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Career Relevancy in a Fast-Paced World

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This UCLA Extension white paper provides an overview of key considerations and high-value solutions for mid-career professionals examining steps they can take – short of returning to college or …

This UCLA Extension white paper provides an overview of key considerations and high-value solutions for mid-career professionals examining steps they can take – short of returning to college or pursuing master’s degrees – to remain relevant in their career fields.

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  • 1. UCLA Extension White Paper<br />Career Relevancy in a Fast-Paced World<br />Winter 2011<br />INTRODUCTION<br />The information explosion combined with a competitive job market is creating opportunities - and confusion - for working professionals. A wealth of information online makes it easier – and more difficult – for mid-career professionals to “keep pace” in their chosen fields. <br />However, access to information and how to effectively manage it does not necessarily translate into career advancement or remaining relevant – whether you are in finance, interior design, the legal profession, health care, education, engineering or any number of industries and professions. <br />There are differences between “staying current” (such as reading a daily accumulation of stories, tweets and blogs or digesting news and bulletins from your professional trade publications) versus “being relevant” (such as having an additional set of learning-based skills that provide long-term value to an employer, client or your own career goals).<br />One dynamic emerging from the latest recession is that many companies are more quickly changing or expanding their focus and more readily adapting to market conditions. The temptation, therefore, is for mid-career professionals to consume as much online information as it becomes available and assume they are at or ahead of the curve. Yet, in today’s new, changing economy, being relevant means more than knowing the latest trend or development in your field. Companies today are looking for individuals who have the skills, capabilities and foundation to strategically “look ahead,” manage around change, and bring more to the table than the last item in a periodical or blog post. Long-term career success in being “flexible” and “adaptive” usually rests with a strategy of pursuing a focused, structured and ongoing educational, professional development program.<br />This white paper provides an overview of key considerations and high-value solutions for mid-career professionals examining steps they can take – short of returning to college or pursuing master’s degrees – to remain relevant in their positions.<br />Compare other professions<br />Let’s take a look at how remaining relevant has succeeded and continues to flourish with a few select professions. Attorneys, certified public accountants and others in the financial industries, health care professionals and even public relations practitioners are required to earn continuing education credits to maintain their accreditation and licenses. Associations governing these occupations routinely conduct seminars or suggest coursework that provide professional development in topics and subject matter that currently or will soon impact their fields. In these structured environments, attendees receive reviews of current case law, case studies, dynamics affecting their industry combined with practical lessons about how to apply these experiences to issues and job functions. Many of these credit-earning courses are taught by proven leaders in their fields and deal with topics, issues and professional expertise that will remain credible and relevant for one or more years.<br />The keyword in almost all of these conferences and training session is: Relevance. For CPAs and tax attorneys, the updates are required because tax laws change annually. For others, professions and industries of all kinds experience various changes, challenges and new dynamics that require individuals to seek additional, structured education complete with in-depth reviews, course of study and testing. <br />What about your “personal brand”?<br />After “staying informed,” mid-career professionals seeking to remain relevant may also mistakenly focus on “appearances.” The career enhancement buzzwords for 2010 and still ringing into 2011 are “personal brand.” Career advice columns frequently suggest professionals can best “stand out” (and, thus earn more money or job opportunities) by creating a personal brand. While this may work for consultants and in professions that promote individuality, developing a “brand” many times is merely the process of colorizing a drab resume, self-promotion (like creating a video of your work), and other measures that can be accomplished in a couple of nights in front of the computer. TheLadders.com – a job site catering to professionals earning more than$100,000 – recently highlighted five personal branding “trends” for 2011 – all of which dealt with subjects like “make sure you are comfortable being interviewed via video” for a job (because companies are conducting more interviews via conference calls and services like Skype), using the latest web program that allows a person to stand out among others with your same name in Google searches (if your name is John Smith, you’ll need this) and to make sure to build more recommendations and testimonials on your LinkedIn page. <br />However, focusing on building a brand is much like reading daily online articles about your specialty. While both will give a professional certain advantages, companies want the skills that go with it. At the core of building a “personal brand” is accumulating – and delivering - knowledge and adding new, credible dimensions to your existing “brand.” The quest to “stand out” or claim specific expertise in a field usually rests not with reading an article or tracking trends online, but rather with a more thorough and structured learning environment. Consider a scenario in which a supervisor asks the team for input on a pending project. Will one of the team members be successful because their idea came from an article they just read (and was perhaps read by other team members and even by the supervisor?), or will their recommendation be accepted because it was grounded in the recent professional development program they completed? <br />Relevancy, growth areas and pay<br />Mid-career workers focused on remaining relevant in their current field – either out of necessity to keep their positions or for career advancement – should conduct two initial assessments before embarking on a course of specialized professional development. The first is to determine the relevancy of the chosen career or specialty. Is this profession marked for growth? There are plenty of statistics (Bureau of Labor), reports and online articles that will offer clear indications whether corporate America is planning to hire/promote more in a specific field over the next five to 10 years. The second assessment is to evaluate the opportunity for salary growth. With the recession over, professionals and other mid-career workers now have room to negotiate pay increases. One factor that helps in negotiations for a pay increase beyond a cost-of-living adjustment or length of service is additional professional development. <br />Dimensions and specialties for pay and career advancement<br />The transition from a recession to a recovering economy also presents other questions and considerations for those fortunate to have a job. In many ways, remaining relevant is the same as increasing a professional’s importance to his or her employer. With the recession over, mid-career professionals and workers likely feel a bit more secure in their jobs and are looking to improve their standing. For many who kept their jobs in the recession but were given extra duties, the immediate task (as highlighted by Vickie Elmer in a recent Fortune magazine article) is to figure out how to monetize these extra responsibilities through a promotion and/or pay increase. While additional duties may constitute on-the-job training, they do not necessarily translate at an equal ratio to the level of career advancement or enhancement one seeks. Worse, managing extra duties likely has prevented professionals and workers from taking professional development courses to remain relevant in that position. For example, a professional may have been given contract management responsibilities during a downturn – without any formal contract management training. If that professional wishes to keep those responsibilities in order to remain relevant in that position – and possibly to be compensated for the extra work, the opportunity now exists to secure formal, specialized professional development. <br />Therefore, many professionals must now review the “relevancy” of their expertise and experience, particularly how it aligns with a company’s goals as it, too, emerges from the recession with new priorities and strategies. If a company now determines it must have better control of its contracts to be more profitable, contract managers become more valuable. If new regulations or testing are being proposed for early childhood development specialists, trained educators become valuable when new laws are passed. If companies are planning major initiatives and expansions of their database systems or web-based commerce, information technology specialists with certificates in application programming or web technology will be sought after. If social media and other online experiences continue to influence customer experiences and loyalties with companies, marketing professionals with an understanding in digital and mobile technologies rise in value as do the graphic designers tasked with creating enticing images.<br />In these circumstances, a “relevancy” review generally leads to a determination to either add dimensions or new core skills through a focused, short-term professional development program. <br />Professional Development at High Education Institutions<br />An appropriate starting point at staying relevant and remaining competitive is to review the courses and instructors at a university’s extension program. These higher education professional development programs offer a range of certificate programs and classes that are frequently updated and focused to meet specific needs. In many cases, entirely new classes are offered every semester. Mid-career workers considering enrolling in these professional development programs should look for higher education institutions that publish meaningful descriptions of their courses and instructors biographies. <br />University-based extension departments routinely meet with hiring managers and business executives, review job forecasts and have advisory panels to provide courses that meet growing demands in the marketplace. In addition, these higher education extension programs are taught by working professionals who provide mid-career workers with “real-time” lessons that have immediate applicability. It’s important to keep in mind that professional development/continuing education programs are focused on providing immediate, practical lessons versus theory-based instruction that is typically found in degreed programs. In many cases, teaching professionals at higher-education extension programs provide additional help that further enhances career “relevancy.” For example, working instructors typically expose mid-career professionals to new networks – mostly outside the classroom. Larger peer networks enhance the classroom experience in many ways, from knowing the “going rate” among a peer group, spotting trends that may not yet appear in stories and trade publications, and developing professional relationships that provide a range of long-term benefits. Instructors at continuing education programs also become aware of advancement opportunities (not all jobs are posted) and provide general mentoring and encouragement (which certainly can’t be obtained in reading articles). <br />Also, many Fortune 1,000 companies and practically all those rated by Fortune as the “best 100 companies to work for” continue to reward employee loyalty and have maintained or increased tuition reimbursement programs. Some even provide 100 percent tuition reimbursement and some have no limits on tuition reimbursements.<br />Summary<br />As the world economy continues to recover and information moves faster, the mid-career professional now has the opportunity to increase their “relevancy” to both their own career path and their companies. And, in the course of these efforts, they can either preserve their jobs, be in a better position to negotiate salary increases and put themselves on a path for advancement (or all three!). <br />

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