How the Career Ladder Became a Rock Wall, and What You Can Do About It
Seemingly overnight, the traditional career ladder has been transformed into a far more precarious rock climbing wall. Success, no matter how you define it, now requires you to develop a more creative and nimble career strategy—one that embraces continuous learning and professional growth. Are you ready?
Have you ever been rock climbing, and perhaps reached a little beyond your comfort zone? If you have, you’re familiar with that “uh-oh” feeling that makes you question your decision or even your confidence. Perhaps your hands or feet have even slipped a bit and your belay had to guide you back to safety. The lack of clarity and security often felt while rock climbing is in many ways the experience of today’s employees.
The great recession has created seismic shifts in how organizations operate and evolve—shifts that have fundamentally changed how individuals have to conceptualize their careers. The traditional “corporate ladder” with predictable, vertical rungs of progression has been replaced by a rock wall rife with tenuous footholds, unexpected twists and disappointing lateral moves.
To provide some context and illustrate the forces at play, I have summarized the major economic trends and the keys to successful career advancement used during these periods.
Major economic trends included the post WWII boom, GI Bill, and American firms becoming dominant global players. The job market was robust and lifetime employment with one firm became the norm.
- Keys to Career Advancement – An undergraduate degree was your ticket to career advancement with one company and a pension that provided a comfortable retirement. The corporate ladder is in full force.
Global competition starts to affect U.S. industry. Lifetime employment is no longer a guarantee, as massive layoffs, downsizing and flattening of organizations became realities.
- Keys to Career Advancement – A graduate degree, particularly an MBA, along with willingness to relocate becomes your ticket to advancement. Multiple jobs and maybe a move to a competitor were needed to keep climbing. The career rock climbing wall is forming.
Companies added significant staff and embraced the idea of talent management to recruit, retain and develop staff.
- Keys to Career Advancement – For those with advanced degrees and a willingness to be mobile, the global economy and economic bubbles create an upside for the career capitalist. The career rock climbing wall is in place, but it is masked by a robust job market.
Massive layoffs begin across all sectors of the economy. Hiring comes to a virtual stop. Several key sectors including real estate, banking and transportation are particularly hard hit.
- Keys to Career Advancement – Advanced degrees are the norm. Only those with a proven track record of delivering results, a broad network, and portable skills are able to navigate the downturn as a “free agent.” Career transitions take an average of 6-12 months. Many people leave the workforce completely or can’t enter coming out of college. The career rock climbing wall is finally revealed by the great recession.
WELCOME TO THE CAREER ROCK CLIMBING WALL
Back in the mid-1990’s, just before the Internet boom, I heard a futurist talk about the job market of the 21st century. He described it as the ‘Charles Ingalls’ economy. Charles Ingalls, played by Michael Landon, was the main character in the popular TV series Little House on the Prairie, set in the late 1800’s. In the series, Charles Ingalls did whatever it took to take care of his family. He worked his farm, cut lumber at the local sawmill, and even left his family to build the transcontinental railroad.
The speaker indicated that based on the mega-trends of globalization, corporate downsizing, reorganizations, outsourcing, contracting, and the rise of portable benefits, we were quickly becoming “free agents.” Those who embraced this reality and acted accordingly, he suggested, would be successful in their careers. Unfortunately, after nearly 20 years of unprecedented job growth, the loss of 400,000 jobs per month in 2008-09 and the addition of only 119,000 jobs per month since 2010; this “free agent” world has become a reality. While some have been able to adjust and move into new jobs and careers, many have been caught off guard by the severity and duration of the Great Recession. Today, individuals face the career rock climbing wall, full of uncertain footholds without a clear path for career advancement.
The underlying economic trends of previous decades slowly created this environment, and will continue to affect the job market for years. And although there continues to be a lot of talk about a labor shortage resulting from an increase in baby boomer retirements, there is solid research that indicates employers are adapting by replacing them with fewer super-achievers who embrace challenge and continuous learning. In addition, this research indicates organizations will continue to use outsourcing, contracting, flattening and “matrixing” to maximize efficiency. As a result, individuals are challenged to become more resourceful and adaptive than ever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Aldrich serves as Executive Director of the Career Management Center at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business. Before joining GSU, Jason served in similar roles at Vanderbilt University and The University of Georgia. In addition, he was President of the Georgia Association of Colleges and Employers (GACE) in 2004 and has presented at numerous regional and national professional association conferences throughout his career. Jason is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia pursuing a Doctorate Degree in Education. His research topic is Facilitating the Career Adaptability of Graduate Business Students. Jason earned a M.A. in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Indiana University at Pennsylvania.