Following the jobs crisis of the last decade, the latest research shows that employees have redefined their career aspirations, but employers have yet to adjust sufficiently to meet them.
A few years back, careers were a hot topic. That changed in the early 1990’s. Waves of down-sizings, delayerings, out-sourcing and other effects of re-engineering challenged many of the career certainties of the past. What constituted a “safe career” – a sure means of advancement and a guarantee of a good pension – were thrown into doubt.
Corporate careers moved in a horizontal rather than vertical direction. Employability was supposed to replace the idea of job security and employees were meant to manage their own career. Change was the order of the day.
Roffey Park’s latest research into the state of careers in 2000 suggests that while individuals may have got used to change, they are still extremely interested in how they can develop their careers. But from an organisational perspective, careers have dropped from the radar screen. Yet this issue is probably the major threat to organisations which fail to take it seriously.
Global competition, technological change and e-commerce mean that the workplace will undergo more radical changes. Flexibility and speed of response are the order of the day. “Knowledge work” is seen as a key means of gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage in many sectors.
The need for workforce flexibility is being mirrored by the notion that careers will become more mobile, and that individuals will need to be able to adapt to constantly changing environments. The new “post-corporate” career may involve periods of employment, self-employment, voluntary work and studying. Only those with the capacity for continuous learning and coping with ambiguity are likely to thrive.
Success to these self-empowered individuals will mean team-working and developing broader skills rather than simply achieving status. These new-style employees will actively negotiate development opportunities as part of their recruitment package and take responsibility for their own learning. They have a clear sense of what is important to them, and will likely be identified by their employers as key contributors.
According to Judy Rosener, mobility and flexibility should benefit both employees and employers. In future, she predicts, there will be a shift away from benefits being tied to a particular organisation.
Benefits will need to be portable, adjusting to the demands of changing career patterns and providing freedom to move. While governments are keen to ensure that citizens provide for their futures, the proposed stakeholder pension has little appeal to possible providers, let alone pensioners. Proposed changes to early retirement arrangements in the public sector may well restrict people’s career mobility and the age at which they can embark on a new career.
The UK private pensions scene is at best confusing, with conventional occupational pensions within a single organisation still offering the best deal. Mobility is penalised rather than rewarded.
Other tax law changes also work against mobility – self-employed contractors may well find themselves becoming employees for tax purposes. The dominant model of career supported by such policies is that of the full-time career until the age of 65 in one organisation – an idea which is increasingly irrelevant from a commercial and social perspective.
So have people taken the new messages to heart? Yes and no. Roffey Park surveys in 1998 and 99 showed that most people, especially those who see themselves as high-fliers, still aspire to a high-level position, preferably in the same company.
While aspirations may not have changed much, career-management ideas have shifted significantly. The most striking finding in Roffey Park’s research is that 98 per cent of respondents claim to be confident of their employability. Whether such claims are defensive posturing or based on an astute assessment of what is needed to avoid job insecurity matters less than the fact that people see themselves as being in charge of their own development.
These new forms of career are supposed to be based on partnership. Two years ago Richard Brown, CEO of Cable and Wireless, suggested that even in down times, organisations should “train and develop your critical people, managerial and technical. Nothing is more important than growing your A players, which is conducive to better retention, and promptly dealing with C players. This is an opportunity for exercising leadership”.
Yet to some extent his words fell on deaf ears. The research indicates that the organisational side of the partnership is lagging behind. Despite employees’ willingness to adapt to new career models, few viable alternatives seem to have appeared. The support which people might expect to help them embrace the realities of the new career appears thin on the ground.
Few people seem to be actively contemplating portfolio careers. The average job tenure of respondents is eight years, suggesting that most people would in practice prefer to develop their careers within their current workplace.
Companies are also interested in graduates and high-fliers, and are bringing back fast-track schemes which maintain or reintroduce conventional forms of career management. But these may do more harm than good because they reinforce stereotypical expectations about rapid advancement for members of an elite group. Although people still aspire to onwards and upwards, they are often not prepared to make the longer-term commitment that such schemes require. Where fast-track schemes exist, they often have a high churn rate.
The research suggests that people are becoming more willing to contemplate lateral career development instead of vertical promotion. But because lateral development seems to be just as difficult to achieve, and organisations still attach more symbolic and financial value to vertical promotion, people are discouraged from taking it seriously.
This basic mismatch between what employees want and what is on offer is to be expected because accepted wisdom is that employee attitudes adjust some seven years earlier on average than organisations’ capacity to deliver. But organisations need to develop their side of the partnership if they want to recruit and retain the best.
Active career partnership
This is in everyone’s interest because most employees still want to grow their career in the same organisation. If those people have the necessary skills and knowledge, maintaining an active career partnership makes sense. Some employees may be willing to shift away from promotional goals if the right degree of support for a different kind of career is available.
Douglas Hall, co-author of The New Protean Career Contract: Helping Organisations and Employees Adapt, argues that career partnership should take the form of brokering, creating learning opportunities, facilitating lateral moves and enabling employees to build interesting jobs.
The research confirms that people want help with building career paths. Yet few organisations in the survey are addressing these issues in a serious way. Initiatives are at best piecemeal rather than strategic and are usually driven by a belated recognition of the need to address a problem, such as inability to attract or retain key employees.
What else do employees want from this partnership? Some want greater flexibility. Most want the chance of a better work/life balance, more reasonable workloads, a chance to grow on the job, and a challenge. Most of all they want a sense of direction, both in terms of company strategy and career paths, so they can develop their career to their satisfaction.
Hall says that career planning does not really fit the new career paradigm, but job planning does. But in practice it seems that people want to know what routes are available so that they can start to navigate their way through the career jungle.
• Linda Holbeche is director of research at Roffey Park and has been studying the impact of change on careers since 1994. Her latest report, The Future of Careers, is available from Roffey Park, price £50. Contact 01293 851644
The way that careers and organisations will develop
• Most employees still cling to the idea that career progression means promotion. Organisations will need to develop new career tracks which offer different types of reward and status, rather than just hierarchical promotion. These will be driven by the need to slow down high turnover among skilled staff. Those who wait until they are forced to do this will lose out.
• Many employees still crave job security. Offering this will become key to attracting and retaining the best.
• The “post-corporate career” is happening and will become a more defined trend as confidence increases. “Career resilience” is likely to be the key determinant of successful career self-management, linked with the on-going quest for learning and new skills.
• Increased job movement and hard negotiation of career packages are probable. Employers will need to flex their policies if they want to attract staff with key skills. Pay is likely to become more contentious as existing employees will increasingly feel they have lost out financially by remaining loyal.
• Highly employable people are looking for roles which appeal to their personal values, and money is unlikely to the primary motivator. Employees of the “Generation X” age group (up to 35) are said to be particularly values-driven. More cross-sectoral job moves are likely, including moves in and out of the not-for-profit sector. People will increasingly choose to take career breaks or work flexibly to have more of what they consider important. Employers in the knowledge economy (especially dotcoms) are already recognising the need to attract skilled employees by having a well articulated set of values which work in practice.
• Work-life balance is a big issue for many employees and is increasingly a factor for choosing to leave organisations and look for alternatives, including self-employment. People will be less amenable to working long hours. Organisations will increasingly consider the implementation of work/life balance policies as a business priority.
• Employers will have to develop “revolving door” policies for departing employees whose skills are in demand. They will need to negotiate appropriate deals to attract talent back into the organisation, which may be more expensive than having good development possibilities in the first place.
• Flatter structures will remain a dominant concept – “knee-jerk” relayerings will happen although they are unlikely to last.
• Some organisations are regretting parting with more experienced/older employees and are now making early departures more difficult. Consequently, the numbers of people who had hoped for early retirement and are denied will increase. The challenge will be to motivate “tired” employees who do not want to climb another rung.
• Organisations will continue to look for solutions to long-term succession planning. Conventional fast-track schemes appear to be on the increase, but it is questionable whether these will prove effective over time.
• The role of managers is changing and generalist managers may be endangered unless involved in managing large and complex projects. Generalists will need to develop some expertise of their own, if only in leadership, if they are to add value. The dotcom model of entrepreneurial leadership is likely to be in vogue for a while.
• The old split between “command and control” and participative management styles is blurring. And there is increasing recognition that the role of managers needs to reflect current business conditions rather than popular fashion. But a shift appears to have taken place, with traditionalists even recognising the need to motivate knowledge workers, manage performance and engage in teambuilding.
• Managers are in the front line of career matters and often receive little practical support to help them do it well. Wide spans of control will shrink to allow managers to carry out the performance management and development aspects of their role.
• Good leadership will be a key issue across all sectors – craved by employees and generally perceived to be lacking in UK organisations. Leaders will be expected to demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence, especially self-awareness. 360-degree feedback and executive coaching markets look set to burgeon