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Career advice for a changing world

Four groups of people are most at risk from the pandemic’s economic effects, and each will have to chart a new course to achieve success.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy and people’s lives have been devastating. Unemployment on a massive scale will go hand in hand with an exponential rise in national debts, which in turn will constrain government relief for the unemployed and will increase the tax burden for businesses and most citizens. The challenge across generations will be to find ways to improve individuals’ prospect of employability in this environment. The good news is that there are courses to chart that will help.

Identifying and nurturing the right skills for this new world will be key. Even before COVID-19, CEOs were concerned about finding, keeping, and developing the talent needed for the modern world. This concern is unlikely to abate even as we enter an economic downturn. That’s why many organizations, including PwC, are committing to upskilling and reskilling all their employees.

Changes in the nature of work and the working world that are accelerated by technology and demographics will affect four specific groups of people at different stages in their careers. Understanding these trends will help workers identify ways to adjust to the changing environment and even give confidence to those who are struggling to cope with the disruption of technological change and the shock of the pandemic.

The first group is the young: those just leaving college whose usual job prospects are now in doubt because of the recession, and those who are burdened with student debt. The second group is midcareer workers who face the pressure of a variety of financial obligations and potential job loss as the economy struggles, and who feel ill prepared to adapt to the speed of technological change. The third group is those who are close to retirement age but may not have adequate savings or sufficiently robust pensions and therefore will need to continue working.

The fourth group is workers who are on the margins: those who were always struggling to get by and whose job prospects now are slimmer than ever. In a recession, they face even tougher problems with housing and basic welfare, which in many countries will require government intervention, and they will need government support in acquiring new skills.

But there is hope for all four groups: They can create better outcomes for themselves by making the most of the help that government may provide to encourage and enable reskilling and upskilling.

Forget the career ladder

The traditional career ladder won’t exist in the same form it once did — and change will only be hastened by the COVID-19 crisis. Rather than asking people to choose a profession or career, we should be encouraging them to figure out what kinds of problems they most enjoy tackling, and build the skills to solve them — because problem solving is a transferable skill that will not change with technology.

Even in a chaotic, bearish economy, we must look for solutions — we must reinvent ourselves and our economic structures.

In this context, I am defining a platform as a place where people are learning new, future-focused skills and enjoying working on a collection of interesting problems; because of the capabilities they develop, there are more career options at the back end. For example, suppose the problem is deciding what kind of energy mix will help the environment and boost business. The answer will require people who have a knowledge of chemical engineering but also others who understand concepts, are good at communications, and know how to use today’s information channels. Many of these skills would be transferable to solve similar problems, such as creating environmentally friendly but super-strong plastics.

In the future, careers will consist of moves from platform to platform, and people will apply certain subject matter expertise and problem-solving capabilities as needed. At some companies, leaders have started to understand that — so rather than approaching their talent pool as a collection of job titles, they look at the bundles of skills and aptitudes their employees possess. And if their employees don’t have the skills and aptitudes that are currently needed, leaders must find ways to develop them in-house through upskilling.

For those already in work, identifying skill sets can be a way to help both employees and employers determine the best career development or upskilling opportunities. Under this umbrella would come the possibility of looking for employment in local business communities as large corporations rework their staffing models and hire fewer people — not only to cut costs and automate but also to ensure more physical distance among people working in the same location, at least in the short term. This puts the focus on “local first” and is one of the key solutions for the issues the world faces today.

The idea of localization finds a parallel in the concept of “unscaling,” in which large industries are dismantled and restructured to become more lightweight, personalized, distributed, and resilient. (Author and strategy+business contributor Kevin Maney and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Hemant Taneja explore this topic in their book Unscaled.) Unscaling can show young people new ways to look at old industries.

Those of us who have been working for many years initially thought of our careers as a vector, with linear steps up a ladder. If workers are to remain vital to today’s economy, this conception will have to change as people — both employees and employers — look to see how the skills acquired in one industry (which may be struggling) can be applied to another. I call this agile adjacency.

This example is from my own career. I followed a linear path in the academic world from Ph.D. to professor to dean. But my two most interesting roles, as an entrepreneur and later as a corporate leader, were not on that path at all. In 2000, I founded and was CEO of Duke Corporate Education, a company offering executive training; today, I am PwC’s global leader of strategy and leadership. These were not natural steps on the academic ladder. Yet it’s those roles in which I’ve learned the most and had the most fun and where I’ve seen the value of my talents in an adjacent role.

Those nearing the end of their career but lacking the savings (or pension plan) for a comfortable retirement may need to look at their skills and attempt to find adjacent opportunities to bolster their livelihood. It’s a path on which experience can be repurposed, but it will require people to view their accomplishments in a new light.

The possibility of adjacent opportunities should also encourage those who are on the margins of employment today, because it shows the diversity of opportunities. It will not be necessary to have a resume that has a particular career path if employees can show they have skills fit for the tasks at hand. And these new skills can be learned at any stage in life, if the opportunity is available and people are willing to put in the effort.

Make STEM your friend

Employees may not necessarily need to be specialists in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), but everyone will need a solid understanding of how certain technologies and technical skills fit into their chosen platform. In fact, the very idea that technical skills are unrelated to other knowledge is outdated. Young people especially should do everything they can to become tech-savvy humanists: They should have the technical expertise and the problem-solving people skills, too.

The same advice applies to midcareer employees who have the added benefit of years of on-the-job experience: Try to keep up with technological change not as a technologist, but as someone who can use technology tools. More and more people will have to learn to work alongside technology that includes drones, robots, and robotic processes.

Own your profile and your network

For those growing up as digital natives, the principle of owning your network and profile may seem obvious. Everything we do will be captured digitally somehow — in both the professional and the social milieus. What you choose to post and how you present yourself matters: It is the foundation on which to build your network. The changing nature of work, including the fact that people may switch jobs frequently or be employed under a variety of types of agreements, will require the ability to present a compelling profile of who you are, and communicate this to your peers and potential collaborators.

Here’s where your platform will find its outward presentation — where you can bundle your various talents, skills, aptitudes, and interests to present to prospective employers, mentors, and others you’ll work with or for. People at all stages of their career will need to do this, and as they add new abilities through upskilling, they add to the richness of their profile.

You also need to build your network both digitally and physically (when that again becomes possible). If you are looking to change jobs, you should start by looking for ways to situate yourself among people who are already doing what you aspire to do, and build your new contacts.

A strong profile and network can also help those starting their own business. Small business has been hardest hit by the pandemic, but the sector will renew itself, out of necessity, giving rise to more entrepreneurs. And people who have worked in traditionally white-collar industries, if they are at a loss to find a job or adjacent opportunities, can also consider starting and running a company. Age is no barrier. Startups founded by people in their 40 and 50s are often more successful than those started by new graduates. Experience pays.

Necessity breeds invention

Even in a chaotic, bearish economy, we must look for solutions — we must reinvent ourselves and our economic structures. As people assess how COVID-19 has impacted their career, community, and local economy, they should ask “What are the things I always wanted to do and am good at? What opportunities are there for someone with my background?” You need not limit yourself to the work you’ve always done — especially if it’s something that can be fine-tuned with the right combination of technology and human ingenuity to provide consumers or businesses with better products, services, or experiences.

It’s vital to remain open to the possibilities and promise of the digital era — even amid all the current uncertainty. Staying curious rather than fearful about what’s coming will help tremendously. But be active too. Embracing lifelong learning will bring success in every line of work.

Author profile:

  • Blair Sheppard is the global leader of strategy and leadership for the PwC network. He leads a team that is responsible for articulating PwC’s global strategy across 158 countries and the development of current and next-generation PwC leaders. He is professor emeritus and dean emeritus of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and is based in Durham, N.C. He tweets at @blairsheppard.
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