Fast Track: Why would I want a plan?

Firms are offering careers advice to `Generation Xers'. What on earth for? By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Culture
The last thing "Generation X-ers" expect is a job for life. Born between 1965 and 1981, we are the people who have seen the jobs of our parents' generation axed again and again, so we have taken charge of our own careers. Sure, we'll work hard and put in long hours - but only so long as it suits us, often moving on once we've learnt what we can from an organisation. So why, then, are a fast-growing number of employers offering independent advice on career development to "X-ers"? What do they get out of it, and, more important, what's in it for us?

Yochanan Altman, research professor of international human resources management at the University of North London, says such "advice" can take the form of career workshops, 360-degree feedback surveys, psychological profiling, individual counselling, lunch-time career opportunity lectures and psychometric testing. "Participants can re-evaluate what kind of job they're best suited to and which skills need developing," he explains. "Or, some newer programmes offer extremely structured exercises through which participants can set themselves an organised series of goals for the future."

So what kind of employers offer such a service? Firms tend to fall into two groups, claims Altman - those that are highly dynamic and those that are not dynamic enough. "Sun Microsystems, for instance, is an organisation that enjoys 20 per cent growth and adds some 4,000 employees every year. But in a labour market enduring chronic shortages of highly specialised workers - and in a company where much of the staff are "X-ers" constantly looking for greener pastures - retention is a pressing issue. So career management has become a strategic concern."

Like an increasing number of companies, Sun is particularly astute at recognising that the first two years of a graduate's working life are the most vulnerable in terms of retention, and so is quick to advocate its career development programme within this group.

Mature, traditional firms, on the other hand, can suffer from the exact opposite. "In many manufacturing companies, growth is limited by the confines of the market and technological development is also limited," explains Altman. "So employees tend to stay put until they `get the call' for the next job - either within the company or by an external company. Rothmans International, for instance, realised the need to create a climate of career pro activity to keep the firm and its employees more stimulated." Corporate Psychologists International put in a programme to assess each person's true potential and explore his or her aspirations in the group.

But, says Angela Edward, policy adviser to the Institute of Personnel and Development, retention shouldn't be the only aim. "High levels of staff turnover can be beneficial - something many firms are starting to realise. Some people thrive on change. If they stay in one company too long, they burn out and become less productive."

In such companies, career development programmes may be defined as a perk. Dr Jane Sturges, a research fellow at London university's Birkbeck College, has found traditional incentives such as company cars and more pay are increasingly being taken over by more unconventional benefits. In these circumstances, the programme would be run by an external agent. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester university's Institute of Science and Technology, says: "If the company itself runs the service - which many do - there are potential problems, as confidentiality and impartiality should be its cornerstones. Ideally, the firm itself has no access to information generated, as it's the only way to ensure employees are honest about their aims and aspirations. If they're not, the whole exercise is futile."

The service should be optional, he adds. "Unless a person actually wants to develop their career, it's a service that won't work." But, in companies where external agents have been used by employees at their own discretion, the results have been positive. Altman explains: "After [the programme at Rothmans] began, there were a number of unorthodox cross-functional moves by staff that would probably not normally have occurred. Quite a few people emerged from the programme with a new lease of life. Perhaps most importantly, individuals now routinely discuss their careers honestly with line managers in annual performance reviews."

The Sun initiative has also had a liberating effect, he says, granting individuals permission to declare unconventional and constantly changing career aspirations and to express preferences such as the desire to be sent on overseas postings. "Graduates are most likely to keep changing their minds about what role they want within their career, and may also be particularly keen on working abroad for a while. So they can gain huge benefits from the service," explains Altman.

But there can be other reasons for a programme. "Kent County Council had to reduce its workforce from 50,000 to 30,000 a few years ago," explains Angela Edward. "So it set up a drop-in service offering financial planning, assistance with CVs, and a library of other job opportunities. Such initiatives are now quite popular."

When ICI Chemicals & Polymers faced major restructuring at some UK plants, it created a service. "But it's developed into a broad-based service providing confidential, independent support to employees in managing their careers, retirement and other work issues," explains a spokesperson.

Career management will become increasingly important on the corporate agenda, with more and more sectors declaring that people are their only remaining competitive asset - and with a working population driven by self-interest and a reluctance to make a long-term work commitment.