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 your 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.
There’s an old Chinese proverb to keep in mind: “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction”. Indeed.
Copyright 2007 Laura Hill
Laura Hill is founder and managing partner of Careers in Motion (http://www.cimllc.com), a career coaching firm based in New York City. She works with individuals at all levels – from college graduates to senior executives – in the areas of career strategy and planning; market positioning; resume development; job search; interviewing skills; and negotiations.