Flexibility and Willingness to Learn Are Not Enough!

By Sally J. Power

The job market has gotten much more competitive over the last few decades and employers are getting increasingly demanding for their hiring dollars. Furthermore, experienced, white-collar workers are entering the job market more often. Independent career counselors increasingly find themselves working with clients who face longer periods of unemployment and declining incomes. What can these mid-career individuals do to improve their ability to get the jobs they want in this more competitive environment?

The answer that many career counseling experts give about how to respond to these changes in the job market is to show flexibility and the willingness to learn. That may be an answer for entry level employees who are being hired mostly on the basis of potential. But for experienced workers, flexibility and the willingness to learn are baseline requirements -- not enough to assure being hired at the reward level most are seeking. Employers want experienced hires that have the work-related skills and knowledge those employers currently need to meet their organization's challenges. They are looking for virtually immediate, high quality performance - the "plug and play" employee.

Of course, hiring the well-prepared, experienced worker has always been an employer's ideal. But today employers can be more demanding because there are more experienced candidates to choose from. Furthermore, the cost of labor in developed countries is such that, if employers cannot find a candidate to their specifications, they are likely to postpone filling the position or drive a hard compensation deal with the person they do hire.

Career Management Needs

In order to remain successful, mid-career individuals have increasing career management needs. They need to be good employees (e.g., flexible and willing to learn). Also they need to have good resume writing and interviewing skills since they change jobs more often. In addition, the increased job market competition means they need to have up-scaled knowledge of how their work is changing and what challenges different employers face related to their work. That knowledge helps them shape their skills and knowledge, maintain or increase their value as employees, and find the employers that need their abilities more quickly.



Pace of Change Too Rapid?


Those who are champions of flexibility and willingness to learn, often respond that knowing about how work is changing and identifying high potential employers is not feasible because the pace of change is too rapid for individuals to develop this kind of knowledge. Let's explore that contention.

The sense of the increased pace of change is the result of two major factors. First, communication has improved and so we are more aware of what is happening throughout the world. What we sense is not the increase in the pace of any one change, but rather a recognition that many changes are occurring at the same time. Second, because we know about more changes world-wide, we feel more pressure to change in order to "keep up."

The process of making any one change still takes a significant amount of time. When a change is developed in a type of work, management must be persuaded that the pay-off for making the change is worth the cost. That takes time. Then the change must be planned and integrated with ongoing functioning. That too takes significant time.

For a change to occur across a function or industry, this adoption process must be re-enacted repeatedly in various work organizations. Once momentum has built up, these changes occur more quickly but they still often take years. This means that the pace of change, when you are looking at one specific type of work is more manageable. This is key to allowing people time to develop or focus their skills and knowledge so that they show the abilities to do the work that employers currently value most.

Importance of Staying Current

The second key to allowing people to know more about how their work is changing and what employers need is getting current information. This more sophisticated information is now readily available at most public libraries where electronic databases allow individuals to quickly search hundreds of industry and professional publications about trends and changes related to their specific type of work.

Searching a database will provide individuals with the "hot topics" being discussed in their work. Armed with that information they can focus their local networking and other learning activities to find out how what they have learned fits with what is happening in their preferred locale. It is through this information gathering and learning, and the career development it naturally leads to, that individuals build and maintain their knowledge of how their work is changing. It also helps them keep current on what kinds of skills and knowledge different employers are seeking. Armed with this information they can compete much more effectively in the job market.

Career counseling for people in mid-career is evolving. It requires all the skills and knowledge you already have in your toolbox to help individuals focus their earning careers on work that interests them and to helping them refine and expand their traditional job search skills. In addition, you need to help your clients develop their information gathering and career development abilities so that they keep their skills and knowledge current with the needs of the job market. Flexibility and willingness to learn are not enough!

Sally J. Power (sjpower@stthomas.edu) is a professor of management at the University of St. Thomas and a member of NCDA. Her new book The Mid-Career Success Guide has just been published (www.employabilityplus.com).

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