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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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