How to stay employable in uncertain times

content stay employable dr rob

Things change quickly in the world of work. Globalisation, social pressures, the pandemic, as well as accelerating advances in technology mean that the workplace continues to change. Perhaps as a result, employees tend to move more frequently between jobs – both voluntarily and as a result of unexpected restructurings or redundancy programmes.

In this rapidly changing and increasingly unpredictable world, are you doing enough to stay employable? Increasingly, employability is the responsibility of you, the individual, rather than your employer.

Researchers have identified that employability involves four broad, non-technical skills. A team led by Alessandro Lo Presti at the University of Salento in Italy found that people who score higher on these four skills typically report greater satisfaction with their careers. The four skills are:

  • human capital
  • social capital
  • career self-management, and
  • environmental monitoring.

Let’s take a look at each of these. As we go through them, reflect on actions you could take to stay employable in the coming years.

Human capital

The first employability skill relates to what’s known as human capital, or knowledge and the ability to acquire new knowledge. In a questionnaire measuring human capital, respondents would be asked to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements similar to:

  • ‘I feel confident enough to discuss with other professionals the technical aspects of my work or my profession.’
  • ‘I continue to acquire new knowledge relating to my occupation.’
  • ‘I feel able to adapt to more complex or demanding tasks than ones I have done in the past.’

To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of the three statements? If you disagree or only slightly agree with the statements, this would suggest that your technical knowledge may be lacking. If this is the case, consider getting advice on which technical topics would be of most use to you right now.

Consider, though, that pursuing formal qualifications and passing exams is only one route to greater technical knowledge. Try to volunteer for broader projects that may be slightly outside of your daily duties. Even simply attending meetings with or shadowing more senior individuals can often help to broaden your technical and commercial knowledge.

Social capital

This next skill relates to your ability to develop, maintain and utilise relationships. You possess more social capital if you more strongly agree with statements such as:

  • ‘I am able to draw upon adequate social support to help me in my career.’
  • ‘When there are opportunities to do so, I establish new relationships with strangers.’
  • ‘When working with others, I am usually able to encourage their participation and motivate them.’

The first skill of human capital is about learning more and developing your technical skills. But this next skill of social capital recognises that career success requires proficiency at relationship building and teamworking too.

How many people can you ask for advice about your career? When you are thinking of moving to a new company, do you have business acquaintances who can help you with your job search? How many people do you know who could recommend you for jobs or refer you to recruiters?

Professionals in the middle years of their careers sometimes complain that they aren’t getting promoted because of company politics or unfair decision making by senior people. But the fact that social capital is a key component of employability should be your reminder to build up good quality relationships with internal colleagues, senior decision makers and external stakeholders before you need them. Don’t get too focused only on developing your technical skills; invest sufficient time in developing and maintaining your network of business relationships too.

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Career self-management

The third employability skill involves formulating realistic career goals and developing plans for reaching them. Consider the extent to which you agree with statements including:

  • ‘I have a clear plan for my career.’
  • ‘I know that my career goals are realistic.’
  • ‘I have worked out a well-defined strategy for achieving my career goals.’

Reflect on each of the statements in turn. What is your career plan over the next three to five years? More importantly, what feedback from experienced business professionals have you had on the extent to which your career goals are realistic? It would be a mistake to believe that you have a clear and realistic career plan in the absence of feedback from recruiters or other credible professionals.

Finally, what is your strategy – the steps you will actually take – for achieving your career goals? Consider that simply doing your current job well is rarely enough for getting promoted. People who get promoted typically volunteer to get involved in task forces, committees or projects in addition to their usual tasks and duties. To ensure that you genuinely have a well-defined career strategy, get input from your line manager as well as more experienced professionals who are at least a few years ahead of you in career terms.

Environmental monitoring

The final category of employability skill involves observing what’s going on in the real world and being able to take advantage of opportunities. People who are good at environmental monitoring tend to agree more strongly with statements such as:

  • ‘I am aware of the occupational trends (for example, the most requested skills) in my field of work.’
  • ‘I am aware of the opportunities and barriers that relate to my field of work.’
  • ‘I am able to collect appropriate, useful information about prospective employers before meeting them for job interviews.’

In terms of trends, what skills are increasingly in demand? What skills are in decline – perhaps because of automation and AI? What are the growth industries?

Notice that the third statement relates to being able to apply successfully for jobs. This statement recognises that one aspect of staying employable is researching individual employers so that you can tailor your applications and explain to interviewers exactly why you are right for any particular role.

For instance, making an application to a small, entrepreneurial business might require that you can give examples of when you have been flexible and adaptable in response to changing needs. On the other hand, applying to an established public sector organisation might require that you can speak of times you navigated a large bureaucracy to achieve results. The broader point here is to remember that different prospective employers will require different approaches.

Making yourself more employable

Looking back at the four employability skills, it may seem as if some of them are of little immediate importance. But consider that investing in your employability is akin to looking after your health. We may eat junk food and fail to exercise because we feel we are too busy to do so. The impact of eating unhealthily and not exercising rarely has an immediate effect. But years from now, some of us will have heart attacks, be diagnosed with diabetes, or otherwise suffer ill-health.

In the same way, neglecting employability skills will rarely have an immediate effect. It is only years from now that those who fail to work on their employability skills may find themselves in difficulties.

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace. @RobYeung

This article was first published in Student Accountant in March 2022

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