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Career is a verb, not a noun

17 June 2019

career (v) move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way. 

My good friend Mariska tells me that’s a better description of her work life than the more traditional definition…

career (n) an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress.

In the interests of science, and despite the small sample size, I thought I’d introduce you to the work-life history of the inquiry team’s members. You get to choose whether the verb or noun best applies. The criteria I gave them was to list, in order, all occupations held for three months or more. (Under pressure, I stretched the criteria to allow one short term gig too.)

John: Cardboard box factory hand, apple picker, DOC hut warden, wine retailer, storeman and delivery driver, students association treasurer, housing policy analyst, ministerial private secretary, economics tutor, husband, education policy manager, bookstore director, dad (x2), treasury social policy advisor, husband, stepdad (x2), tertiary education chief analyst, and this gig job at the Productivity Commission.

Amelia: Paper girl, checkout operator, babysitter, toy shop retail worker, fast food hospitality worker, student centre helper, university labs tutor, policy advisor, chalet girl, sustainability specialist, senior policy advisor, PhD student, communications officer, university lecturer, senior climate change mitigation consultant, stay-at-home Mum, principal policy advisor.

Tim: Paper boy, hospital laundry/orderly/security worker, freestyle football teacher (with one performing gig), full-time student, events coordinator, intern, husband, policy advisor.

Judy: seasonal gigs as a food process worker including asparagus measurer and mushroom canner, jobs as a secondary school teacher, public health researcher, tutor, stay-at-home Mum, university academic, solo Mum, public sector economist, policy manager, inquiry director.

Nik: seasonal gigs as vineyard worker. Others include tutor, cleaner, not-for-profit board member, researcher, policy advisor, lobbyist, diplomat. 

Terry: circular deliveries, dish washer, kitchen hand, seedling planter, potato harvester, waiter, baker, musician, board of trustee’s member, stop-go-man, shoe sales, liquor sales, quiz master, tutor, research assistant, policy advisor.

Dave: office cleaner, computer programmer, statistician, computer designer, environmental campaigner, lobbyist, seasonal park ranger, software engineer, community group director, tech entrepreneur, academic, commercialisation manager, economist.

Fun aside, what might we take from this? I think Mariska was onto something important…

First, while we normally think about people moving between jobs, many people move across occupations. Even in this small sample, there is a huge amount of variation. And frankly, some of these paths look a bit bizarre. Anyone trying to predict where, for example, shoe-salesman Terry would end up in 2019 is likely to have got it wrong.

Second, this might make us think about job matching more broadly. Matching might better be described a dynamic process that plays out over years or decades. People move from one job/occupation to another seeking to improve the quality of the match between themselves, an employer and a position. On average, the frequency of moves is likely to slow as people get closer to an ideal match, from where the benefits of the next move appear small relative to the risks that it won’t turn out well as hoped. Change, from whatever source, can upset this equilibrium, and high-frequency switching might restart.

Third, what are the consequences of policy or other factors that makes it harder to make match-improving moves? Should people stop switching too soon, for whatever reason, then on average workers may be in jobs with lower wages and/or where their productivity is lower than its potential. Or put another way, would we all have been better off if we’d married our first date?

Happy careering!

Photo: John, Amelia, Tim, Judy, Nik & Terry waiting for the Days Bay ferry. (John MacCormick’s iPhone.)


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  • Gravatar for Pat Cody

    Pat Cody 5/07/2019, 11:33 am (4 years ago)

    Nice to have this conversation. My gut reaction is that if we as a country are genuinely going to be ready for transitions and have dynamic force, then there is a lot of work/interventions that should happen in the work setting around career planning but also targeted professional development. Currently, why does this not happen? One reason is the contractual model where people are frantically securing new gigs or delivering on the existing project within an organisation where there is not a lot of additional human resource, money or time. I think this is particularly true with SMEs. In short people have difficulty looking up from the trenches of the day to day workloads to address the pending technology issues. The cost of time or money can often fall on the motivated employee and in my experience, many are living from week to week and paycheck. Do you agree? If so, how do we treat such impediments as a country?

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    • Gravatar for Editor

      Editor 8/07/2019, 10:51 am (4 years ago)

      Great points Cody. I've also wondered why, if re-training etc. are so good, do we see less of it than we might expect? My go at an answer quickly grew too large to fit in the reply box, so I'm drafting a new post. Expect to see it in around a week. Thanks, Dave

  • Gravatar for Pat Cody

    Pat Cody 24/06/2019, 8:48 pm (4 years ago)

    Hey Dave, what a great way to introduce yourself and your team. I started out picking up rubbish and pruning pine trees. After twenty years of working in the careers industry, I now involved in a web project and work with people who have had significant accidents in the work place redesign their working lives and return to employment. As a professional member and Exec member of Career Development Association of New Zealand (CDANZ) I am keen to put my ten cents around alternative and appropriate career definitions

    “Career is a lifestyle concept that involves the sequence of work, learning and leisure activities in which one engages throughout a lifetime. Careers are unique to each person and are dynamic; unfolding throughout life. Careers include how persons balance their paid and unpaid work and personal life roles.” (CCCDA, 2012)

    Everyone has a career - ‘career’ is a holistic term embracing the sequence and variety of work roles paid and unpaid, that a person undertakes throughout a lifetime. This includes life roles in the home and the community, leisure activities, learning and work. Work, learning and life, though sometimes distinct, are closely intertwined. (Ministry of Education, 2009).

    What I love about these definitions are they are developmental, inclusive and acknowledge a person holistically.

    I think your colleague's dynamic lives fit very comfortably within these definitions - do you agree?

    I would also recommend moving away from the narrow matching approach - there are many other factors that shape a person career and there are many more dynamic ways of working with a person from a career development perspective. CDANZ believe in the difference trained career professional can make in people’s working lives - particular at a time where technology will impact. I acknowledge all the work that the Productivity Commission is doing on this important subject. CDANZ are very much interested in the outcomes of this work and are keen to contribute further.

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    • Gravatar for Editor

      Editor 25/06/2019, 10:01 am (4 years ago)

      Thanks Pat. A useful perspective. We've received a submission on our issues paper from CDANZ (, which I'm still digesting.

      I think there's legs in a dynamic matching model of career progression, as our data tells us that the great majority of job exits in NZ are immediately followed by a job start with a different employer. But it's not the whole story, as unpaid work, leisure, further education, periods of unemployment etc. also feature. Professional advice, as you say, can help people navigate these changes. Are there other intervention points you think careers professionals could or should be involved?

      On unpaid work - see my recent post on volunteering ( - Dave

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