Setting your own career path

3 Minute Read | Author: Ruth Callaghan

It was once so simple – leave school, learn a trade, work, start your own business, retire. If you were academically minded, you switched a trade for a degree, then made your way along a different path from employee to management. Professional or not, the career progression for a worker in the 1970s, 80s and even 90s was pretty straightforward.

Fast forward to today, and the set career path has almost disappeared. Many jobs have vanished or bear little relationship to the foundational degrees that used to set workers up for life.

So how do you plan your career path in a constantly shifting landscape?

Wanda Hayes, the National President of the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA), a peak body for career development professionals, explains.

“The way careers work these days, pathways are very rarely linear,” Hayes says.

“Sometimes people think well, if I do this, then the next step is that and so on. It rarely works that way.

“You can’t necessarily say ‘I’m going to go from here to there’, but you can evolve from where you are now.”

One of the big challenges for those trying to take the first step is to find a starting point that makes sense.

In 2015, just 71 per cent of university graduates found full-time employment six months after graduating (with many of these jobs in retail or hospitality, not their subject field). That’s a huge drop from a decade ago, on the eve of the global financial crisis, when 87 per cent of new grads could find full-time work.

Hayes says degrees are no longer a ticket into a job, so graduates need a broader strategy.

“The degree becomes the baseline benchmark but if that’s all you have you won’t get anywhere,” she says.

“You have to start accumulating different kinds of capabilities, skills, contacts, knowledge, and experiences. That’s not just true for degrees, but any kind of qualification.”

Hayes says she recommends people looking to develop their careers think of themselves as a Lego creation.

“I talk about people as Lego sets and as you take on a job, you have to have certain bricks of Lego to get it,” she says.

“These might be certain capabilities, knowledge, qualifications or personal qualities. As you do the job, you gain more bricks.

“Some things you will decide you don’t want to do any more or don’t find valuable and you might find another set of things you need to pick up.

“You are constantly rearranging the bricks to create something different.”

Hayes says young people often find it easy to embrace the idea of accumulating experiences and skills over time, rather than marching along a career path that winds steadily upward.

But their parents, she says, are not.

“The disconnect comes when you have conversations with older adults who think they are giving good advice but they aren’t. Young people need to be accumulating experiences and skills they can use for different projects or different roles. That’s more adaptive in this environment.”

Another risk is to pin your hopes on a career with a name — something increasingly less relevant given disruption of roles in a workplace. Instead, you should look for a fit with your experience, skills and interests rather than a title that sums up your role.

“To be honest a lot of jobs don’t have names or at least names that make sense,” Hayes says.

“You cut yourself out of a lot of opportunities if all you are looking for is a job title.”

But while many strategies to developing your career have become outdated, Hayes warns networking is more crucial than ever.

The CDAA says 90 per cent of young workers apply for jobs through online applications, but 60 per of jobs are found through social connections. That means many people are missing out on opportunities and the personal contacts that can help them progress.

Hayes says the best advice for any person wanting to develop their career is to keep evolving, developing their personal skill set, networks, capabilities and experiences all the time.

“Change comes in waves and you can’t ride a wave by standing there watching it come towards you or worse, standing with your back to it staring at your towel on the beach,” she says.

“You have to start swimming.”