Resilient careers: engineering your own future

Advice to new professionals about what to expect in the workplace of the future, from the Innovation Advisory Committee at The Warren Centre.

Not that long ago, the best career advice was to get a degree, find a job and stay with an organisation until retirement. Today’s professional landscape has changed significantly.

According to a report by the Foundation for Young Australians policy and research program in 2015, today’s graduates may change jobs more than 17 times in five different industries over the course of their working life. Not only will graduates have several jobs and careers over their lifetime, but the nature of their working careers is evolving rapidly.

Employment is fragile. Jobs are changing dramatically, even disappearing, due to automation, artificial intelligence and globalisation. Forty years ago, the proportion of part-time employed tertiary education leavers (20 to 24 years old) was less than 10%. Today it is more than 40%, a rate of increase that surpasses that of the 25 to 64-year-old bracket by 15%:

Percentage of employed persons in part-time work (1979 – 2017)

Source: ABS 620 2.0 Labour force, Australia, Tables 13, 17 and 18

For modern day professionals, employment fragility is a permanent structural change. Professionals that survive and thrive in the future workplace will be those with “Resilient Careers”.

The Oxford dictionary describes resilience as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’. The Harvard Business Review defines career resilience in an individual as someone “who not only [is] dedicated to the idea of continuous learning but also stand[s] ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with change; who take[s] responsibility for their own career management; and, last but not least, who [is] committed to the company’s success…[T]his means staying knowledgeable about market trends and understanding the skills and behaviours the company will need down the road… being aware of one’s own skills—of one’s strengths and weaknesses—and having a plan for enhancing one’s performance and long-term employability. It means having the willingness and ability to respond quickly and flexibly to changing business needs.”

In this new environment, what career stands to be the most resilient? For those seeking a career that is synonymous with resilience, engineering is a natural candidate. At its core, the engineering discipline is grounded in resourcefulness, ingenuity and creativity as its practitioners find solutions to challenges in the presence of many and varied real world constraints. The word “engineer” originates from the Latin ‘ingeniator’: one who creates. These characteristics surely mean that engineers are capable of weathering, and even leading through, changes in the workplace.

The 2016 report on the Future of Jobs from the World Economic Forum estimates that technology increases in areas such as automation and artificial intelligence, alongside other factors will remove an estimated five million jobs globally by 2020 in middle-class vocations such as office administration, manufacturing and construction.

However, this report also estimates that two million new jobs will be created in fields focused around business, finance, mathematics, architecture and engineering. If these estimates are indicative, young professionals entering the engineering disciplines are well placed to engage a wave of newly created job categories and future changes.

Is merely having an engineering degree or a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) degree enough to build a resilient career? How can universities better equip future graduates with the tools to build resilient careers? The Warren Centre believes there are five key steps to preparing for a resilient career whilst at university:

  1. Think creatively: Resilient careers require innovation. As new working contexts and challenges arise, those capable of finding creative solutions will most easily navigate challenges. Seek new ways to solve the problems you face, or use the same solution in a different way to solve a new problem. Innovation can work both ways. Tip: If you’ve been doing something the same way several times, anticipate for that work potentially to be replaced by automation.
  2. Value relationships: Deeply understanding the challenges faced in the workplace and collaborating to find new solutions requires empathy and connectivity with people. Whilst it is possible to teach such values from the lecture theatre, real world experience and coaching are far more effective approaches. Universities should be forums for students to grow their skills in connecting with others on campus. Tip: Go to networking events and get to know your peers, classmates and future colleagues. They will be your allies in the professional workforce in years to come.
  3. Stay curious: The most innovative and resilient professionals are always gaining new skills and ideas. It not only expands your skillset and employability, but when you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections between ideas that you never noticed before. Building a resilient career requires being able to adapt knowledge quickly to different contexts. Tip: Be conscious of what you are learning and take the time to explore things that may not be in your area of expertise to broaden your repertoire. Never hesitate to ask for help. Most people are happy to give advice, but you need to ask first.
  4. Take ownership of your career: Recognise who the stakeholders of your career are and seek to understand their problems. Look for new ways to add value and solve their problems. Actively seek careers and interests that are irreplaceable. Tip: Practice being entrepreneurial by trying. Disciplined entrepreneurs don’t assume any single venture will succeed as calculated. Instead, they simultaneously run multiple projects and business experiments as quickly as possible. Keep trying, and learn from those experiences even if they fail.
  5. Rethink your definition of ‘a job’: The future of work will no longer be about excelling in “a job”. It will be about building a sustainable, resilient career by consistently performing and exceeding expectations in several jobs. You might find yourself having multiple part-time jobs at the same time. It might require you to work on multiple projects for different companies. You might switch companies every 2-3 years. The days of going into an office, meeting the same people every day from 9 to 5 are fading, but you still need to excel to succeed. Tip: Be open to change, be ready for challenges that redefine conventional career expectations.

As Professor Ron Johnston at the University of Sydney appropriately puts it, “We no longer need people to be job ready. We want them to be life ready.” Building a resilient career is not about preparing yourself for a particular job. It is about equipping yourself with the tools and skills for life.

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