The old days of clear career trajectories and stable employment are over. We now have a labour market characterised by shorter-term work that is more varied, more unpredictable, and devoid of boundaries.
These conditions have combined to shift the responsibility for managing careers from the employer toward the individual.
Instead of waiting for the next promotion, you now have to seek out opportunities to develop, renew, and enhance your skills and capabilities to adapt to the challenges posed by constant change in the wider economy.
The recent launch of the SkillsFuture movement reflects this growing emphasis on self-driven career management where individuals embrace the concept of lifelong learning with a focus on the mastery of new skills and competencies.
An Entrepreneurial Mindset
A person’s career should thus be viewed as a lifelong project shaped by the opportunities and choices one faces. Managing such a “project” is akin to running an enterprise, where career decisions entail investment, risk, and even sacrifice in pursuit of long-term career and life goals.
An entrepreneurial mindset is vital. You need to take charge by constantly seeking out opportunities to deepen and expand skill sets. You need to take risks.
The 21st century workplace requires workers to take on an increasing array of responsibilities, many of which will be unfamiliar to most Singaporeans who have been trained in a system producing highly-specialised individuals for particular vocations.
Job reinvention is thus required. Medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, and research scientists are taking on leadership responsibilities. Professionals need to innovate and start new systems, practices, and enterprise.
Three Types of Knowing
There are three types of career-based investments that people can make, according to renowned academic and career theorist Professor Michael Arthur. All three investments cover types of knowledge: knowing-why, knowing-how, and knowing-whom.
Knowing-why investments deal with aspirations, motivations and identity; in short, how and why people derive meaning out of their work and learning. Such investments deal with self-discovery.
Decisions to take on new jobs unrelated to one’s area of specialisation, or volunteer time for activities that resonate with personal values are examples of such investments. When successful, the greater insight of one’s personal goals and motivations from these investments allows people to craft their careers around jobs that fit better with their individual values and life goals. An accountant for example might discover a passion for teaching and mentoring through volunteer experience at student care centre, which causes her to switch to a career in teaching.
Knowing-how investments cover skills and expertise that will be in demand for a particular role or industry. Familiarity with the latest technology, proficiency in languages from untapped markets, and the ability to efficiently manage projects all count as possible investments under this category. An IT programmer seeking to broaden the applicability of his skill could thus sign up for a course in mobile apps development.
Knowing-whom investments involve building and managing one’s social network of peers (e.g. professional learning communities), mentors, and protégés, in the interest of career advancement.
Social networks not only provide access to valuable informational and emotional resources, they also open doors to new opportunities to develop professionally. Moreover, these investments also build one’s status and reputation.
Together, these investments help individuals map out possible career paths and determine where to devote their time, effort, and energy to achieve their career goals.
Employers Have a Role
Employers are not off the hook. They need to create an ecosystem where entrepreneurial career activity can thrive.
Employers can offer incentives such as upgrades in role responsibilities and pay scale for those who learn new skills and knowledge. Employers also need to be flexible to incorporate individual choice and customisation since career pathways are now so varied. For example, individuals should choose between developing their careers in terms of (a) growing deeper in knowledge and skills in their area of expertise, (b) climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, or focusing on innovation by heading new enterprises or initiatives. All three represent plausible alternatives toward career success in the 21st century.
Flexible work structures that champion individual autonomy and choice play a prominent role in encouraging entrepreneurial career investments. For instance, personalised work arrangements negotiated between employer and employee facilitate the customisation of work around the needs of both parties. For instance, an employee with childcare responsibilities can schedule times to be at the office which coincide with hours when his or her children are at school. Similarly, an employee can also telecommute on certain days of the week if traveling to the workplace is inconvenient.
A supportive social network of supervisors, peers, and subordinates can help workers strike a balance between delivering on immediate work responsibilities and future investments in one’s career.
The days of one-sided employer-driven approaches to career management are over. Preparing Singapore’s global workforce for the uncertain and complex challenges ahead is now a shared responsibility between individuals and their employers.
Individuals have to be more proactive, strategic, and entrepreneurial in choosing where and how they are going to invest their time and resources in the interest of achieving career goals.
About the author
Trevor Yu is Associate Professor, Division of Strategy, Management & Organisation at Nanyang Business School, NTU
This commentary was published in Today on 1 July 2016.