Some people know exactly what they are going to do professionally very early on in their lives, sometimes practically from the moment they learn to walk and talk. For the rest of us, however, it’s been one constant worry about life and our professional future. And with good reason, too, as our careers shape most aspects of our adult lives: from family and finances to personal happiness and health, they’re all either directly or indirectly connected to our professional success.
Taking that into consideration, it makes choosing a career an even more daunting task. However, the great thing about it is that nothing’s really ever set in stone: you can always choose to do something completely different later on in life. Take the late Alan Rickman, for example, who had a fine art degree and a successful graphic design business when, in his 20s, decided to drop everything and started taking acting lessons. He landed his first major role when he was 42 and was cast as Hans Gruber, the main antagonist in Die Hard.
As you progress through your career, you can make small adjustments, continue your education or training and even perform a complete pivot or change if your career leaves you immensely dissatisfied.
This, however, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a plan or take the necessary steps that will define your path to career success. You should always have predetermined goals and well laid-out plans, but be sure to keep your eyes open for any life-changing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that may present themselves to you. People frequently develop a tunnel vision and strictly adhere to their goals while overlooking important and crucial opportunities that can push their professional life forward.
Assessing Your Options
When choosing a career, no matter at what stage you are in your professional life, performing a personal inventory of your strengths, weaknesses, preferences and dislikes will help you make any type of career move, from curating your career for a promotion to a full-on shift.
Here are a few things you might want to consider when gauging your skills and strengths:
- What do you like doing professionally?
- Do you have any standout strengths that will help you complete work-related duties?
- Do you have any moral or ethical standards that you will not compromise on?
- Is there any type of work that excites you?
- Do you have any skills that can be applied to the career you are interested in?
- Do you want to go to university?
- What kind of lifestyle do you want to be able to finance with your career?
This evaluation extends beyond the personal realm, though. Some professions seem like an ideal fit on paper but in practice have unseen variables. There are multiple ways to perform this audit of sorts:
- Find someone in your prospective field and ask them about their experience. Prepare questions beforehand; use your personal inventory to discern items that are important to you in a career (compensation, work-life balance, engagement, etc).
- Take an internship with a company that is in the field you want to enter. Although this option will be much easier for a new graduate or a university student, young professionals or career changers can do this, too. On a side note, an internship while holding a full-time job might require strict time management, which might askew your work-life balance. Make sure that, when doing so, your friends and family know your intention and that this is only a temporary situation. Not informing family, friends and partners about such a time intensive commitment will be detrimental to your interpersonal relationships and can become a source of unneeded friction, stress and tension.
- Ask to shadow someone, which is a less time-consuming introduction to your prospective career. This can also be done at the company you currently work for if there’s an appropriate department in the field you want to enter.
Pursuing a Vocation
When talking about career choices, people usually think about white collar professions. This negates and overlooks a very large part of the population that chooses to work in vocational professions. There are multiple reasons for this; primary amongst them is the status of an academic degree and qualifications. This paradigm in recent years has shifted, though, due to the rising expense of higher education and the debt that many new graduates are burdened with upon the completion of their degrees. This, in combination with a sluggish economy and high unemployment rate among the young and educated, has made many people reconsider the value of hard skills.
Employability isn’t the only reason to consider a vocational career path, though. Lost wages during a four-year period of tutelage at university (not including the expenses of being enrolled in and studying at a university) can add up to tens of thousands of pounds. In fact, students who follow a four-year university programme stand to lose £40,704 in earnings, based on the UK’s national minimum wage for individuals aged 18-20.
A plumber’s apprentice, on the other hand, will make a median hourly salary of £4 per hour, which equates to £7,680 per year or £30,720 over a four-year period. Meanwhile, upon qualification (usually after years of on-the-job experience), their earning power increases to a median of £10 per hour or £19,200 per year with the potential to make as much as £29,000 per year.
Another benefit of pursuing a vocation is that there are a slew of options to help you achieve professional qualifications and develop hard skills. School leavers can start working immediately while developing a career and receiving education in most cases. This can be done through either apprenticeships or vocational schools.
Many industry leaders have warmed up to these schemes or programmes in recent years, including:
- PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC): One of the world’s leading financial service providers, PwC offers school leavers a way into accounting, financing or consulting through apprenticeships. Not only do you gain experience but also formal education including all the necessary qualifications and training.
- Lloyds Bank: Lloyds offers a variety apprenticeship programmes, each focusing on different aspects of the group’s services. The candidates can choose between customer service, financial or business management, innovation-technology or people strategy.
- Boots: The extremely successful and large pharmacy franchise also offers multiple programmes to school leavers, and include both benefits and the potential to earn a salary of up to £15,000 per year.
- Unilever: Their apprenticeship programme offers young employees both on-the-job experience and formal education.
There are several schools in the UK offering vocational or professional training to people interested in pursuing a trade. One of the most lucrative choices is hairdresser – a well-established professional in this field has the potential to earn more than an academically trained barrister, taking home a whopping £52,000 per year.
Another way to start a career is by simply working your way up and taking advantage of employers’ continuing education schemes. Many employers will either fully subsidise an employee’s continuing education (in a field that aligns with the company’s interests) or partially pay for their tuition.
For a comprehensive list of apprenticeships, openings, ratings and reviews of such programmes, take a look at RateMyApprenticeship.
Getting a Degree
An academic path to the career of your choice is generally the most socially accepted one due to the stigma associated with more labour-intensive trade careers or apprenticeships. Unfortunately, even though it is more societally acceptable to graduate from a four-year institution and then enter the white collar workforce, more and more university degree holders are forced to work as unskilled labours to pay for the insurmountable debt they accrued during their studies. This does not, of course, nullify the value of traditional education; the problem is that traditional education is wrapped within a flawed financial system, but that is not the point here. Overlooking the potential for amassing student debt, statistics compiled by Adzuna show that graduates have higher lifetime earnings in the range of £500,000 and will also have more career opportunities than non-graduates in a lifetime.
If you’ve decided to take the academic route, the very first item on your itinerary should be choosing a field of study. Some highly compensated university degrees include:
- Engineering (Mechanical)
- Civil Engineering
- Computer Sciences
- General Engineering
Most of these jobs see entry-level salaries approaching (and sometimes surpassing) £40,000 a year, and that earning power significantly increases with experience.
Although earning potential is a significant consideration, what should be more of a priority is what you can see yourself doing for the next 47 years, 48 years, 49 years or more. Even though those numbers seem arbitrary, they are not: the UK is incrementally increasing the retirement age for people that retire between 2016 and 2018 to 65, 2018 and 2020 to 66, and 2026 and 2028 to 67. This will very likely cap off at some point, though, because if it doesn’t, the generation that just entered the workforce will retire well into their 200s.
Joking aside, being engaged in your work can be a huge influence on your quality of life. Disengaged employees can suffer from a myriad of both physical and psychological afflictions, simply due to the stress of having to physically be at a job they do not enjoy. Luckily, this is easily avoidable and can be potentially changed with the correct choices, pivots or shifts.
Here’s what you need to consider when pursuing a degree:
- Do your professional priorities have to do with monetary compensation, societal rewards (common good) or personal fulfilment?
- Do you have a talent that you would want to pursue and develop?
- Would you prefer to work in an industry or in academia?
- Is your career path one that will see you work in an industry or in academia?
- If you opt for the academic route, do you have the mental and monetary resources to study for multiple years and achieve an advanced doctoral degree?
That last point might seem a little harsh, but the truth about achieving an advanced degree necessary to work in academia is that it demands both an immense dedication of time and of money. Unfortunately, although working at a university can be a relatively lucrative career, if you fund your post-graduate education exclusively with loans, it might take decades to get a turnover on your ‘investment’. A positive aspect of this is that by the time you finish all of your degrees, you will still have about 89 years before you retire, if the retirement age continues being raised at its current rate.
Many people, especially those under 50, have considered or actually went through a complete career change. Amongst young workers in the 18-35 demographic, an astounding 66 per cent want to change careers. All the steps are similar to the ones mentioned above, such as assessing both your personal attributes, needs and wants and assessing the job/career you would like to pursue.
But a different paradigm – or more appropriately: paradox – comes into play when you are changing careers, one that new members of the workforce won’t experience. Although you might have experience, you do not have the experience specific to the new industry you would like to enter. This means that you will be competing with younger candidates that have zero to very little experience, and you will most likely be starting again at an entry-level position. This will inevitably have an effect on your work-life balance (you must work harder to prove yourself anew), your finances (especially if you give up a higher paying middle management position. However, that is not to say you can’t find employment in a high-paying job) and even your ego as you will have to go back to the lowest person in the pecking order in most cases.
Taking the Administrative Path
In an ideal world, with enough hard work, knowledge and experience, you should be promoted on a fairly regular basis. The problem, however, is that hard work frequently goes unrewarded in the real world. If you delve into developing a career with the purpose of becoming a member of senior management, there are extra steps that need to be added to your initial career choices. For example, the choices dictated by said path would be very different if you wanted to become a lab technician or the head of a chemical lab. On the surface, both require the same type degree and the same experience, but becoming the head of a lab also requires either experience or formal training in administration and human resources as well as well-developed interpersonal skills.
There are two distinct paths that you can take to achieve this very specific career choice. The first way is to augment your skills with formal training through an MBA or via on-the-job training. Many companies also offer apprenticeships tailored for individuals who want to enter management. The second is strategically taking on responsibilities and becoming visible to middle and senior management, proving yourself as a valuable member of the team, in the hopes that you will be offered an promotion when one is available. The last way of entering administration is much more organic and it allows you to acquire the necessary knowledge in situ without disrupting your current employment, but your success depends not only on the availability of a position but also on your perception as a valuable employee to executives.
Self-Employment and Beyond
The final and most frequently overlooked career option a young graduate or career changer can opt for is self-employment. There is a myriad of possibilities from entrepreneurship to freelancing and joining the gig economy. Depending on your profession, you may be able to start your own business (a law practice, for example, or a construction company) if you have years of experience in the particular field.
If you are still having trouble figuring out your place in the professional world, then a good choice might be to take a gap year and trying to work in various industries until you find something you feel fits your personality, wants and needs.
Ideally, after choosing your career, you’ll follow all the necessary steps to pursuing your choice, progress through the corporate ranks, and retire a happy and fulfilled professional in your field. Unfortunately, however, real life has many more variables, obstacles and dead-ends than that. So what can you do to ensure that your career has an upward course instead of a straight line?
There are ways to ensure your career will have a stable and upwards movement, but it requires a bit of work on your behalf. Some of the strongest assets of the successful are:
- An inherent thirst for personal and professional betterment through training, knowledge and education.
- Problem solving. In other words: be a problem solver, not the person that points out problems which can create friction and frustration as well as hurt productivity.
- Perseverance and adaptability are characteristics often sought after in people who get promoted. Although few people enjoy hardship, challenges and overcoming obstacles are the most educational professional experiences. After all, complacency brings stagnation.
- Prioritising tasks. The workplace is full of productivity-destroying distractions, from internal messaging systems all the way to email notifications. Although communication is crucial, not all communication is crucial enough to interrupt your workflow.
- Work on and constantly develop your interpersonal skills. In recent years, soft skills – or, more broadly, interpersonal skills – have been the focus of recruiters. Teamwork, the ability to collaborate and highly effective communication skills have proven to be valuable assets in a new candidate, even if they have fewer hard skills than other candidates.
Keeping in mind all of these elements will not only help you choose the right career for you but it will also help you develop your career. Although this might seem to be a daunting task, it will ensure that you have a happy and long professional life.
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