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.


Strategically Entering the Job Market: Going Beyond Your “Table Stakes”


In his book Strategic Learning, Willie Pietersen makes the point that winning strategies must go beyond “table stakes” with a winning proposition that meets the most important needs the customer/client has.  Table stakes are the basic services or products that are necessary to be in the game. In an article in Sunday’s New York Times on Best Buy’s remarkable turnaround in a market where retail chains are being devastated by Amazon, Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s CEO, parallels Pietersen’s point. In summarizing Best Buy’s strategy, Joly states that the goal is not to be lower priced than the competition but to offer “a very compelling set of customer promises with the assortment, the advice, the convenience, the service.” Whether or not Best Buy’s strategy will prove to be sustainable is an open question in a situation of eroding profit margins. Never the less, the points made by Pietersen and Joly contain interesting lessons for university students to pay attention to as they strategize about entering the job market.

A degree, skills, and experiences relevant to the industry or market sector one is attracted to are table stakes, not the core of a winning proposition. Not in today’s world. True, without the table stakes you can be in the game. However, what is important is how you can add value to the prospective employer through meeting the most important talent needs confronting the business or organization. This means:

  • Researching the industry, and identifying the strategic needs that are a primary concern to them.
  • Clearly communicating your understanding of those challenges and, equally important,
  • Speaking in a way that conveys how you contribute to addressing the challenges within the context of the functional sector with which you are interviewing. This can be the deal closer.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, for example, when asked “What questions do you have?,” ask about what the current priorities are in terms of delivering to their customer chain, either internal or external to the organization. What are the expectations they have to meet? Engage with how these needs are being met, by making it clear you are focused on performance and positioning yourself as a potential contributor to what their customers want and need.