Fannie Mitchell Executive Director William Wright-Swadel on Career Security

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Writing to parents about the career and professional development process is always a challenging thing to attempt—mostly because on almost every topic the conversation is very different depending on the student and his/her academic class year. In a newsletter like this one, 500 words go quickly!  There is however, one issue that students bring to us from parents, regardless of the academic progress of their daughter or son—career security. So let’s look at that issue today.

As the query comes to the career counselor from the student, it is usually about choosing a field that is stable, insulated to a large degree from the vagaries of the economy. It is a field where the companies are well known and prestigious; rarely lay off “good staff,” and where there is a strong commitment to the further education and upward mobility of those they hire.  It is a field that pays well, the employers respect work-life balance, and they have offices wherever in the world one wants to live, but never transfer staff except to where they ask to go.  Finally, the field should be filled with organizations with a set of values that we all can agree are in the best interest of today and tomorrow.

I have exaggerated a bit here, but only a bit.  I certainly understand the desire most parents have to ensure that their daughter or son will choose wisely and well and will be in a field and with organizations that can provide the stable environment many parents covet.  I am not sure this is a truly attainable goal for most students today—or that they share the goal with parents at this stage of their development.

The global market, into which our students launch, is dynamic, even volatile. Change is the constant and it happens with breathtaking speed. Organizations and industries shift to where opportunities exist or they create opportunities by defining new markets themselves. Innovation, entrepreneurship, impact, and the development or acquisition of new products, services, or domains of knowledge are the currency of stability for many organizations. Develop, acquire, define a brand, reflect upon its success or failure, and then adjust, adapt, and learn to deliver something new or something old in a different way. Some believe this is the mantra of the entrepreneur, but I have the same conversation with employers, regardless of size, longevity, domain, or even product.

I submit that stability for the individual student is much the same as described above for employers in the economy of today and tomorrow.  Stability will come from within, not from external partnerships with employers.  Those students who will thrive will be those who learn to learn in interdisciplinary ways, and across several very different domains of knowledge. They will have used the full range of academic, co-curricular, and experiential opportunities to articulate a brand, learn to compete, to adapt, and to reflect and assess outcomes (from successes and failures). They will learn to be effective in environments that are new, challenging, and filled with others quite different from themselves.  They will build a personal board of directors who will know and advise them. They will master the art of networking, initially using Duke alumni and parents. They will stay with an organization only as long as both are benefitting, not a moment longer.  So, they will learn to manage their professional development and their career as if it they were a corporation – as they likely will be!

For those of us, including many parents, who grew up hoping to find an employer who would hire, train, nurture, and develop us, this is a scary looking world. For most of the students with whom I speak it is a world that reflects their experiences and the way they anticipate they will grow most effectively.

It is not only the possession of a degree from a great university, like Duke University, that defines the future—though it is indeed a significant advantage. It is how the student went about getting the degree that most often tells the story of how effectively they will manage their professional life and how well they will create stability for themselves.

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