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Seven ways to be in control (and in work)

Philip Schofield reads a new guide to keeping yourself in the job market
'To be employed today is to be at risk; to be employable is to be secure.' Most of us have heard the message. But nobody is showing us clearly and simply how to take control of our own careers, adapt to new roles, gain new skills and master new ways to build a career. Now Liverpool University has come up with a practical and easy-to-use answer.

The need is obvious. As Dr Peter Hawkins, the co-founder and adviser of Liverpool University's Graduate into Employment Unit, observes, it is possible to spend at least 40 years of 40-week years and 40 hours a week in employment. "That's a long time to be stuck in a job or career you can't stand. Yet, incredibly, most people devote more time to planning their annual holiday than thinking about a whole lifetime of work."

His unit's graduate business programmes have helped more than 2,500 unemployed graduates into full-time employment, helped more than 1,500 small businesses to improve and develop their business practices and created more than 700 new jobs.

Drawing on this experience, he says: "We analysed the factors for success - in how people create jobs in small businesses, which are the predominant area of future work. And we found that career-management skills are absolutely crucial. They are the underpinning skills that anybody needed to stay employable in the future - whether self-employed or in work. And what was interesting was that the smaller the organisation we looked at, the more important it was to have these self-reliant career-management skills."

He also "came across Charles Handy, who is now my mentor, and he helped me to develop the tactics to lead a portfolio career". The result is a unique self-help manual, The Art of Building Windmills: career tactics for the 21st century. The idea behind the title is that the wind of change in the working world is blowing harder and changing direction more often. People who "build walls" and accept passively or resist the opportunities that come their way have problems. Those who "build windmills" can take control and turn them to their own advantage.

The book brings together seven tactics, combining Dr Hawkins's personal experiences and those of the unit. He says: "The book is really focused at people in their early career or mid-career who are stuck in a rut. A lot of people are afraid to take risks. They are in their own comfort zone and lack the confidence and focus to move forward. They don't have a structure, a blueprint or a process to actually manage their careers. They don't know where to start."

The first of his seven tactics is to identify the skills you have, making sure you don't undersell yourself. Next find out where you want to go in life, by discovering what motivates you and identifying your ideal job. Then creatively explore your options, not only looking at the visible job market but also finding hidden opportunities. His fourth tactic shows how to look at yourself through a client's eyes, the best way to sell yourself to employers and how to boost your self-esteem.

He echoes Mr Handy: "Seeing everybody as a client, not an employer, and promoting the benefits you can bring to them are probably the most important qualities in life."

Dr Hawkins begins his fifth and perhaps most important tactic, "action thinking", by pointing out that "successful people rarely get where they are by following a pre-planned career - they position themselves to seize future opportunities". "Action thinking" includes setting yourself specific and measurable short-, medium- and long-term goals; breaking down your objectives into manageable chunks; understanding the traits that hold you back and how to overcome them; and keeping a log to record the key outcomes at each stage of your learning.

The sixth tactic offers 10 ways to make your present job work for you, how to think laterally and how to improve your networking skills. And finally, you should measure your career-management performance - where am I now?; where do I want to be?; how do I get there?; am I getting there?.

Each tactic is presented mainly in the form of checklists, questionnaires and bullet points. Each is also colour-coded: blue to outline ideas, green for further research and exercises, orange showing how to put ideas into action.

Dr Hawkins was surprised by the enthusiasm that the manual attracted at its launch, at the Association of Graduate Recruiters' annual conference, and subsequently. The North-West Regional Development Agency is already sponsoring workshops in north-west England to present the book.

He says: "We are now working on a national roadshow to provide workshops on the book in every city and are looking for sponsorship from employers. The North-West Regional Development Agency is also helping us to develop a whole set of training materials to develop an all-singing, all-dancing roadshow."

"The Art of Building Windmills" is available from the Graduate into Employment Unit, University of Liverpool, 131 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L3 5TF, at pounds 10 plus pounds 2.50 p&p. Employers interested in sponsoring a roadshow should call Dr Hawkins on 0151-709 1760.