The trouble with career design

My current work involves the development of an employability programme. As I worked on it, I had a deja vú, an old idea really, which is worth posting about.

Years ago, I discovered the obvious: That it's not easy to educate for employability. Not only education has a broader goal, which is often undermined when one narrowly focuses on the requirements of one industry or another, labour markets, particularly in the sectors which are technology-driven and globally connected, are notoriously fickle. Hence, I concluded then, that career planning for students is a pointless enterprise and instead, we should develop a design approach to career (see Career Design, not Career Planning and How to do Career Design). 

Indeed, since then and through different projects I participated into and many coversations I have had with people working in the field, my convictions have only deepened. In general, I think, we are accepting that all knowledge is provisional and our ability to predict the future is limited at best - and hence any endeavour that involves the future needs to be based on a test-and-learn approach. Empirical evidence is also emerging that this is exactly what professionals are increasingly doing about career change. Indeed, there are those people who still plan in advance, get through GMAT and do an MBA, but this is a tiny percentage of humanity, usually very well-educated and reasonably secure financially, who get what they wanted. But, for the rest of us, it is invariably trial-and-error.

I acknowledge that the role of a college career service to do is to reduce or eliminate the uncertainty from job search. However, I think that is precisely the mistake most college career services commit: Not only the uncertainty can not be reduced or eliminated, it is a wrong lesson for the students who need to learn to embrace the uncertainty. It's similar to giving a fish and teaching someone how to fish, but the job descriptions of career services personnel do not allow such nuances. The motto of modern management - what gets measured, gets done - narrows the role down to only the measurable, how many people found jobs, and leaves the meaningful out.

It's not surprising, therefore, that for a vast majority of college students, the end result is a job that doesn't need any graduate level abilities. Not only that, most people get stuck at the jobs they started with and only a tiny minority (5% by an estimate) progress to a different level in the organisation. Besides, this bottled notions of employability and career often infect the curriculum with narrow vocationalism, spreading through the sector through the transmission mechanisms of university rankings and various government attempts to measure educational effectiveness. 

A case in point is the recent transformation of work, in the wake of the pandemic, which highlighted the limitations of the career services approach further. We are perhaps looking at an entire lost cohort of graduates, whose lifetime earnings will forever be stunted because they graduated in the middle of this. That no one saw it coming wouldn't suffice as an excuse, for more than one reason. Connected global lives introduce many factors - too many - that can potentially affect our lives and careers. Because we can't control them, uncertainty should be at the core of our approach to careers, rather than out of it.

A related problem is that the students don't want to deal with uncertainty either. They have been conditioned to be consumers - the purchaser of credentials - and like any smart consumer, they want to get to the goal of jobs and earning with the least cost in terms of money and time incurred along the way. They would rather have a roasted fish served up on a plate than spend hours sitting by the pond. Aristotle's advice - that there is no royal way of learning - doesn't hold for them: Middle classes can buy everything! 

Hence, the common sense formula - that we must apply design thinking to careers rather than telling people how to write CVs or spruce up LinkedIn - isn't an easy sell. To achieve this - this is my current thinking - the dichotomy is jobs and life must be broken. It's not just about getting a job but creating a working identity (and indeed, INSEAD's Herminia Ibarra's work is my inspiration here) and we are designing the entire proposition around the development of one. Along the way, we want the students to ask questions about themselves and about the meaning of work and career, hopefully a method that allows them to see beyond the quick-fix of aceing an interview. Of course, true to its spirit, all solutions we build would be provisional, but we are not allowing that to come in the way of our ambition.


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