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  • Writer's pictureMarie Cini

A New Model for Career Exploration in a VUCA World

I began my career in higher education as a career counselor at a small Pittsburgh-area University. I worked with traditional-age students, and also had the incredible opportunity to work with a large number of “returning” adults finishing a degree. This set the foundation for the rest of my career as a faculty member and administrator focusing on innovative models for adult learners. The difference now, we live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

What I learned back then helping students understand both themselves and the careers they aspired to is as applicable today as it was then (also during a difficult time economically).

Career development is not the same as job placement. Almost everyone confuses the two, including the learners using these services. Too often, students would get through their entire program of study and then visit the “career center” to begin the process of finding and getting placed in a job. Instead, I would challenge them to learn more about themselves and what they wanted in their life and in a career as part of their development process.

In the US, we emphasize the importance of “getting a job” over helping an individual deeply explore their talents, preferences, and desires. A recent article by Junior Achievement underscores this; the article focuses on the fact that in 2019 students were delaying career choice well into their college lives, heralding a negative trend. The emphasis on choosing a career and committing to it is strong in our society, but the exploration tools we provide are limited. No wonder students delay “the choice” when it is perceived as final and difficult to change.

Think about career day in elementary school. Though well-meaning, it often serves to limit rather than expand career awareness. Parents are invited to share their careers with students. In some cases, community figures such as police or firefighters are invited to orient students to careers as well. This actually narrows the types of careers that students are exposed to because the event is limited to the careers in their community and among their parents. Poor communities will continue to inadvertently limit students’ aspirations while well-to-do communities will open far more career doors. But an individual student will not have a comprehensive set of tools to explore careers more broadly no matter where they grow up.

Consider high school students. We still privilege those on a “college prep” track over those who are in a “career/technical” program. A decision to attend the “career-technical” track is considered a poor second choice to aspiring to attend college. We presume that those who attend college will have access to far more choices. This “either-or” thinking limits us deeply when, in fact, most career paths are a combination of a variety of job types along the way. Locksmiths can move into cybersecurity. Architects can become furniture makers. HVAC technicians can start their own business ventures.

High school students should be encouraged to think in terms of career chapters over a longer lifetime, not simply one career that lasts a lifetime.

In college, despite the increase in internships, co-ops, and service-learning opportunities, we don’t do a very good job of integrating career development activities with the college curriculum. To a large extent, students are on their own to explore careers, and many faculty and administrators feel ill-equipped to help them. A recent ACE white paper by Taylor and Haras uncovered the inherent conflicts between content and career among University faculty. Faculty are most comfortable creating new faculty members, but the vast majority of college students will not become faculty members. And therein lies the disconnect.

We should not be surprised, then, that most people struggle with answering how they want to make a living. Recent survey research by Strada and Gallup uncovered the high numbers of college graduates who would change their major if they could choose again. Even among long-time professionals, it is common to jokingly ask “so what do you want to do when you grow up?” Most of us feel that we serendipitously followed a path of twists and turns. If you don’t believe me, ask the next three people you interact with for a true rendering of how they got where they are. Perhaps the better approach is to make the exploration of a winding pathway of career chapters more transparent and navigable.

Today we are facing unprecedented unemployment rates. We are not likely to return to a “normal” economy for some time. As a nation, we are focused on getting people back to work. But, like all recessions, this recession will pass, and we will again face critical skills gaps in some industries, a confused labor force, and no holistic approach to a very complex labor market.

The problem lies in an imperfect, incomplete market that does not provide comprehensive information over an individual’s lifetime to encourage a broader awareness of careers. Nor do we help individuals understand that career development is a process and not a destination, while showing them how to develop their lifelong approach to making a living.

What do we need instead? We need a new systemic model that overlays and integrates career development in every aspect of our lives. Certainly, career development must be deeply integrated in our education, but it needs to also permeate every aspect of our lives. A good start for this model would include

  • Redefining career development as more than job selection and placement. It should be viewed as designing a life. Everyone should have a clear understanding of their individual interests, skills, aptitudes, characteristics, and values as well as a picture of where they most want to enact their career (large company, small firm, neighborhood retailer, self-employed, profit or nonprofit, and the like).

  • Continuous exposure and engagement with career data and experiences across a wide range of opportunities starting in pre-K. Not simply typical jobs we see every day such as “Police, doctor, teacher, nurse” but a wider assortment of ways that individuals make a life. These activities should be embedded in every curriculum and subject we study. They should also be designed into a community-based curriculum where career exploration is everyone’s responsibility.

  • Helping all students learn more about themselves. This must occur in the school setting since not all parents will be able to provide broad assessment and exploration. Getting parents involved will be critical since they are likely to have similar career exploration needs. We need to make it “okay” that career development is a lifelong process and help parents role model that process for their children.

  • Adopting a more “adaptive” model of career development. McGowan and Shipley’s recent book makes this point clearly. In a VUCA world, we should not make students “choose and stick” with a career. Instead, we need to incent exploration and career change when circumstances dictate. Multiple career chapters, lateral moves, failing at times--all are part of a healthy career development process. We all have examples of this that we may not share widely. For example, after watching too many episodes of LA Law in the ‘80s, I thought that becoming a lawyer would be exciting and so began preparations to apply to law school. Then I learned what most attorneys really do every day--mountains of paperwork. I pivoted. We need to all start sharing our pivots, perceived failures, and winding pathways through life--and not view them as a “fail” but as a very normal part of creating a life.

To enable flexible, lifelong individual exploration several things need to change in terms of our national conversation and policies, as well as in our work within communities and school systems:

  • We need to stop artificially splitting careers and education--especially in college. We all must learn continually to create a life--and a fulfilling series of career chapters is part of that for everyone.

  • We switch jobs frequently. We need to make it easier to maintain health insurance as we move around the careerscape. Our benefits model is still tied to a connection to one employer when most of us will have many employers over a lifetime.

  • Federal and state policy have to provide funding and data for the future that is at hand--a longer life with longer career chapters, as major disruptions confront us more often (COVID is just one example). How do we help everyone learn over time, continuously exploring careers and gaining access to assessments about themselves and data on job fields that are growing? How can we also help those who want to explore careers that are not STEM-related or technical in nature? How do we encourage more entrepreneurs? The list of questions we must ask and answer grows by the day in this VUCA world we find ourselves in.

When we want to grow stronger, we exercise several times a week. When we want to get healthier we eat better food more of the time. When we want to learn a language, we practice with native speakers. Career development should be viewed in the same way. If we want people of all ages to know themselves well and to move into new opportunities that allow social and economic mobility, we have to embed career development activities into our daily lives. Now is the time.

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