Are you old enough to remember the good old days when careers practically managed themselves and there weren’t so many job-related decisions to make? Even if you are not, you probably did grow up with the notion that you would work in the same field for most if not all your career, and that you would have long tenures with one or just a few employers. However with American employees now working on average only 4.2 years in a job, many of us will make numerous stay-or-leave decisions over the course of our careers.
This article addresses the issues surrounding two common career mistakes: staying too long in a job, and at the other end of the spectrum, changing jobs too often. My objective is to provide insights and guidance that will enable you to make better career decisions and to be strategic and proactive in managing your career.
DEAD END JOBS
A dead-end job is one that no matter how well you perform, your opportunity to grow professionally is limited or non-existent–either because the job or environment is not a good fit for you or because of industry or company factors. If you’re in a dead end job, you should start developing a plan to move on at an appropriate time. Here are some factors that a job might be a dead end.
1.) Declining industries
Declining industries trap many employees in dead end careers. People who have jobs that are quite industry specific are most vulnerable. Remember type setting? It was a thriving industry at one time and then, almost overnight, with the advent of digital word processing, it ceased to exist. Steel? Automotive? Telecommunications? U.S. employee populations in these industries have shrunk dramatically in these sectors in recent years. Reduced employment numbers bodes poorly for employment stability and upward mobility.
Generally speaking, if you work in a declining industry and have more than a few years until retirement, you should think about redirecting your career to a growing field. That said, we cannot begin to cover all the possible circumstances that might apply to readers of this chapter, and thus have to be careful about categorical recommendations. In fact, if you are in a later stage of your career and earning a high income, it may make sense to stay with a declining industry. Your best strategy here is to set aside a nice nest egg in case you lose your job and to develop special expertise or additional skills that would help you in the job market.
If you work in a declining industry you are at the most risk if the job you do has a good supply of talent, relative to demand. Conversely, if you work in a specialty that is growing and in-demand – albeit in a shrinking industry sector – your prospects might still be very promising.
The longer you wait the harder it will be to switch fields. Taking an initial pay cut, going back to school, and relocating are just a few things that are easier to do earlier in your life rather than later when you are more established and are more likely to have family obligations. And the more years of experience you have the more difficult it is for employers to be willing to hire you as a trainee – no matter your enthusiasm and willingness.
Sometimes it’s the employee who allows him or herself to get stuck because the prospect of change is uncomfortable, scary and/or a lot of trouble. We are not talking about people who are at least moderately happy in their jobs and made a conscious decision to remain with an employer long term. We are talking about employees who dislike or even hate their jobs, believe they are underpaid, or are angry about not getting ahead, but don’t take action.
Unfortunately for some, changing employers is daunting. Inertia to stay in your current job can be rooted in lack of knowledge of how to look for a new job, the lack of obvious opportunities, the fear of change or of the unknown, or a combination of all those things. The Five O’Clock Club is an excellent resource to help reluctant job seekers overcome these issues with its proven strategy for job search, guidance from trained career coaches, and support and feedback from other job seekers.
3.) Great Job – for Somebody Else
It goes without saying that if a job is totally wrong for you, you should move on. However, a surprising number of people pursue and stay in jobs to fulfill the expectations of their parents or others. No matter how glamorous, fun, important, prestigious or stimulating your career may be to someone else, if it doesn’t work for you, you owe it to yourself to find out what does.
4.) Loyal to a Fault
Loyalty to one’s employer is of course a good thing. We should all aspire to work for an employer we admire, trust, and with whom we are proud to be associated. Some people, however, become so loyal that they overlook serious issues at the company or put their employer first at the expense of their own career.
5.) Career Path Requirements
The need for advanced degrees or highly specific training in certain jobs may portend an eventual dead end if you don’t choose to obtain the necessary education and you seek an upwardly mobile career.
6.) Downward Spirals
When you’re in the situation you may not recognize it, but executive and career coaches see it all the time: a tense but stable boss/subordinate situation takes a turn for the worse, and then everything starts going wrong. This can happen quickly, blindsiding the employee who didn’t see it coming. Once the situation begins to spiral downward, it can be very difficult, if not impossible to reverse. Sometimes there is an underlying issue or personality conflict between the boss and subordinate, but in other cases it may have little or nothing to do with the employee. Perhaps the company is having financial problems, or the boss has family or personal problems that are contributing to his apparent irrationality.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A DEAD END JOB
It is very easy to get caught up in focusing on the near term instead of thinking about your job from a more strategic long term perspective. The quiz below will prompt you to think about where you job may or may not be taking you.
Are you in a dead end job?
Read the following statements in the context of your current job. As candidly as possible, indicate with a number between 1 and 4 the extent to which you agree with each statement. 1= completely disagree; 2 = mostly disagree; 3 = mostly agree; 4 = completely agree):
___ Most days I feel enthusiastic about going to work
___ I’m good at what I do and my job takes advantage of my abilities
___ My company is thriving and future prospects are good
___ My industry is thriving and future prospects are good
___ My recent performance review or feedback was above average to superior
___ I get occasional calls from friends or recruiters about jobs in my industry
___ I’m continuing to learn and grow professionally
___ My job/career path play well to my strengths
___ I fit in well with the company culture
___ I’m well regarded by executives, peers, and subordinates at my company
# of 1’s _____ # of 2’s_____ # of 3’s_____ # of 4’s______
If you have two or more statements that you ranked as completely or mostly disagree, this could be a dead end job. If more than half your responses are 1’s and 2’s, this would definitely suggest that you should make plans for a change.
If you think you are in a dead end job, that doesn’t mean you should quit right away, or take the first job that might come along. Timing of course will vary according to your particular situation. Sometimes we work to satisfy near-term needs or objectives, especially income needs. You never know how long it will take to find your ideal next job, so it’s usually a good idea to hang on to your current one until you do. If you’re working in a particular job to get certain skills or experience, be sure to stay long enough to truly get that experience, even though strategically it’s not where you want to be long term.
ANOTHER REASON TO CONSIDER MOVING ON
Burnout and Illness
The term burnout, as we use it in American business jargon, refers to feeling powerless, hopeless, fatigued, drained or frustrated. When work activities you once enjoyed become drudgery, you dread going to work, you find yourself cynical or easily annoyed about your boss or coworkers, or you don’t care as much about the quality of your work –
you may be experiencing burnout.
Some job situations these days are so intense that your mental and physical health may be jeopardized. From insomnia to ulcers, back problems, clinical depression, anxiety attacks, stomach problems and headaches, there is no end to the consequences of stress. Quite often, these health problems disappear after the situation at work is resolved. One concerning consequence is that burnout can cause one’s performance to suffer.
If your physical or mental health is deteriorating, or you begin to feel burned out from prolonged periods of a stressful work situation, you should take steps to address the underlying problem(s). It might require developing and proposing a plan to your boss for adding or reorganizing staff resources, or having some part of your job automated. Perhaps getting some training, taking a management development course, or working with a coach could help you improve your productivity so you don’t have to work such long hours.
It may also help for you to take a vacation, or even some extra, unpaid time. More and more companies are allowing valued employees – usually those with some tenure – to take sabbaticals – paid or unpaid leaves of absence. If these measures fail or are not feasible, and you continue to experience undue stress, burnout, or illness, it’s time to move on.
WHEN YOU SHOULD STAY
In contrast to those described above for whom inertia is a driving force, others have a natural preference for just the opposite. These individuals prefer change and variety over routines and they excel at adapting to new information and spotting new trends. They are more likely to embrace entrepreneurial opportunities. The downside of these positive attributes however is that these individuals are not as good at following through and sticking with things as they are at starting new things. When the going gets tough or the job gets routine or boring, they like to move on.
These individuals may become job hoppers – a term loosely defined as one who moves around to different jobs and doesn’t stay in one place too long. We’re not referring to workers who freelance or contract for projects with employers. We’re talking about people who want to work on-staff on an ongoing basis within an organization.
So, what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to frequent job changes? It depends on many factors, including industry sector. Technology firms and early-stage companies for example, attract and embrace employees who have changed jobs more often than the norm. More traditional companies such as consumer packaged goods, oil companies or utilities firms tend to have much longer tenured employees. Tenures less than a year, even two back to back are usually not a problem for recent college graduates, but this would be an obstacle for a mid-career person with the same situation.
The Employer’s Perspective on Stability
Employers want to hire people that will stay a while at their company. It is expensive and disruptive to fill vacant positions. They also would like to have talent waiting in the wings to promote people from within when openings arise. In evaluating your candidacy, your career history is the best evidence they have to try to predict how long you might work for them. If you have a history of short tenures because you got recruited away for bigger jobs, they might be impressed, but they have to worry that you would be easily lured away from them, too.
Employers also want to know that the experience you claim to have is solid, not just superficial basics learned from a quick tour of duty. This becomes more important as you go up the ranks to higher levels. They may discount your success in short tenured jobs because you didn’t stay around long enough for the results to stick. This is true even if one or several of your short stints is a result of factors beyond your control such as mergers, financial downturn, new management, etc.,
When you work for a substantial period of time for one firm you build up what I call stability capital. It’s like having stored up goodwill that can carry you through a rough patch. If, for example, you had a very long career with one firm before one or maybe two recent short tenured jobs, your stability capital from your long-term employer will help to offset your recent instability in the minds of prospective employers.
While having a respectable stint at a brand name employer won’t change the reality of short tenures at other companies, it can serve to mitigate a potential employers’ negative impression. I can hear someone defending your candidacy with “She was at Blue Chip for four years, and we know how high their standards are – she wouldn’t have lasted there even one year if she hadn’t been a good performer”.
If you jumped around a lot early in your career, but you’ve been at recent employers for solid stints, your earlier lack of stability is not likely to be a problem. Also, if you’ve made a major career change and have stability in your new field, earlier hopping is probably irrelevant. In these cases you can make an entry on your resume called “Various positions in retailing” or whatever, and indicate the overall dates for that period of time, not for specific employers. You also have the option of leaving early experience off altogether, but give it some thought before you do. If the employer feels like you are hiding something or withholding relevant information it can work against you.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE STABILITY CAPITAL
To gauge your stability capital and see your job history through the eyes of a hiring manager or recruiter, take a pen and in the margin of your resume next to your dates of employment, write the number of years you worked at each place. This is something they really do! Assume you are a reasonable person who works in your field, write the tenure for each job in the margin, and listen to how your gut responds when you look at the data.
If you lack stability capital and you are currently employed, most likely your best strategy is to stay put and build some tenure. If you’re ready for new challenges, perhaps there are other jobs within the company that are appropriate, or perhaps you can focus on developing skills or experience on special projects within your current job that will prepare you for an eventual move.
If you lack stability capital and are already in transition, be sure to invest some time looking at the underlying reasons for your job changes. Look for patterns and factors that have contributed to jobs ending prematurely, as well as the positive factors that contributed to your staying at jobs where you worked longer. Write down your key findings and incorporate them into your job search plan. Your goal of course is to make better career decisions going forward, and maximize the likelihood of staying at your next employer a while. You will want to perform extra due diligence on your prospective employers and pull out and review your career plan before you accept your next job.
You should have a knock-out resume, chock full of accomplishments, and you should prepare clear, concise answers to questions you will inevitably be asked in interviews about short tenures. If you stumble on your reasons for leaving jobs and/or ramble on, you will come across as defensive and your reasons will sound less credible.
You want to arrange your resume so that your jobs with the longest tenures and the employers with the best reputations are visible – preferably on the first page. If you had multiple jobs with the same employer, be sure to give the dates of your overall employment at that company. If you had an employer that was acquired by another company and you worked for the successor company, represent it as one employer, not as two separate entries.
There are many creative ways these days to “spin” your work experience in your resume in a flattering way and still be honest. Note that in today’s employment world, a resume is a marketing document, not an official record of your job history. So, within reason, you can take some liberties. For example, if you held a job for just a few weeks or months, it’s okay to leave it off your resume.
Consider Becoming A Free Agent
If you have a history of short job tenures, and your self analysis shows that a traditional employment environment doesn’t suit you, perhaps you should consider working for yourself. Many technology and creative professionals have been working as independent contractors for decades. Now, virtually every field has possibilities for professionals to work in ways that enable you to do what you do best for clients, and have the independence and flexibility of working for yourself at the same time.
Individuals with a wide array of talents and interests may job hop in search of outlets for their abilities. The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, an organization that provides aptitude testing services and researches aptitudes as they relate to careers, defines an aptitude as a natural talent that is not influenced by education, training or socialization. Their research reveals that most jobs take advantage of three to four aptitudes at most. Individuals who have five or more high aptitudes will have trouble finding jobs that fully utilize all their talents. Hobbies can be a great outlet for many aptitudes. Another possibility is a “portfolio career”.
Many professionals today earn a living from multiple jobs or types of work–what has come to be known in recent years a portfolio career. If you think about it, there is some built in job security to a portfolio career – if one of your income sources dries up, you will have other sources of revenue. There may be synergies between the activities, such as teaching, consulting, and writing books in your field of expertise. Or they may be unrelated – accountant by day, wedding photographer on Saturday nights, with each endeavor utilizing quite different abilities.
A NOTE TO HIGH POTENTIALS
From the employer’s perspective, perhaps the most desirable employees to have, but most challenging to retain, are those referred to as “high potentials” or sometimes “high potentials/high performers”. Whether they are hired directly from top universities with stellar grades, or recruited from industry with big salaries, the corporation looks to develop them to be future executives. These bright, ambitious employees are accustomed to steep learning curves and a constant stream of new challenges or assignments as they move up the ladder. But if the next promotion seems a little too far off, they tend to head for the door. It’s easy for them to do so, since there is always a good job market for high potentials.
Does this profile fit you to some degree? If you fall into this high potential/high performer category, you may be tempted to change jobs whenever opportunity knocks. I have counseled some talented individuals whose job hopping became a real problem in their job search -no matter their impressive education, employer names and potential.
Before you launch an external job search or consider taking a job for which you are being recruited, be sure to consider your options with your current employer. Sometimes a little patience pays off big. If your tenure with your current employer is short, you should have a really good reason to change jobs.
In the early years of your career your employer may move you quickly through different positions, and this affords you excellent experience quickly. As you move into mid or senior level roles however, try to stay long enough in a position to get substantive experience and verifiable results. Sometimes you learn the most from a job just after the learning curve has begun to flatten. You may think the job is done when you’ve made obvious improvements or solved key problems in your job. But sometimes solving the smaller problems, getting that next degree of improvement, or managing the aftermath of a transformation, provide equal management challenges. Savvy employers can see through quick fixes -they want to know that the success you claim was also sustainable. It’s hard to show this if you have a history of moving on before the dust has settled.
Timing is everything they say, and certainly when it comes to your paycheck, timing can be critically important. In the ideal world, most of us would prefer to have a new job in hand before leaving our current employer. There are obvious advantages to conducting a job search while you are still employed: a certain cache to employers, plenty of time to be selective, and of course steady income. A little less obvious is that you get access to a lot more jobs over a longer span of time, instead of being limited by jobs available during a shorter period of time.
The adage our parents taught us that it’s always easier to get a job when you have a job, is still pretty good advice, but it’s not as true as it once was. In their generation, before the restructuring and downsizing of recent times, employers were quick to suspect that an unemployed professional had been fired from his last job. The stigma associated with being unemployed has diminished significantly in recent years. Today’s employers know that even the most talented candidates can lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
Whereas until recently it was almost unheard of for an employee in good standing to quit a job without having another one lined up, it does happen more frequently today. Let’s face it: some jobs are so demanding that conducting a job search while working is practically impossible. For those that can afford to quit, or have been fired or laid off, being able to conduct a full-time job search has some definite advantages.
If you were looking to sell your house, you would want to let as many potential buyers as possible know about it, right? While you are employed you typically cannot announce your availability to the world, and thus you’re at a disadvantage in attracting all possible employers. With limited time to devote to a job search, it can be hard for an employed candidate to generate enough activity and momentum to ensure a successful search.
If you choose to resign from a job before lining up your next one, you will certainly be asked about it on interviews. A truthful answer such as “As a client services manager I was available to my clients virtually around the clock – there was no way I could effectively look for a new job and do my current job well at the same time”.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
Whatever career decisions you make along the way, I hope you will think about the implications of your decisions for your longer term career. The best career strategy is one that gives you the most qualifications for the type of jobs you would like to have down the road.
There’s an old Chinese proverb to keep in mind: “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction”. Indeed.
© 2007 Laura Hill
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