Updated: May 28, 2020
Author: John Schwarz Source: Fast Company
I still remember my first meeting with the vice-president of my department more than 40 years ago. I was a junior developer at IBM and when he asked what my professional goals were, I told him I wanted to be a CEO. He nearly fell off his chair. Then he got serious and helped me map out a plan to get there. For the next 30 years, I followed that plan. (Spoiler alert: It worked.)
That kind of career trajectory might seem quaint today. From the rise of the gig economy to the impact of automation and AI, there’s plenty of uncertainty right now about how to plan for career progression and what skills will be in demand, or irrelevant, in a changing economy. The uncomfortable truth is we don’t know what the job market of the future will look like—only that it will look very different than it does today and it will change a lot more quickly than it used to. All this can create the impression that as workers we’re now at the mercy of forces well beyond our control.
I don’t buy it—not entirely. Change is nothing new. Though tenures at companies may have been longer in the past, roles were always evolving, demanding new skills to keep up. Even as technology spurs the economy in radically new directions, there are steps individuals can take to shape their careers and stay relevant.
But there is a twist. Future-proofing one’s career doesn’t just mean studying STEM, learning to code, or becoming a data scientist (although, for people with the aptitude for STEM, that is a good place to start). In fact, surviving and thriving in the economy of the future may come down to many of the old-school tactics that helped guide my career a generation ago.
IT STARTS WITH A BLUEPRINT (AND A PERSONAL BOARD OF ADVISORS)
When I began my career, my senior managers helped me craft a master plan and my employer had a vested interest in helping me reach my career goals. By and large, most workers don’t have this luxury. Responsibility is almost solely on the individual to stay relevant in the face of a shifting economy. (Granted, companies like Amazon are investing millions in retraining their workers for the new AI economy, but as robotics and AI become widely adopted, companies’ bottom line may well trump loyalty.)
What hasn’t changed, however, is the advantage of having a career plan—a long-term vision with clear signposts along the way. Critically, a career plan isn’t something set in stone—a course plotted once and followed blindly. Think of it instead as a living document evolving in response to economic factors, emerging opportunities, and even personal interests and family realities.
I revisited my own career plan every year, and still do. I continually ask myself what skills I need to develop to pursue future opportunities, and whether my career trajectory is aligned with my priorities, health, and personal interests. With the life cycle of job skills rapidly shrinking, regular check-ins are even more critical now. After all, today’s in-demand spreadsheet jockeys may well be tomorrow’s out-of-work bookkeepers. Equally important is a set of experienced eyes to steer you forward. Managers and senior leaders once filled this role, though this is increasingly rare.
In today’s climate, what can be equally effective is nurturing a personal board of advisors composed of teachers, coworkers, professional mentors, and family members who can offer trusted input at key junctures. At the same time, tools like TED webcasts, social media sources, and online industry groups can help widen your network and provide insight into your career challenges and goals. Experience and pattern recognition matter, even in an era of exponential change. Surrounding yourself with people who have effectively managed change is the surest way to weather it yourself.
It is extremely disheartening seeing entire regions of workers in dying industries be left without a compass for navigating the changing economy. One thing that is absolutely clear is that our parents’ jobs are very unlikely to be available for us, much less for our children.
KNOW THYSELF (AND THINK LATERALLY)
For all the emphasis on STEM right now, not everyone is cut out for a technical career. No matter how much demand there is for software developers, someone who hates screen time and thrives on human interaction won’t be fulfilled writing code.