Foretell the Future: Plan Your Career

by Frame, Patricia Thursday, January 12, 2006
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If you have more than a few years of working ahead, you need to consider both your immediate career goals and your long-term plans. And consulting a palm reader is not really a substitute for thinking about your future.

How do you look at what you may want to do 5, 10, 15 years from now? Actually there is a lot of research on career planning. Sure, you cannot forecast what will happen that long in advance. But you can improve your chances of a long, successful career!

Most careers are not linear. Despite the common belief that most other people have well-planned careers that proceed logically, career research going back over 30 years indicates that is not reality. So how do you plan for an unknown future?

First, you need to develop an idea about what your strengths are and what work really interests you. Unfortunately, many people pick a career early in life and stay with it long after it no longer meets their needs. Others flit from job to job based on external ideas: it’s "hot", it pays well, someone else thought it would be perfect for them.

Learning your own interests and needs is not always easy. Most of us have ‘tapes’ in our brain of others telling us what we should do and what we are good at. Our needs for an immediate job or retaining our current job or for ‘good pay’ make it difficult to think about options. One of the best guides, updated each year for over 20 years, is still Richard Bolles book "What Color is Your Parachute". He also has a lot of information available online at www.JobHuntersBible.com.

Bolles and other experts guide you through the process of defining what your strengths are and what interests you. As you learn more about yourself, you may also want to tap into other career planning information. Various tests can help you define your interests better. Many career interest tests are available at local colleges. There is also information online about some of the major ones, such as the Campbell Vocational Interests, at www.allthetests.com And career planning sites, such as Careerkey, offer both self-testing and careers information.

None of this planning is a one-time effort. As you look at your longer term plan, you will need to review and revise it regularly. Isn’t your future worth at least an annual self-examination?

And how do you begin to understand what changes may influence your work? Did the buggy whip manufacturers or their employees really foresee the automobile? Many did not, but some did – and moved into new options. You can make the effort, the investment in yourself – or you can do what many do: nothing.

Whether you stay in one career field for years or change periodically, your work is likely to change significantly. Technology changes. The economy fluctuates. The culture changes. One of your smartest moves is to increase your capacity to cope well with change. If you don’t embrace change naturally, you can learn to deal with it more effectively. Here are some online resources to help you assess your ability to deal with change and to increase it:

Another idea is to actively pursue new knowledge. What are you regularly reading that will keep you current on new technologies? On new businesses or career fields? On societal changes? What new skills are you actively learning?

Need a concrete example? Let’s take my own field of Human Resources.

When I first considered this field, it was called ‘personnel’ and it was mainly administrative work. Many of the managers were nice men (and, yes, they were almost all male) who had failed at some other career like engineering management but were viewed as ‘nice guys’ the organization did not want to fire. (The exception was labor relations which dealt with unions and so had lawyers and other male specialists.) The HR staff was almost uniformly female clerical workers. Outside of a few huge companies and the military, there was no automation. You could not major in HR at any college. Over the years this field has changed significantly. Some major examples:
  • society changes: anti-discrimination laws created legal risks and training requirements that led to the upgrading of HR skills, education, and staffs.
  • technology changes: cheaper computing power opened the way for ever smaller organizations to automate some of their HR records and functions. The Internet has expanded this.
  • economy changes: employees in other countries, outsourcing some work, globalization, technology changes, and business cycles all now demand new skills of HR.
  • Increasingly organizations have recognized that the HR function can directly contribute to their success. Recently HR became ‘business partners" and now we are seeing more research on and references to ‘human capital’. I will not pretend I foresaw every change. But I have always kept current in my field and explored what others saw of the future. And this has helped me overcome setbacks and reinvent myself, succeed and enjoy the field for many years.
Here is a planning outline for your use. If you want more information to plan with, check out the About Career Planning columns and resources. Look at the Brave New Work World, too.

Career Plan (Put it in writing!)

Step 1:
How will I assess my strengths and interests?
Define a plan and a timeframe.
How will you know you have succeeded?

Step 2:
How do I want to use my strengths and interests in my current life?
What can you do in your current job? In your job search? In other areas of your life?
Be specific and set goals and timelines.
How will you know you have succeeded?

Step 3:
How do I want to be using my strengths and interests in one year? Two years?
Again, be specific. Set goals and steps toward them.
How will you know you have succeeded?

Step 4:
When will I formally reassess my progress on each step?

Many people find it useful to have another person involved in this process. This helps you keep your commitments and involves feedback on your ideas and progress. You may want to choose a good friend, a knowledgeable peer, or someone similar to work with you. Or you may want to hire a coach to help. Coaching is a whole new field that has grown up in recent years to offer individuals assistance in both life and work planning.

And remember that this is a plan that you will adjust and modify as you change over your life as well as when you face external changes.

Or you could just finish this column and decide it is a nice fantasy but way too much trouble. After all, the average worker today will have 8-10 career changes so you will deal with it when you have to, not before. And you have too much else on your plate right now. Which is why there is so much research on career planning that talks about how few people do it in advance.