The career challenges of the 21st Century.

My grandfather was a stonemason, trained in the days when building with stone was a craft which took many years to learn, yet enabled him and his peers to build houses and churches which would stand for centuries. He learned his skills on the job and was taught by master craftsmen.

In the later stages of his career, houses became mass-produced and stone went out of favour as being too expensive and too slow, and my grandfather and his wonderful skills became virtually obsolete. He found himself working out what was left of his career as a labourer on a building site under the supervision of engineers half his age, building what he considered, to be sub-standard houses. These were a new breed of ‘builder’ - young men with degrees who had learned their skills at university. A serious clash of codes.

My grandfather never swore and rarely lost his temper; however, one day in utter frustration at the way he was being treated, he was heard to mutter, ‘These folks with fancy degrees, they could find the square root of a banana and wouldn’t bloody know how to peel it!’

Sadly, what happened to my grandfather is happening with alarming regularity even to the people with degrees. I understand that when a medical student is in his/her fifth and final year of medical school, everything they learned in the first year, is obsolete.

So in this age of technology, unless we are all taking responsibility to stay at the leading edge of our particular craft or profession, then like my grandfather, we too, risk obsolescence.

The Industrial Age is dead.

In America right now, the entire manufacturing needs of that country are supplied by 10% of the working population; their entire food needs are supplied by 2% of the working population. The big questions is, ‘What are the other 88% of the working population of America doing?’ If I asked that question on a factory floor, the reply would be, unemployed!

The other 88% are actually very gainfully employed, either in the service or technology sectors. The brilliant news, is that in both those sectors, new jobs are coming on line daily. The tragic news is that, there aren’t enough people with the right skills and attitudes, to fill most of those positions. Nearly every company I come into contact with tells me the same story – we can’t find good people.

The problem for the workplaces of the 21st Century, is that most of the world’s thinking and skills are stuck in the Industrial Age; the ‘jobs for life’ type thinking; the expectation that ‘my company will look after me, re-train me, plan my career for me’. What I call Parent/Child thinking. There is light at the end of the career tunnel - but it does require a shift in these obsolete paradigms.

Everyone, top to bottom, must embrace a willingness to buy into life-long learning; often at the individual’s own expense - because if we are not seriously committed to our own career longevity, then why should our organisations be expected to give a damn?

It comes down to attitude - walking away from school or university with a ‘that’s it – school is out, I don’t have to do any more studying’ mentality; or worse, ‘someone (boss, government) will look after me’, will absolutely guarantee that we become obsolete.

So the first thing you could do for yourselves at the start of this New Year, is to limber up that brain of yours, and take up the challenge to learn something new. If you are a right-brained person consider taking a course in accounting or business strategy; if you are a left-brained person, try a few sessions of art or pottery. It doesn’t actually matter what you are learning, so long as you keep your brain working and growing, and by utilising the opposite side of your brain, you are doubling the capacity of your grey matter. And if you really want to challenge yourself, if you are a physical person, try meditating, if you are a sedentary person do something physical!

The other thing we can do for ourselves, if we are serious about our careers – is to start volunteering for ‘projects’. Be willing to stretch, to take on new challenges, to step out of comfort zones. Yes it’s scary; yes we will have to be prepared to make a few mistakes, but how else do we learn anything if not by trial and error?

I worked with one organisation where I suggested the ‘volunteer’ theory and one man told me that he never volunteered for anything; my suggestion was to give it a go. He told me several months later that he took me at my word; he volunteered for a project in another part of the country; he quietly confided that, not only had he learned many new skills, he was selected to be the team leader; thereby learning even more skills. He now volunteers for EVERYTHING.

The skills we require as we go forward into the Technology Age are decision-making; problem-solving; the ability to chair meetings; to communicate effectively in a multi-cultural, mixed gender work-place. The ability to resolve conflict and to work effectively in short term project groups. Above all else, today’s employees must develop an attitude which says ‘I am prepared to become a life-long learner, because at the end of the day I am 100% responsible for my career.’


Ann Andrews, Dip Bus (Pmer), CSP, is the author of four books: "Shift Your But", "Finding the Square Root of a Banana", "Did I Really Employ You?" and "My Dear Franchisee". She is also a contributor to five other books: "You Don’t Make a Giant Leap Without Taking A Gulp", "Best of the Best", NZ Entrpreneurs", "The Power of More Than One", "Mum’s The Word" and newly released "Golden Nuggets" - a book of tips and advice for kids leaving home for the first time. Ann regularly works with tea...

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