In the age of broken ‘career ladders,’ here’s how to zigzag your way to the job you want | Andrew Spicer

A.Recently, I was sitting in a lecture hall with a few hundred final year undergraduate students. As I looked around, I thought about my own uncertainty about their age. When I was about to graduate, the future seemed uncertain. I didn’t have a place in a corporate graduate program, like many of my classmates. Decades later, I realized that what seemed like an obvious career move was not so simple.

The job market for today’s graduates looks good. The annual report of Student Employer Institute found that graduate recruitment is expected to increase by 5% in 2023-24. Companies continued to struggle to recruit in areas such as digital, engineering and finance. Despite this high demand, each position was hotly contested – with an average of 86 applications for each opening.

Once the current generation of graduates finds employment, only a portion of them will find advancement opportunities. The Approved Personnel and Development Institution good job survey found that only 35% of respondents said their job offered good opportunities for career development.

There are several reasons why people struggle to advance in their careers. A recent McKinsey survey found that a major factor in the unequal representation of women in top leadership positions is “broken rungs” lower down the career ladder. For example, the study found that for every 100 men appointed to lower-level management positions, 87 women were appointed. This meant there was a smaller pool of potential female leaders who could advance to high-level leadership positions.

The second reason why many people struggle is that career ladders are getting smaller and smaller. As large organizations have shrunk, so have internal avenues for promotion. Instead of providing a potential path from the shop floor to the boardroom, many of the largest companies have outsourced their operational activities and effectively closed many internal careers.

It means that careers have been replaced by jobs, and jobs are increasingly replaced by tasks. As work is outsourced to gig workers, there are few opportunities to develop new skills and advance.

The final problem is that a growing number of people simply don’t want to move up the ladder. The recent iteration of global values ​​survey found that millennials and Gen Z placed less value on work than before. Ten years ago, 41% of millennials believed work should come first. Today, that figure is 14%. Likewise, 43% of Britons think it would be a good thing if work was given less importance. It seems that many of us no longer consider ourselves defined by our work – instead what happens outside of work is important.

Aberystwyth University students at a conference. Photography: aberCPC/Alamy

Even if career ladders still exist, it is much more difficult to navigate them. In their study of career paths, Marion de Bruyne and Katleen de Stobbeleir identify a range of strategies that people can use to negotiate increasingly complex career paths without clear ladders.

The first strategy they recommend is that of zigzag. Instead of focusing on climbing to the next rung on the ladder, they point out that careers often involve lateral moves. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to move laterally. This can give you the opportunity to gain new experiences and skills as well as grow your network. Career setbacks, like failing to apply for a promotion, are often painful – but they can be an opportunity to learn, which is helpful in the long run. It’s what a study of beginning scientists Results: Those who narrowly missed out on a scholarship and then used what they learned to apply again tend to have better long-term outcomes than those who narrowly won the scholarship.

If you can’t find the perfect job elsewhere, you can often try to create a really good job where you are. A second career strategy that researchers have identified is what they call “job creation“. This involves reshaping your existing job to provide you with opportunities for development and growth. This might involve changing the types of tasks you do by taking on new projects. This may involve changing who you interact with in the workplace by proactively establishing new relationships at work. Finally, it may involve changing the way you think about your role by seeing it in a different light.

Sometimes people feel like they’re stuck and can’t find the resources or opportunities they need at work to progress or accomplish their work in a meaningful way. One strategy people can use in these situations is to join or create communities within an industry. My colleague Ece Kaynak studied how novices made the transition to a new profession in join coding boot camps. These training camps transformed an individual challenge of learning new skills into something more collective.

These professional communities do not have to be training camps: they can be networks or even sectoral social movements. These can help provide informal opportunities for sharing and developing new skills. They can also serve as a source of support as well as a way to share opportunities. Creating these professional communities can also provide a platform for a group of people to make collective change within an industry.

Making a change can seem like a daunting experience. One way to make things a little less scary is to stream a series of work from the London Business School. Herminia Ibarra calls for career experiences. These are small-scale tests of ideas about what you think the next step should be. For example, if you want to take on a leadership role, you can volunteer to lead a project group at work or find leadership opportunities outside of work. This will allow you to learn skills on a smaller scale and see if the move is right for you without having to make a big and risky career jump.

Like the students sitting in this lecture hall, many of us see only a small part of the career development possibilities that life could offer. When we think about moving up, we tend to focus only on the obvious career ladders. It’s important, but it’s not the only way to navigate the world of work. If we look a little more broadly, there are probably other paths forward.

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