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How to Future-Proof Your Career

There is a huge opportunity for those willing to redevelop themselves.

By Julie Norwell

In her 2018 memoir, Becoming, former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama opens with a reflection on how, when she was a little girl, adults would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up: “Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child – as if growing up is finite. As if, at some point, you become something and that’s the end.”

It’s an observation that people in the modern work world might also appreciate because career changes have become a part of life. Long gone are the days when a worker might retire with a gold watch from the same company at which he launched his career. Nowadays, American workers stay with an employer 4.1 years on average. Chances are good that whatever you set out to do at the beginning of your career is far from what you now do for a living. And whatever you do today may not be what you will be doing tomorrow.

We can all thank (blame?) technology for that. For better or for worse, rapid technological innovations are changing the landscape for workers of all calibers, and the pace is only accelerating, especially since Covid.

A few years ago, management consulting literature was heralding the “future of work” as nothing short of a transformation of business as we know it. Until recently, analysts predicted this phenomenon would play out in five to ten years – a timeframe that seemed scary and head-spinning. Then Covid came and compressed the transformation into several months.

Almost overnight, people went digital, moving their lives and livelihoods online, and businesses, in a mad scramble to maintain business continuity, moved mountains to support the shift. People who had never heard of Zoom calls, met with a doctor virtually, or ordered household goods online, got a crash course.

The Covid experience has demonstrated that automation, artificial intelligence and digitization are quickly expanding into every aspect of our lives – and they’re here to stay. This is unnerving because the skills workers currently have fall short of those needed for future jobs. And the gap is increasing. At the same time, technology will create job opportunities that don’t yet exist.

It’s clear that the situation is complicated, and uncertainties abound. Navigating them will be challenging, and individuals must shoulder the responsibility of preparing for the jobs of the future if they want to remain relevant.

The good news is that many smart people are already thinking about how best to do that. Here are some of the ways they recommend to future-proof your career.

One of the most important things you can do to prepare yourself for your professional future is to start learning new skills today – and don’t stop. Ever.

If you aren’t familiar with the terms “upskill” and “reskill” yet, you soon will be. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum raised the alarm about the widening skills gap in the world, launching a major initiative to future-proof 1 billion jobs that are estimated to be transformed by technology by 2030 – almost one-third of all jobs worldwide.

“Upskilling” means learning new skills in an existing job in order to do it better or, perhaps, in a different way. Why is this important? Because skills used on the job are estimated to have a half-life of five years or less. That means that half of what you learned five years ago is irrelevant, and much of what you learned ten years ago is obsolete.

“Reskilling” means training or learning to do a job in a completely different occupation. This will prove crucial for people whose jobs are at risk of being automated.

What skills should you learn? That depends on what you do for work, the demands of those fields and the specific competencies that you, personally, might need to grow. They might range from hard skills, such as data analytics or coding, to soft skills like leadership or emotional intelligence.

How should you learn? Again, it depends on what you do and where you work, but skills-building could incorporate a combination of formal education, online classes, coaching, and any number of other learning forums that can be layered into the daily work environment. Many of these are – you guessed it – digital technologies, like digital nudges delivered through mobile apps, augmented reality-based trainings, game-based learning, and micro-learning.

It Takes a Village

Rest assured that individuals aren’t alone in facing the evolving nature of work. Businesses are facing them, too, and business leaders are worried. It’s become abundantly clear that it’s in their interests to help workers bridge the gap between the skills they have and those they need for the jobs of the future.

According to PwC’s 2020 annual survey of 1,500 CEOs of major companies, 74% of CEOs are concerned about the availability of the talent they need to ensure their company’s growth – up from 53% in 2012. (Notably, the survey was conducted before the Covid crisis gripped the world.) They recognize the need to offer training opportunities to employees to both fill skills gaps and reduce turnover. Targeting companies with skills-building programs will give job seekers an advantage in the employment market.

AT&T, for example, spends roughly $200 million annually on employee training, and Walmart created Walmart Academy in 2016 to train its associates for promotion. Amazon offers multiple programs to train its employees in critical tech skills.

Unfortunately, most companies are more talk than action. Only 18% of global organizations have made “significant progress” in developing upskilling programs – in the United States that figure is only 8%.

Companies should do more, and they likely will, but until they do the onus will continue to be on individuals to do what they can to remain competitive.

Intentional Learning

For some people, learning new skills is easier said than done. They can’t just take a course on a new topic and immediately master the material. It often takes time, context, and countless iterations before they can truly learn a new skill. It also takes a unique frame of mind.

The latest thinking on upskilling and reskilling is that the first lesson that some people need to learn is how to learn. “Learning itself is a skill,” according to a report by McKinsey, “and developing it is a critical driver of long-term career success.”

People who are effective learners can be called intentional learners. This means they approach every experience as a learning opportunity and, thus, squeeze more value out of it than the average person.

According to McKinsey, intentional learning can be developed by adopting two critical mindsets and five core skills. The first is a growth mindset – that is, a belief that your competencies are unlimited – that you are capable of evolving and changing as a person. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset – a belief that you are who you are, that you cannot change, and your talents are finite. Cultivating a growth mindset requires you to recognize that “failures and mistakes are not indicative of the limits of your intellect but rather tools that inform how you develop.”

How to Future-Proof Your Career

The second critical mindset is one of active curiosity, which McKinsey labels the “engine of intentional learning.” Curiosity is an openness to new ideas and a channel for inspiration, and it motivates people to learn more and more. Many people are naturally curious, but those who aren’t can cultivate it, which is great because curiosity is useful at any stage in your career.

Once these two critical mindsets are in place, McKinsey identifies five best practices to support and develop them. They include setting goals, protecting time for learning, actively seeking feedback, conducting deliberate practice, and reflecting to evaluate yourself and determine your progress.

Practicing intentional learning is a personal investment, to be sure, but the pay-off is improvement in your skills and performance, using a method that keeps you inspired and engaged, which will help you prepare for the changing demands of the jobs of the future.

There is a huge opportunity awaiting those who are willing to redevelop themselves. It’s just a question of seizing it.

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