From Career Paths to Career Zig Zags

In 2010, I founded Topia, which is now the world’s leading global talent mobility platform.  Through this journey, I had a front-row seat as HR leaders worked to understand the changing nature of work and careers.  I advised them, learned from them and saw where our economy was going. This experience informed many of the decisions we made at Topia.

Over the last decade, one of the most poignant things I saw was a shift from “career paths” to “career zig zags.”  Where my father and grandfather’s generations expected stable employment with one company in a 9-5 setting, much of the current generation increasingly seeks tours of duty across companies and departments with flexible work structures, such as working from home, working from co-working spaces, or working from just about anywhere.  (Note, that this varies for parts of the economy, particularly in the trades, and this article focuses on white collar jobs in the knowledge economy.)

Much of today’s workforce is made up of millennial and Gen Z workers.  These workers often entered the workforce with the impact of the 2008 recession felt.  They know that economic shocks happen and companies change, whether from acquisitions or other corporate activities.  This awareness took away the feeling of stability in work that prior generations have felt and introduced a generation that can be more focused on skills than job titles.  Many of these workers think about their careers as a series of tours of duty, each of which helps them acquire a set of skills that they can then leverage into their next tour of duty, or project.   Their careers are punctuated by time spent across companies, across business areas and even, across different types of work (full time employment, freelance work, volunteering or studying).

For many employers today, this means that you must rethink how you attract, retain and engage employees.  This starts with rethinking how a resume is written and how recruiting is done.  For years, resumes have been written with job titles – and the progression through a given business area – as the focus.  Skills have been woefully absent in resumes – or in HR systems and recruiting processes.  Often job descriptions that hiring managers use don’t even list the key skills required for success in the job!

In today’s workforce, skills are the new currency of work, and attracting the best talent for your jobs requires understanding both what skills are needed for success and who has which skills to offer – even if their background may be non-traditional.  This requires redesigning resumes and rethinking recruiting systems (and recruiters!) to help managers understand who has which skills.

Once hired, companies should ensure that they understand the skills a given employee has.  In fact, they should log the skills that all employees have so that they know what exists within their company and which employees may be most appropriate when an opening for a new tour of duty, or project arises.  Employees will increasingly demand time across different areas of businesses to develop these skills and giving them the opportunities to have them will increase retention and engagement.

There is also a growing moral imperative for embracing skills and career zig zags.  As disruptions from artificial intelligence and automation increase, companies will increasingly need to offer employees whose jobs have been disrupted, new work opportunities.  Knowing who has which skills – and also tracking who wants to develop what – can help companies match disrupted employees to new opportunities.  This is both a moral and business imperative – shifting existing employees to a new tour of duty is cheaper than hiring externally, and the right thing to do.