Building a Non-Traditional Career Path

By Ron Elsdon

I can’t imagine myself ever working for somebody else in a corporate setting like [working for a] boss … [and being a] minion. I think my soul would just die.” (Carmichael, 2014). These are words from someone at an early career stage, building her own business. Is this unusual or does this reflect a fundamental shift in how we think about work? We will explore this question in our article, first observing what is changing in work relationships, then what a nontraditional path means for our clients and ourselves, drawing on ideas that I write about in How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Elsdon, 2014).


Changing Work Relationships

One Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 company in the United States is now replaced about once every two weeks in the S&P 500 index, and the average tenure of an S&P 500 company in the index fell from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years in 2012. Given this, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few in large corporations, it is not surprising to see people leave such organizations as economic conditions improve. Other factors also encourage people to leave conventional employment:

  • Gross inequity in compensation with CEO’s of major corporations now earning several hundred times average worker pay

  • High unemployment for those at early career stages, and significant challenges finding conventional employment for those at late career stages

  • Reduced long term benefits in conventional employment, for example only 30% of U.S. Fortune 100 companies offered defined benefit pension plans to new salaried employees in mid-2012 down from 90% in 1998.

What alternatives are available other than conventional employment? One approach that has much appeal is a nontraditional path created from more than one career component and more than one source of income. Charles Handy coined the term portfolio career for this in the late 1980s. This nontraditional approach offers the potential for career fulfillment and growth through alignment of work with personal preferences, values, interests and skills. It also offers the potential of lower risk and higher reward compared with conventional employment due to diversification into multiple work components, and a focus on personal strengths. Furthermore, today’s readily accessible computing and communication tools offer an advantage to small, nimble enterprises and individuals. Large organizations face substantial switching costs in staying current. Moreover, implementation of the Affordable Care Act made health insurance more accessible for those in nontraditional careers in part by eliminating the egregious insurance company practice of denying coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions. Not surprisingly, studies show satisfaction levels much higher for those in a nontraditional career path compared with conventional employment.


Implementing Nontraditional Career Paths

What does a nontraditional career path look like? We see example vignettes, including several from career development practitioners, in How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path. Common themes of personal fulfillment, making a contribution, variety, time flexibility, novelty, and love of learning are woven through these vignettes. Career components and time commitments are tailored to match personal preferences, for example, allowing for volunteer engagement. Serendipity also plays a part. Perhaps more than anything else, we see the beauty and exuberance of the human spirit over and over again. In my case a common connecting theme in a nontraditional path has been the relationship of individuals, organizations and community. Career components have included individual counseling/coaching, workforce consulting, adjunct teaching, guiding and supporting a practice, volunteer work, and writing. This has been fulfilling and sustainable due to the support of many people for which I am so grateful. Here is some learning about engaging in a nontraditional career path from this experience:

  • Be clear about purpose

  • Stay true to personal beliefs

  • Expect unexpected supporters and barriers

  • Be patient and start the different components when timing is right

  • Develop needed skills before launching a nontraditional path and anticipate needing a broad range of skills

  • Nurture relationships for they are the lifeblood of this path

  • Build knowledge and capabilities with commercial value that are portable

  • Enjoy the journey - there’s only one!

Helping Clients Discern a Path Forward

For clients considering a nontraditional career path, building on our foundational approaches to self-assessment in career counseling, we can also assist clients in reflecting on six key strategic factors associated with a nontraditional path. These six strategic factors are: (1) whether and how to connect career components together, (2) how to differentiate from others, (3) how to balance financial contribution and ramp-up time, (4) determining the pace of entry, (5) identifying needed skills, and (6) addressing partnering.


Here are some questions to ask clients who may consider this path:

  • What benefits might a nontraditional career offer?

  • What excites you in your work and interests and what might this mean for nontraditional career components?

  • What strengths can you bring?

  • What gaps need to be filled?

  • Whose support do you need?

  • What strategic decisions do you need to make?

  • What steps will you take next?

A nontraditional career path offers an opportunity to integrate the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and practical parts of who we are. It can be a journey with delightful surprises, with kindred fellow travelers, that brings personal fulfillment and community benefit.



Carmichael, C. 2014. Etsy Artisans Reach Retailers. New York Times Video, April 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/video/business/100000002824797/etsy-goes-wholesale.html?emc=edit_th_20140415&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=45569923.


Elsdon, R. 2014. How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.



Ron Elsdon 2014Ron Elsdon is a founder of organizations in the career and workforce development fields. His published works include: How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Praeger, 2014); editor of Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing (Potomac Books, Inc., 2013); editor of Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development (Praeger, 2010); and author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003). He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, a master’s in career development from John F. Kennedy University, and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached at renewal@elsdon.com, web site: www.elsdon.com.

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Michelle Borst Polino   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 09:05 AM

Interesting article - while many have turned to entrepreneurial pursuits as a career option (our college has even started promoting this opportunity as a growing career path), many are not able to develop a career path for personal, financial, educational reasons, many lack the networking skills to establish the necessary relationships, and others have skills/services that are tied to retail (crafters, writers, musicians) which are the first to suffer in a depressed economy. While I do not discourage entrepreneurial options, I do do include a few steps in the career path - "how do you plan on supporting yourself until your business takes off", "how does your evil day job benefit you in pursuing your dream job" and "what is a reasonable time frame for you to transition from the EDJ to your dream job".

Ron Elsdon   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 10:53 AM

Thank you for your thoughtful input Michelle. The nature and timing of transition into a nontraditional career path and developing the needed skills are important issues. They are covered in depth in our book "How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path."

LifeWork Careers - Paula Wagner   on Thursday 10/09/2014 at 12:21 PM

I enjoyed your very informative article but found one key element missing: tax consequences. At the end of the day, IRS requirements and P&L strategies will impact the bottom line no matter how nimble and savvy the entrepreneur is in all the other areas you mentioned. For example, how is a home office taxed? What about quarterly reporting? How to balance expenses and revenue? What write-offs are allowed? Not the most exciting but essential elements of a non-traditional career.

Ron Elsdon   on Thursday 10/09/2014 at 01:57 PM

Thank you for your helpful insights Paula. Tax and reporting are aspects of practical nuts and bolts issues of which there are many. Given their importance one chapter in "How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path" is dedicated to those nuts and bolts issues that I have found most critical including support systems to address tax and financial reporting.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.