A prominent concern regarding The Future of Work is the push-pull relationship between the pace of technological change and workers’ readiness to adapt. That readiness often traces back to the career advising the workers received as young adults. What career opportunities were introduced for them, and with what consequences? Can we do better with the present generation of young adults, and if so how?
I recently interviewed Ottawa-based careers specialist JP Michel, whose views on these questions call for a wider audience.
Michel developed his ideas as he earned degrees in industrial/organizational psychology and leadership development, and worked for several years in management consulting, including five years with Pittsburg-based Development Dimensions International (DDI).
At the same time, he was working part-time providing career coaching to young adults at the request of their anxious parents. He noticed his charges were deeply troubled by the inevitable question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They thought they had to “pick one thing” for the rest of their lives. He noticed the same question was reinforced by the way high school and college career counselors suggested answers – that is, job titles – for students to consider. To illustrate his point, he talks about how people good at math often get pointed toward accounting, majoring in it a university, getting their degree, joining an accounting firm, performing years of auditing, and approaching their 30th birthday with little idea about how they got there or where to go next.
What about, though, “the future young people want to create?” He reflected on his work with DDI where the people that succeeded in transitioning to leadership saw that as a fresh challenge, rather than any continuation of the work they had done before. He experimented by asking a girl to pick out her favorite article from an issue of The Economist magazine, and she chose an article about a specialized algae to clean polluted waterways. Then they worked backwards to find the company working on the problem, the people who worked there, and what they needed to learn to be able to do what they did. A similar approach is being used by some schools using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. However, Michel was after something broader, “something that could be used with all kids,” not only with the best and brightest, but with the full range of students preparing to join the workforce.
In response, he came up with the idea of the “Challenge mindset,” described on his website as something that “flips the traditional approach and frees students to find a career path based on real-world challenges, not job titles.” He formed a company called Sparkpath, and developed a pilot set of “Challenge Cards,” describing different kind of challenges that might capture a student’s attention. Then he simply asked students to pick up to three cards they most liked, and helped them work on a path to be able to meet the kind of challenges described. He presented to the 2017 meeting of the US National Career Development Association in Orlando, Florida and sold all thirty of the card sets he brought with him. After returning home, he experienced a wave of requests for cards from other people as word of his ideas spread.
Michel also listened to his customers. Conscious he needed to work with all students, his first set of 25 cards included a couple of statements suggesting careers in the traditional skilled trades. However, the career counselors he spoke to encouraged a larger number of cards with a wider range of blue-collar choices. Partly because of that wider range, he now has 53 cards in his total set, such as the “Redesign the healthcare system,” “Take care of cars,” and “Create sustainable energy” examples shown below. One of his customers today is the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, Ontario, which is seeing positive results from dedicating six teachers to helping students engage with the skilled trades.
Although the cards were originally developed as a physical set, Michel was quick to adapt to an online version, which serves well in the time of Covid-19. He was also quick to realize that a computerized version allowed users to carry on the “flip” from the traditional approach. That is, it could help seek out the next steps that worked for each individual student, rather than having those steps prescribed by any particular occupation. For example, the challenge to “Create sustainable energy” will need companies to capture or create that energy, then to distribute and install it. That will call for not only engineering skills, but also for functional skills in for example finance, human resources or operations management, as well as skilled production workers and installers. The computer system can help each student find a distinct path to the challenge they say they like.
One thing I really like about Michel’s approach is that it extends an opportunity for sensemaking to a young adult audience. You don’t begin with a traditional list of occupations, and an instrument designed to help people choose from among them. You simply suggest the kinds of contributions young adults might make in their lives and get them talking. Working with the one, two or three cards the student has selected you help them develop career steps that will take them toward the kinds of challenges they want to pursue. Moreover, the early sensemaking helps the students see their careers as processes, in the way they look toward both getting their first job and envisioning where that job can lead next.
Wherever you are in your own career, the underlying idea of sensemaking can still help you. There’s no reason why you can’t do something similar to what Michel’s charges do, at a later stage in your own career. Ask, how are you making sense of your own situation, in terms of either having an occupation or pursuing a career? Also, through what process can you develop your career from here? If you are a parent with young adults around the house, what questions are you and their career counselors asking, and what would you like to change? For yourself and your children, do you want to see the world of work as a set of static job titles, or as an opportunity for career fulfillment? Adopt a challenge mindset, and go for career fulfillment!
This article was published in Forbes.