Your career path can lead you anywhere

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WE used to be advised to plan our careers. We were told to start during the later stages of our education and continue through our working lives. We were expected to work towards one clear goal. Changing career was thought to be "unsound".

Some people still see careers in this way. However, to pursue a single career option for life has always been unrealistic - and has become more so. Had they followed their original career structure, computer company Psion's founder David Potter would be an academic, turkey king Bernard Matthews an auctioneer, author Frederick Forsyth a serviceman, management guru Peter Drucker a banking economist, and David Ogilvie a chef and not one of the world's top advertising men.

Planning for a single career assumes that we set out with a full understanding of our likes and dislikes, what we are good and less good at, and the employment opportunities open to us. There is an implicit assumption that we ourselves, and the jobs we enter, will change little during our working lives. For most people, these assumptions are absurd.

Our initial choice of career path and employer is often based on inadequate knowledge and false perceptions. And with age and experience, we develop new interests and aptitudes. So our priorities change. The structure of the employment market and the content of the jobs within it change as new technologies and work systems are introduced. Moreover, the relationship between employers and workers has changed, and we can no longer develop a long-term relationship with one employer but must face the uncertainties of a portfolio career.

It is clear from the past four decades that we cannot foresee the changes which will affect our working lives. The pace of change is accelerating. Traditional career planning will almost certainly lead us into an employment cul-de-sac.

Career planning must now accommodate a number of objectives and enable us to prepare for each on a contingency basis. It will need up-dating to accommodate changes in our own interests as well as in the external work environment. As flexible workers already account for about half the workforce, our career plan should not be expressed only in terms of full- time employment. We are likely to face periods as contract workers, self- employed freelances, consultants, temps or part-timers.

Many employers encourage staff to write their own personal development plans (PDPs). This is a summary of one's personal learning needs and an action plan to meet them, although some people use it only to review the skills needed for their job.

A PDP could be the nucleus of a wider career plan - setting out alternative long-term strategies, identifying one's long-term learning needs, and setting out a plan of self-development.

In a research study on PDPs, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) says: "Individuals should seek to enhance their employability through refocusing their skill base from traditional technical skills towards the development of a range of transferable skills. These include: computer literacy, interpersonal skills, communication techniques, languages, team working, negotiation, financial management and strategic analysis."

Employers often identify training needs through formal appraisals. But these usually take a narrow view of development. Development centres encourage people to examine their effectiveness, to think about life and career issues, and to consider a wider range of needs.

Most successful people agree that at the start of their careers, they could not have anticipated being in their current jobs, or following the path which led them there. Chance is often decisive, with new doors opening unexpectedly, usually at a tangent to one's original path. We need to be prepared for such opportunities.

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