How to Have a Plan B - Job Market Analysis for Career Transition
By Erin N O’Reilly, PhD Posted 11-06-2017

Often when I chat as a manager with employees about their future career goals and aspirations, the impression given is of some nebulous future end-state. Perhaps this is due to the awkward manager-employee relationship, especially during the semi-forced conversations around annual appraisal time. Or perhaps it could be attributed to misplaced feelings of betrayed loyalties towards the current employer if one admits to personal and/or professional goals beyond the present organization. But even for those employees with whom I would claim to have good rapport - even when allowing for a certain percentage of people who are perfectly happy and genuinely content with their current positions - the future remains non-descript.

 

This seeming indifference is alarming. It is as if we are leaving one of the single biggest slices of our lives up to some natural, evolutionary process over which we have no say, and, even worse, a sense of ennui.

 

Jeffrey Pfeffer, an American business theorist based out of Stanford, argues quite convincingly that those of us who are dependent on our monthly paycheck should always be prepared to move on if needed, a Plan B ready to go. How critical is that Plan B? Here are six essential questions you should be able to answer when it comes to the topic of job security and future employment.

 

1. What are the current trends in my industry?

Current trends project out 1-5 years. Industry magazines, networking events, even company town halls and year-in-review mass emails from senior leadership provide a general picture of the immediate challenges and opportunities with your employer. When leadership communicates news related to budgets and strategic reallocation of resources, take note. Andrew Soergel, an economy reporter for U.S. News, likens economic systems to a living organism, a metaphorical garden that goes through natural stages of growth and decline. The next logical step for any member in the system is to extrapolate how growth and decline may impact one’s position. If your department is truly non-critical (even though we all like to think that we are indispensable), then keep that information tucked away as you think about your long-range career goals. No one wants to be the low hanging fruit. Things brings us to the next point.

 

2. What does the far-distant future hold?
Disruptive technology is the new norm, but in itself is not new. From telegraph operators to phone booth manufacturers, industries have always had a natural evolution - and even extinction. One of the challenges facing the pro-active, self-directed professional is envisioning just how much an industry can change in the far-distant future and the skills that you - the employee - will need to keep up with the changing times. This amorphous skill set challenges educators and policy makers alike, so don’t feel too bad if you have no idea how the 2040 landscape will unfold.

 

One strategy to develop an idea of the distant future is to follow industry leaders. These are pioneers, frequently capable of providing a glimpse of tomorrow. While their vision admittedly is still based on conjecture, theirs is a well-informed conjecture. Conjecture with gravitas. Through plenaries, editorials, even blogs, industry leaders paint in broad strokes a bold vision. These are the individuals involved in the macro-level discussions with thought-leaders across fields, from both the public and private sectors. They are the best positioned to imagine what the next several decades might bring. Believing that the job you are doing today will be the job you (or someone else in a similar position) will be doing 20 years from now - same skills, same expected work productivity - is foolhardy. Find and follow these leaders - literally on social media or blogs - because being in tune with major evolutionary shifts in your respective field will help you guide your inevitable career transitions.

 

Once you have a grounded, realistic impression of your current position and the future of your industry, then you can move on to more of the nuts and bolts issues related to the job market - wherever it may be.

 

3. Where do current job openings in my field tend to be geographically located?

Relocating is stressful. Unemployment is stressful. If it came down to one or the other, however, it would be an easy choice.

 

Companies establish themselves in a particular geographic region strategically - corporate tax breaks, a capable workforce, and even infrastructure play a role. If yours is a service field, jobs will logically move to where the growth is. Identify those regions by identifying where companies are hiring. If you have a general awareness of where development is happening, targeting your professional development activities (e.g., conference attendance or industry fairs) for that region makes strategic sense, and now is the time to build that professional network. This general awareness also serves as part of the mental process of preparing yourself and maybe your family for a move at some future point for either career advancement opportunities or continuing employment (hopefully the former).

 

4. What is the starting salary for someone with my level of experience?

One of the challenges mid-career professionals face is that they are no longer entry-level employees. Doing a bit of market research on the going rate for someone in your position with your current skills set means that you will have an educated guess for position announcements that have a salary range listed as “Commensurate with Experience”. What you think you are worth and what a new employer is willing to pay to recruit you may be two significantly different sums, especially if you are transitioning from a long stint with one employer where you have enjoyed years of steady pay bumps.
If you have ever been involved in the hiring process, you already know that employers are inclined to hire at the lowest salary level possible for an open position. That means that if you are moving from the higher-end of your current pay scale for your industry, there is the real risk that you will be seen as too expensive, and therefore dismissed by a hiring official. Keeping an eye on salary scales within your field can help you plan a strategic move between positions and also negotiate offers and counter offers with employers. Related to this issue is knowing the positions for which you are currently competitive.

 

5. What are the essential skills and abilities for my current position?

Employees are the single biggest asset of an organization - also the single biggest expense. With an eye towards maximizing productivity, employers will seek out those individuals who have honed their skills, demonstrating the ability to grow and meet the changing demands of today’s workplace, who are capable of doing more with less. The skills that were required of a new hire 5 years ago are arguably not the same set of essential skills and abilities a new hire will need today. The question is: Do you have those new skills?

 

During a contraction in my unit, one of my most experienced employees realized that in order to keep his present salary on the current job market, he would need to apply for a position that required administrative and budget experience. This came as an unpleasant surprise. His continued employment in the field meant a significant pay cut if he accepted a position equivalent to his current job and lost seniority with a new employer. Had he proactively identified these two skill areas as professional goals some years prior, our organization could have provided stretch projects to give him this experience.

 

Information about the essential skills generally required for your next position are readily available by signing up for job announcements through any job board. This information needs to be paired with your knowledge about your industry’s trends. If the minimum requirement is a B.A., but the market is saturated with experienced M.A.s, the candidate with the B.A. - no matter how phenomenal - will not be competitive.

 

Retooling takes time. If you know what the market is asking for now, you can strategically build your CV. Your current employer is the best resource to help you accomplish this task, whether through on-the-job training, education benefits, or even mentoring. The larger the company, the greater the opportunity to take advantage of ongoing professional development and skills-building. At this point, if you are thinking of transitioning to a start-up or even self-employment in the future, go forward with the knowledge that smaller, cash-strapped organizations will probably be unable to support professional development. Take advantage of every training opportunity you may need in your future toolbox. This brings us to the last question.

 

6. What is my career path?

Each industry is unique; not every industry has a clear career path. You may find that advancing requires transitioning from a for-profit, to an NGO, to the public sector, and back again. Unfortunately, you don’t have the advantage of a high school career counselor to help point you in the right direction. This does not mean that you are directionless. Career coaches offer counseling at a price to help you explore possible job options and clarify what will satisfy your professional itch. Each of us, however, can do a part of this exploration on our own with a little time investment. Approach your career path strategically by identifying individuals who are 10-15 years ahead of you in their careers. Often you can then work backwards and extract the education, skills, and professional experiences that have led them to those positions. If career progression is the goal, then you should be working towards building similar experiences.

 

In sum: Know thy industry. Current and future trends, paired with a critical analysis of employment opportunities can help prepare you to transition to Plan B, not if, but when it comes.

 

Erin N. O’Reilly currently serves as the director of the Intensive English Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her interests include program administration and professional development.

 

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