Hit a plateau in your career? Here’s what you can do

A veteran career counsellor has a plan for those who feel they have reached a dead-end in their current jobs

Tensed man in tie sitting on his breifcase with his hand on his head, frustrated in career

When discussing one's career we often use the terms career path, career ladder, career journey and so on. There is a sense of movement—upward, rising, climbing. But, sometimes you realise that your career has hit a plateau; you are in a dead-end job. That’s how Sarita feels today. She got placed in an IT company from the campus of her engineering college. It was a huge moment, almost the best paid job from campus, very prestigious and it made her family really proud. Now, in her mid-30s, Sarita feels unhappy because she has realised that her job has hit a dead-end. She is disillusioned, confused and frustrated with her lot. What can she do to get herself out of this rut, and re-charge herself for a more interesting life ahead?

Reflection is important

If you are in a similar situation, consider that reaching a career plateau is the perfect time for reflection and strategic thinking. If you are in a dead-end job, step back and take a look at where you are, what you have achieved, and make sure you head in the direction you want to travel.

Unhappiness at work arises when you and the job you are expected to do are no longer a good fit. It may have to do with your skills, the salary, values, freedom of action, status, hours and leave, workplace conditions, the organisational culture and advancement prospects. In Sarita’s case, she was upset that there was no freedom to rotate among different departments/divisions, and diversify, and this was hindering her advancement prospects. The fact that she couldn’t choose to move to another field of work, expand her horizons or even move up beyond a certain point/ level frustrated her. Moving to another company would mean taking on a similar job, but her future would still not be any better in
the long term.

Unhappiness at work arises when you and the job you are expected to do are no longer a good fit

If you have been climbing the ladder of success up to this point, maybe you’d like time to be able to stop for a while and enjoy the view rather than rushing to the top? Taking time for reflection is really important for your self-development. When you evaluate how meaningful you find your work, or what meaning you want to find in your work, you have the clues as to your next move. The solution to this problem starts with you. Ask yourself why you are dissatisfied or unhappy.

Wanting to change your job or career means launching research into the alternatives for the future. You have to introspect. Objectively assess what you want different in the future, and what elements of your work need to remain the same.

You could answer some self-assessment questionnaires, seek guidance and advice from career counsellors, discuss with mentors, friends and relatives who know you well, but aren’t biased. If you are not prepared to think carefully about this, or discuss it, there is every chance that you could replicate your present situation.

Framework for career planning

Think first about yourself. What are your work values, job interests, skills and personality traits?

What matters more to you: challenge/achievement, security/stability, variety, risk/enterprise, money/wealth, social impact or autonomy? Make a list of practical considerations such as commute time, location [urban/ semi urban/ rural/ international], scope for transfers and work environment.

Then look at the job market. Look at the types of jobs available, review them and identify some suitable options. You can look at alternative positions, jobs, industries and pick out opportunities that you think you might enjoy and that you have some chance of being offered and you start sending off your applications. You may get lucky that you end up where you really wanted to be, but there is still a possibility that your new career or job may be little better than your old one, and sometimes even worse.

Think first about yourself. What are your work values, job interests, skills and personality traits?

To be really effective in identifying a suitable opportunity, you must do your research well. Take a close look at organisations in the industry you hope to join, understand how they function and what their culture is, and which one would be a better fit for you. Review what you have to offer and what they want from you. Having your personal priorities, values and goals clearly outlined would be very important. However, also be prepared to adjust it to the current scenario.

Here’s what Sarita did. She looked around at further education options, which included post-graduation in Information Security, MBA, Cyber Law, Journalism etc., because these were areas of knowledge and work that she had realised would be more suited to her interests, abilities and temperament.

21st century skills

In the 21st century, employers are looking for flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility.

Among younger recruits, they are looking for basic skills like reading, writing, numerical ability, creative thinking, problem solving, visualisation, sociability, negotiation, team work, cultural diversity, leadership, self-esteem, responsibility and a positive attitude to work.

To be really effective in identifying a suitable opportunity, you must do your research well

In more mature workers, employers value more complex skills, particularly business awareness, self-management, communication and team working abilities, and problem-solving. Candidates who are flexible and versatile are in high demand.

A new direction

A completely new career direction is usually based on further education in a specialised field or a professional degree. Full time further education would mean investment of money for tuition and loss of income.

In Sarita’s case, giving up her pay cheque was out of the question. Being far more interested in managerial and executive positions in the IT industry, she decided to take up a part-time MBA specialising in technical/ software business enterprise management being offered by a local business school for those working in the IT industry. She had done her research into the profile of the students of this programme and their eventual career path, and decided that it would be by far the best course of action for her.

If you aren’t in a position to give up your job, and pursue full-time studies, you could either pursue a part-time or distance education professional programme alongside your job, or you make a pitch for a change of profile or career based on the suitability/applicability of your transferable skills.

Rakesh, who was working as a scientist for a decade, wanted to move to a career in science communication and journalism. He decided against any further education, because he felt that he had good oral and written communication skills, strong command of language and a varied range of published papers and articles to make a serious bid for the jobs he was interested in. He accepted the fact that without specific education or certification, he might have to take up a lower rung position in the job market. However, he felt that once he gained a foothold, he could easily bridge the gaps that separated him from those who were already working in field of his interest. His advantage lay in the fact that he had been occasionally writing in magazines and online publications on scientific topics and issues in his own field of research as also in a wider sense, also for the non-scientific public/reader. Hence, he did have some level of proven capabilities to back up his career move.

Ongoing career planning

It is a misconception that you only plan your career when you are fresh out of school/college or when you have lost your job. Work opportunities are changing all the time, and if you do not ensure your employability by acquiring the right skills and moving into areas which offer better opportunities, there is no one else who will do it for you.

It is a misconception that you only plan your career when you are fresh out of school/college or when you have lost your job

A strong professional network that you have built up over the years or by membership of a professional/industry association can provide you the tools/resources to keep up to date with developments in the industry or issues facing the profession. Attending seminars and short training programmes can provide useful networking opportunities or you can use the experience to boost your CV and to build contacts. The idea is to keep working on enhancing your employability on an ongoing basis and to maintain your enthusiasm in your job with learning and awareness of trends and developments in the workplace, both domestic and global.

Whether it is pressure from the impact of a global economy affecting some sectors of employment, or the frustration of employees no longer satisfied with their working environment, career change is now a definite trend. While changing direction can be perilous and often frightening, if you are well prepared, it is not as daunting as it seems. Concentrate on the positive aspects of your new environment, even if it does include many unknowns. Think of the changes in your life as part of a great adventure offering you the golden opportunity of a new beginning.

A version of this article was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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