real issue is first.
- Bad spell?
- Bad boss?
- Bad employer?
- Actually the wrong work?
- What do you need to address?
- How will you move forward?
Stay in your job if you can without significant mental or physical health issues, while you figure out what to do next. Try a ‘side gig’. Take a course online or in a local community college. Talk to people in areas you think might interest you. Small steps are often the best way to change careers.
MID-STAGE CAREER CHOICES
Research on whether it’s better to be a specialist or a generalist goes in cycles. Whichever path you choose in your late 20’s to mid 30s is not set in stone. You will face the “what do I want to do when I grow up” question well into your 70s. Pick a path, enjoy it, and when it is no longer enjoyable, move on.
In mid-career, your work goes from learning and developing basic knowledge and skills to achieving significant goals. Now you build your reputation. It is this reputation that helps you get promoted and find new jobs as desired.
- Are you someone who is reliable and truly adds value?
- Do people come to you for information, ideas, support or mentoring?
- Can you be counted on to rise to new challenges or lead people effectively to achieve a goal?
- Do you maintain emotional control?
- Are your interpersonal skills very good or excellent?
- Do others see you as an expert in some aspect of your field?
- How effectively have you learned to communicate across a team, division, or organization?
- What new ideas have you come up with and which have been adopted?
- Are you in leadership roles within relevant professional organizations?
Ideally, in these years, you will stay in each job long enough to make significant achievements and to be promoted or move into new areas. Employers really seek out those employees with a strong record of achievement for internal growth options. Hiring managers want to see achievements, current knowledge, and upward mobility in external candidates. Your resume should always be up-to-date. A contact may know of a great opportunity or you may recognize early signs that a new job is a smart move.
Increasingly, people in mid-career are also moving into remote work, freelance or ‘gig’ jobs, and other patterns besides regular full-time employment with one employer at one location. In government contracting there are many independent contractors and consultants. If any of these options appeal to you, you will need to do research on both employers who want such workers and how you can manage such a career pattern.
Do you have a current written plan for your career with goals and actions? This is ‘crunch time’ for many people. You may be deciding whether to stay in the specialist roles within a chosen career, become a generalist, or go for management track jobs. Changing technology or economy/business events will have you wondering what to do next. Personal life intervenes as family or caregiver roles also become more likely. Taking a bit of time each year to think ahead and create a career path will help you succeed.
Too often in the rush of daily life we forget to keep up with technology changes, new discoveries or research in our field, and don’t maintain or grow our network. All of these are vital to your career success. Maintain a pattern of regular learning and connecting. Those habits are valuable throughout your life.
By one’s 40s, and in some fields earlier, the early signs of age discrimination creep in. It will be on you to make sure you are not an easy victim.
- Make your career goals and interest in development opportunities clear to your bosses.
- Ask for training or use company training/education reimbursement plans.
- Keep studying and expanding your knowledge base.
- Watch for changes that may mean you will lose a job or those that indicate your job is becoming obsolete.
I often talk with people in their 40s and 50s who are seeking to change jobs or careers. Far too many have not kept themselves current in technology. Worse, many have let their networks go. These people have a much bigger effort ahead since they have to fix those issues first if their plan is to succeed. Don’t be that person!
Successful career change comes when you:
- Do the self-assessment and the research to know what you are seeking,
- Assess your knowledge and skills against the needs of the new work and learn anything needed to move into the new field,
- Try it out as a volunteer or temporary basis while still working in your current job,
- Define how your past successes apply to this new field, and
- Use your network to help you make the move.
LATE CAREER STAGES
Your network is the key to finding jobs and staying employed as you age. Keep it fresh with new and younger people in your field, and fields which interest you. Be a mentor or a sponsor. Far too often I have people in their late 50s and up tell me that all their network has retired. They are struggling to get consideration by employers and do not have anyone to help them or be referrals to hiring managers.
Increasing longevity means many people will need to work into their 70s. Others may want to do so for many reasons. While the total number of people over 75 currently working full-time is not high, the growth in this category of employee is higher than any other age group.
You cannot count on remaining employed with most employers for as long as you may want. Some are smart enough to offer options for full and part-time employment to older workers. Many do not currently do so.
- You must learn relevant new skills and maintain your curiosity to show you are still valuable.
- Use the many competencies you have and demonstrate your capabilities to potential new employers.
- Your maturity, competence, and breadth of experience are valuable to employers if you present them well.
Again, having a career plan to keep yourself on track is important. Maybe you just want to keep doing your current work. Perhaps you are ready to move from management to an individual contributor role. Or move into a new field. Or begin an ‘encore’ career in a non-profit or cause that is important to you. Maybe you want to work part-time or seasonally. Or start your own business – entrepreneurs over 65 are increasingly common. Or become a consultant. Whatever you think you want to do, you need to be clear about what you need to learn, what your strengths are, and what any change is likely to mean if you want to stay actively working.
So many of us, at every stage, think everything is fine – and do nothing to prepare ourselves for changes. Recognizing that every career field changes, knowledge has a short life-span, and that employers come and go gives you the ability to protect your career. Your career is your biggest financial asset. Don’t damage it by ignoring basic career preventive maintenance.
Patra Frame is ClearedJobs.Net’s HR Management Consultant. She is an experienced human resources executive and founder of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra is an Air Force veteran and charter member of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Follow Patra on Twitter @2Patra.