Career Choices

CAREERMost of us at one point or another provided career advice to someone. It might be a friend, coworker, sibling, or child that wanted to better map out their future while maximizing the value of their skills and abilities. However, one might argue, how can you provide that kind of advice today when the world is so complex and ever changing. Moreover, as the world becomes more interconnected through not only transportation and communication, but also increasing levels of education and business acumen, competition grows and requires us to reinvent who we are and what we do.
Although this may seem overwhelming, the employee-employer as well as the contractor-employer relationship based on providing mutual value. The real key to responding to the aforementioned changes pertains to having the skills, abilities, and experiences that employers find most valuable. I ran into a past client in the Atlanta airport this week and we talked about this very topic. We discussed how tough the job market is for new college graduates and he shared a profound thought with me. He made the argument that the market has changed, but still values the most those categories of skills that have been paramount for a long time: specialized trades, sales, and management.

He defined trades broadly as any specialized skills that uniquely qualify someone to successfully complete a set of similar tasks. That would include diverse, but specialized occupations, such as plumbers, builders, surgeons, nurses, accountants, information technology developers, mechanics, engineers, consultants, and designers. Sales encompasses anyone, regardless of the industry that induce others to buy products or services. The management skill area pertains to anyone that can manage and lead people to accomplish a set of common goals or outcomes. Moreover, as would be expected, the combination of these skills only amplifies the rewards.
What does the data show? In the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics summary of the highest pay jobs, occupations requiring specific medical expertise represent 14 of the top 20. The remaining highest paying jobs include chief executives, engineers, engineering managers, IT managers, marketing managers, and air traffic controllers. Similarly, US News and World Report ranks health care occupations in seven of their top ten with information technology rounding out the other three. Several career planning sites listed non-health related occupations only outside of the top 20 of most rewarded and fastest growing jobs.
Of the three skills categories, lets focus on one area: what he referred to as trades and we might call specialized skills. Specialized skills are still rare and will clearly be in significant demand in the near to mid-term future. Moreover, new labor market supply is not correlating well with the fastest growing segments of demand. For example, a late 2014 BLS report points to this gap by finding that there are more available, but unfilled jobs in the United States than there were before the economic downturn began at the end of 2007. Moreover, employers are hiring and firing less than before 2007 to hang on needed skills. A big portion of the gap in the available market pertains to the absence of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) skills among US workers. A recent Brookings report ( summarizes the evidence for the shortfall. The report finds that:

  • STEM skills, particularly those associated with high levels of educational attainment, are in high demand among employers;
  • job seekers possessing neither STEM knowledge nor higher education face extraordinary levels of competition for a scarce number of jobs; and
  • the gap between supply and demand is especially acute in certain metropolitan areas, where the average vacancy for STEM workers takes months to fill.

So, you need to give advice for those seeking to plan or change a career, having a trade, inducing others to buy, and leading others seems like fantastic advice.

Preparing for the New Year: Planning

As we near a new year, it is customary to reflect on the past and plan for the future.  Most of go through the effort of setting resolutions to only forget what they were by February and starting to plan for next year by June.  Over the years, most of us discovered that our habits are hard to break. Some of the reasons include:

  • We underestimate how strong bad habits are to overcome and believe when can change anything about ourselves with ease;
  • We focus more on immediate than long term rewards;
  • Our brain finds comfort in routine and we are drawn toward it at a subconscious level; and
  • Stress tends of support negative behaviors.

More simply, we are programmed to take the most recognizable and rewarding path regardless if it meets our long term goals.  Stress multiplies these behaviors and only increases our chances of going with what we know and find comforting.

So, how do we fight our nature when dealing with our career goals?  We have all listened to friends and co-workers talk about the next “big” job that they are going to have.  How do we transition from dreaming of the next move to making it?

One option is to adopt an approach similar to business planning.  Businesses, like people tend to suffer from inertia.  It is much easier to continue with past practices then try something new.  More than a few businesses have failed because the environment changed and the business did not. Once a year, every business owner or leadership team should go through a structured, business planning process that assesses the environment, sets goals, develops strategies, determines how goals will be measured, and operationalizes the plan.

As the managers of our own careers, we have to plan as well.  We can use planning to successfully:

  • choose an occupation;
  • get a job;
  • grow in a job;
  • receive a promotion;
  • gain new skills; and
  • change jobs or careers.

The same elements that work for business planning translate well to career planning at a high level.

Mission Statement:  What is my purpose? What do I really want from my career?

SWOT Analysis: What are my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the coming year and the future as a whole? How do I turn threats into opportunities? How do we capitalize on opportunities? How do I build on strengths while minimizing the impact of weaknesses?

Goals: What are my goals? How do they fit together? What do I need to accomplish in the short and long term? Do my goals match my abilities and opportunities?

Strategies: What are several strategies I can use to accomplish each of our goals?

Key Performance Indicators: How can I measure my progress? How do I know I am on the right path?

Operations Plan: What actions do I need to take to realize my goals? What time and resources do I need?

Once you have your plan, get started.  The most successful implementations include monitoring.  Take the time to account for what you have accomplished, what could be improved, and where you are headed next.  As we plan for the New Year, start off right by deciding what you want to accomplish and how you can get there.