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.

Measuring Engagement

Recently I was asked about what is the best approach to determining what employees feel and think.  The client had conducted satisfaction surveys for a few years and found that most employees possessed an average level of ambivalence toward most things in the organization with the exception of pay and recognition.  Although this gave the client a basic understanding of employee perceptions, it was felt that the organization was not performing to its potential.

As we reviewed the past surveys, it became evident that the questions did a good job of assessing what I like and do not like as an employee, but did very little to identify those things that drive my commitment to the organization and its goals.  What the client needed to know was how well the leaders were engaging employees and what impact it was having on overall performance.   Our discussion revealed the advantage of assessing engagement over satisfaction since she needed to know more about:

  • actionable workplace elements;
  • linkages to desired outcomes;
  • what is really important to the employee in the workplace; and
  •  what impacts productivity and prevents thinking a satisfied employee is always a productive employee.
Figure 1: Engagement Factors

Research has shown that engagement is critical to productivity and should be the focus of assessing the current state of an organization on a regular basis.  Figure 1 illustrates the four core components or levels that make up engagement.

Job – job engagement relates to the degree to which my job is rewarding and challenging.  In addition, it pertains to how well my job leverages by skills and abilities and grants opportunities for skill and performance growth.

Coworker – coworker engagement accounts for the relationships that I have with those that I work with as well as how well we communicate and work as a team.

Supervisor – supervisor engagement encompasses all of the factors that an employee depends on a supervisor for: giving direction, setting expectations, and providing feedback coupled with the leadership ability and practices of the supervisor.

Organization – organization engagement accounts for the factors that allow an employee to successfully complete my job, such as strategic direction, alignment, resources, recognition, rewards, and communication.

In the next post, we will discuss what the four levels tell us about overall engagement.