Learning to Navigate a Non-Traditional Career Path

A recent article by Bloomberg Businessweek reports that 20 million Americans are working part-time; 2/3 of whom are doing so for non-economic reasons such as family obligations or attending school.  However 1/3, 6 million workers, predominately college educated millennials, are working part-time because they don’t want to commit to one job or employer.  For some, making this decision of not seeking a conventional full-time job, even when jobs are available, reflects having observed their parents’ experiences of having been loyal to their employers, only to be laid off as a function of globalization or economic recession.  It also reflects an interest in being more in charge of one’s own lifestyle, potentially building a business, having more control over working hours, project assignments, and being agile in a rapidly changing work environment. None of the above is news to talent management professionals or many millennials themselves.

Choosing to pursue this path is doable, but recent studies increasingly point to the need for thinking strategically about how one continues to position, and at times reinvent, one’s self while pursuing one’s career.

As an example, two years ago Jody Barto did a study exploring how freelance graphic designers who managed sustainable independent practices learned to acquire the competencies needed to develop and maintain their professional practices for her doctoral dissertation. Graphic design is a profession in which an increasing number of professionals are developing independent practices. She defined sustainable independent design practice as “an independent practice that is able to win and maintain the necessary number of projects in order for the designer to make a living.”

Among her findings was the importance of making informal learning a continuous priority and being strategic about networking and self-promotion for obtaining the amount project work necessary for sustaining their practices.  Among the competencies critical for prospective freelancers was learning from more experienced freelancers the subtle skills needed for actually running a business. Engaging in dialogue with others was critical for continuing their learning. Her findings, only briefly highlighted here, are consistent with growing research on the importance of informal learning through engaging with and shadowing more experienced people, participating in open access events and workshops, and strategically seeking relevant certifications. For freelancers and part-time workers these activities must be self-directed.

Who knows if the trend toward part-time or freelance will continue to grow. Regardless, it is clear that the desires of key talent will continue to evolve and talent management practices will have to as well. And so will the ways people sustain their careers.

Returning to the Bloomberg Businessweek article, Mike Preston, Deloitte’s chief talent officer, predicts by 2020 up to 40 percent of their workforce might work part-time, and the company has created Deloitte Open Talent to network with and identify workers “who are opting to forgo full-time work for some other arrangement.”  Other companies are also making arrangements for being able to accommodate needed talent.  Those members of the workforce who develop the learning capacities to continue their development through self-directed learning, and translate that learning into value propositions for potential clients or employers, will be better positioned to benefit from these shifts in talent management practices.


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