Portfolio, Portmanteau or Protean: what shape is your career?

In a previous article, I commented on the non-linear nature of career development in the Information Age, in response to changes brought about by new technology, market dynamics and demographic trends.

Following recent research and policy proposals on workforce flexibility and workplace productivity by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency and the Australian Industry Group it is clear that more than ever, employees must take more responsibility for managing their own career, and be willing to embrace life-long learning and skills re-training to navigate non-traditional career paths.

Whether it is the need to address the current shortage of IT skills, or the need to prepare for the post-mining boom, employers will have to re-think traditional approaches to hiring, engaging and performance managing the workforce; and employees will be obliged to re-think the shape of a traditional career trajectory to take advantage of new opportunities, and to remain relevant in the modern workplace.

There are essentially three career models emerging: Portfolio, Portmanteau and Protean.

Portfolio Career: this model is probably quite familiar to more mature workers, who have embarked on a mix of different career activities, either as a planned transition to retirement or as a means to re-enter the workforce; or by default in response to external changes in employment circumstances.

In this scenario, someone might work part-time in a paid job or consulting role, volunteer part-time for a not-for-profit organisation and hold 1 or 2 non-executive board positions. In my own case, for example, I consult to a number of corporate clients on a regular basis, I am a member of an advisory board for a family owned business, I am working on start-up projects, and I have also been known to do some broadcasting on community radio. My significant other, meanwhile, balances a part-time job in accounting with her practice as an artist and art teacher.

This portfolio career model is no longer the exclusive domain of baby-boomers – witness a former and much younger colleague of mine who undertakes a series of HR contract roles, while helping to build a new IT business with her partner. The portfolio career typically appeals to people who enjoy a variety of different activities, have a broader mix of skills and experience, or who wish to create a personal work-life balance.

Portmanteau Career: this is a term I have coined myself, in an attempt to describe a career model that applies to either meaning of “portmanteau” – a) a travelling case, or b) a compound word.

In the former meaning, a portmanteau career is one where an employee’s skills are easily transferable to another role, a different organization, or even a new industry – the skills are literally portable, and can be carried from place to place. In my own case, I once transitioned from law publishing to financial information services, even though at the time I knew little about the latter – it was the core skills around content development, product management and commercial publishing models that were applicable and relevant.

In the latter meaning, a portmanteau career can be a product of new and emerging technologies or sectors. For example, digital media and social networks (in themselves, “portmanteau” industries) are attracting people with a mix of IT and marketing skills, a combination that would have been highly unlikely 10-15 years ago.

Protean Career: the protean career model is not a new concept but has been brought into the spotlight by the current economic environment, a supply/demand mismatch in skills, and the challenge of employees taking responsibility for their own careers. This challenge especially applies to employees coming into the workplace for the first time – even recent graduates who have gravitated towards a specific career path or vocation based on their choice of courses and qualifications  must be cognizant of the fact that they need to maintain and update their skills and knowledge once they enter the workforce.

In my own case, after graduating in law, and following a career as a paralegal, I decided I wanted to make a move into publishing. I retrained as an editor, and then looked for roles where I could combine my academic qualification with my personal interest – resulting in a successful career in law publishing.

I would summarise the protean career model as one where the individual defines, manages and determines his or her own destiny, rather than letting a career “happen” to them. It requires a pro-active approach to career management, combined with continuous skills improvement, supported by formal and informal learning, a willingness to embrace flexibility, an appetite for taking informed risks – and all underpinned by heightened self-awareness gained through experience and enhanced personal development.

The person who understands and pursues a protean career will likely be creating their own work, managing their own work preferences, and making easier and happier work choices.

In each of these career models, employers must also be willing to embrace flexibility, to adopt creative solutions for hiring and engaging their workforce, and to resist traditional “square pegs for square holes” resourcing models. As the productivity and flexibility debate continues to gain traction, the opportunity to re-think traditional approaches to career development and career management should not be lost in the noise.

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