Are you weighing up which career path to follow? Anxious to make the right career choice and avoid cutting off your future options? You're right to be giving this decision your utmost attention, at least if my experiences in advising candidates are anything to go by.
For all that we hear about transferable skills, the reality is that skills are transferable mostly in lower value employment. In executive or professional careers, employers invariably look for a track record of having delivered in that type of role already - which is why your career choice earlier in your professional life is so important.
I've seen these career path issues play out in the professional services sector - but know they're just as much an issue for any executive looking to play on their transferable skills. The issue is mostly one of risk - namely employers' aversion to risk when it comes to hiring. Give an employer the choice between two candidates - one who has done the job before and one who has the transferable skills that should enable them to do the job - and you'll invariably see the employer choose the candidate with prior experience in that role.
So what are the implications for professional candidates?
The first thing I would stress is the importance of making the right career choice when you first enter the jobs market - that's to say when graduating from university. In most professional fields you will find it immeasurably harder to break into that field at a later date than to pursue a career path in that field from day one. Throughout university I would counsel gaining work experience and doing internships in as many fields as interest you; even consider taking a gap year at the end of university specifically with the goal of undertaking 2 or 3 internships.
The perceived glamour of a role - and the realities of day-to-day work in that position - are often quite different. Ideally you don't want to set your career path in stone until you've had a chance to experience working in that field first hand - and heard the insider tales of the pros and cons of the industry.
People often assume that if they make the wrong choice, they could always revert back to a graduate entry position in a different field a few years into their career. The reality is quite different. It's uncommon for employers to take onto their graduate schemes anyone who has already amassed significant professional experience - so for a lot of professionals you'll only have one chance to make a graduate career choice.
I noted above that employers tend to look for a track record of having delivered in a similar role already, rather than taking a risk on a candidate's transferable skills. This is true of most larger employers. However, in smaller businesses there is a lot more emphasis placed on the "fit" between a candidate and the company - and the potential the individual has to be an asset to the company.
I've seen countless candidates fail to break into a new field after months and months of targeting the major employers and brands. But then, with a new focus on targeting smaller niche businesses, they've managed to get a break in the industry in a relatively short space of time. The funny thing is that, a couple of years later, the candidate becomes attractive to the major employers in the field - as they become someone who has a proven track record in the role, rather than just someone with transferable skills.
This is one way in which taking a more convoluted career path may actually be the most effective way to get to where you ultimately want to be in your career.
The one exception that larger employers seem willing to make revolves around MBA hires. In lots of fields there is an appetite to hire a new batch of MBAs each year - and many of those hired will come from a totally different professional background to your regular experienced hire. Certainly I see this in professional services - and I know it to be true in a broader range of fields too. For these particular hires, employers place high value on the business credentials and the network of business contacts that the prospective hire has gained whilst at business school - and so seem more willing to take a risk on the candidate's transferable skills.
The caveat to the above though is that all MBAs are not created equal. There are top-tier business schools - and then there are a raft of progressively less well respected schools. To really move from one career path to a totally different one, you need to be absolutely sure that your target employers hire from the school you'll be attending.
It's essential that you are rigorous in your research. Check with business school careers services how many of each class in the last few years have joined the types of companies you would like to join; and which of them present on campus or do something to actively secure hires from that school. Any half decent careers service should be able to tell you this (or failing this use LinkedIn to research where the alumni of particular schools typically end up).
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