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It's Your Career:
Nobody Can Plan it Better Than You

by Susan McKee

Business Woman
Have you thought about your career lately? Even if you’re secure in your present job, or well on your way to complete your studies in your chosen field, have you actually thought about your career lately? Look around you. Some businesses are growing, while others are closing their doors. Some employers moan about the lack of qualified workers while some job seekers can’t seem to find a foothold anywhere.

There’s some disconnect, a mismatch in the marketplace. How can you be sure you’re among the sought-after instead of the passed over?

It’s not enough to finish school and join an industry or a big corporation, counting on someone else to steer you through your working life. You won’t stay in one place until you retire. There is no “normal” any more. People should expect to have four or five different careers. Women, especially, drop in and out of the workforce as family responsibilities change. Technology both expands job opportunities and challenges our capacity to learn new ways of doing things. Change is a constant and adaptability a vital asset. One of my jobs in college was as a keypunch operator. In those ancient days, I worked a machine that put precisely placed rectangular holes into computer cards for those room-size mainframes to read – way back in those “don’t bend, fold, mutilate or staple” days.

Now software handles all those programming commands, and everyone's a keyboarder, with no computer card punching required. Doing the same-old/same-old week in and week out won’t cut it any more, not in an era of globalization, reengineering, mergers and industry consolidation where productivity is valued over loyalty. Now more than ever, you must take control of your career. Learn new skills or basically become road kill on the information superhighway!

I don’t mean studying rocket science, but rather tuning in to the winds of change and determining how they’ll affect you.

First, take stock of your situation. Are you happy in your job? Are you doing something meaningful that also allows a life outside work? Are you making a salary sufficient for your needs (not your wants—that’s another story). If you wake up every morning dreading going to work, the answer is obvious. A life spent trapped in a downward spiral of dissatisfaction is not a life well spent, even if the remuneration is equal to a king’s ransom.

After taking stock, evaluate if your job is happy with you? Have you been receiving regular accolades and raises in salary comparable to those in similar positions? Is what you do part of the reason for your company’s continued success? It’s amazing how many people overlook the subtle signals that their position is being phased out – being excluded from planning sessions, not being considered for transfers or promotions, not receiving a bonus when everyone else seems to be.

Nobody is indispensable anymore, so be honest with yourself. Get out that job description and see if you still measure up. Then, peer beyond your present position to what the future might hold. I remember looking around my desk one bleak November day a few years ago and thinking, if I don’t do something I’ll be sitting right here until retirement, wondering where my life went. I’d gone about as far as I could go in that company, and to advance, I had to jump ship. Staying put would mean a slow death. I leapt – and haven’t looked back.

Do you have opportunities for change and growth in your current job? How about within the industry as a whole? Or, have you gone about as far as you can go? Think back to your most recent job assessment. What did your supervisor really say about the match between the job and your particular skill set? Finally, there’s the hardest though most important part of career development. You must take the time to prepare for change – and, yes, change is inevitable.

Even if you keep the same job or stay in the same career, the tools and the knowledge base you use in your job will change. The skills you need to succeed will change continuously – you’ll be working for, maybe, 50 years or longer after all. It’s just common sense to make life-long learning a habit. Now, I don’t mean going back to the classroom (although that is one option). Stay ahead of the game by reading business publications and trade journals, either in print or online. Tune in to local, national and global news. What are the big issues out there? Research your industry in the library or on line. What are the newest trends? What companies in your field are growing? Which are downsizing, merging or disappearing altogether? Information travels instantaneously around the globe, and events anywhere can have a profound effect on what you do each day.

Pay attention to what’s happening. Another way to keep up is by joining professional organizations and attending their meetings, workshops, conferences and conventions. This isn’t only for learning, of course. Conferences are where you network, where you meet others in your field. Make a good impression and when they’re looking for colleagues to join them in a new venture, who knows? In the meantime, you’re forging relationships with people who understand what you do for a living, people who can serve as a sounding board when challenges arise at work, people who can offer meaningful advice as well as open doors.

Don’t think of your career as something you do each day, but as part of a life plan built from the ground up, using what management guru Mark Albion calls “passion and painstaking attention to detail.” Retooling is inevitable, even if the platform of your talents and skills is solid. You must develop your personal worth in the marketplace on a continual basis. What can you do to improve your value to a current or future employer? Take a weekend workshop on newsletter design? Study conversational Mandarin? Enroll in a distance-learning course on television writing? Are these skills you want to learn? Often, finding what you want to do comes after a long process of trying – and discarding – things you don’t want to do! Growth usually requires trial and error. It’s not a mistake if you learn from it.

Before you begin planning for the future, take some time to daydream. If you could create the perfect job, what would it be? What do you want to be good at doing? What skills would you need to do that perfect job? It’s your life, after all. What if you started acquiring those skills, one-by-one “just in case”? If you learn something new, you’ll have more incentive to find a way to put it to use.

The greatest risk is in not taking one.


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