Career Planning for an Uncertain Future

Career Planning for an Uncertain Future
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
By Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Published on June 4, 2020

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Making decisions about your future — such as which major to declare and what career path to follow — may seem impossible right now. Even as states loosen COVID-19 restrictions and campuses prepare to reopen, the economy remains in flux.

But the reality is that uncertainty about the future of work has been a topic of discussion for years. Before the coronavirus altered the employment landscape, many were concerned about anticipated shifts in employment due to factors like the automation of jobs and the growing skills gap in many trades and STEM fields.

Preparing yourself for a significant career disruption can greatly benefit you, especially during a pandemic. Nowadays, career planning should include research on job market projections, developing ideas to help you change gears when necessary, and building resilience to overcome any challenges that lie ahead.

A man talks on a cell phone while gazing at a laptop and taking notes.

Review Career and Employment Projections

Many groups, including government offices like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, make projections regarding the increase or decrease in jobs. This data can offer insight into how employment in different industries is expected to change over time.

In 2019, NPR shared a McKinsey Global Institute study that projected which jobs would be most affected by automation. Although office administration and food service positions topped the list, the report's authors emphasized that "the economy is [also] adding jobs that make use of new technologies."

In addition, the authors shared that location (i.e., urban or rural) and education level (i.e., high school or college completion) affect how technologies impact job growth.

Keep in mind that these resources are created at specific points in time and are typically updated only once a year or every couple of years.

O*NET OnLine and My Next Move — both part of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration — can help you not only assess your career interests and how these match tasks required in various occupations, but also learn more about jobs in specific industries.

These two tools offer a list of occupations with "bright outlooks." Projections are based on how rapidly fields are expected to grow and the number of anticipated jobs. The current list is from 2017, with an update scheduled for September 1, 2020.

Keep in mind that these resources are created at specific points in time and are typically updated only once a year or every couple of years.

Social networking platforms and news outlets are excellent sources for more immediate projections. Carolyn Couch, principal and coach at The Next Step Career Coaching, recommends reading articles from LinkedIn's jobs editor Andrew Seaman as well as LinkedIn's Workforce Report newsletter.

Take a Career-Life Preparedness Approach

Professor Robert W. Lent from the University of Maryland's counseling psychology program sheds light on how we can prepare for changes to our career plans. His 2018 article "Future of Work in the Digital World: Preparing for Instability and Opportunity" recommends using the four following "career-life preparedness" strategies to strengthen your ability to weather a career storm.

All of us must take the initiative to actively prepare for unexpected changes to our career paths and work situations. You can connect with your college's career center to stay up to date on the latest hiring trends and employment projections. Ideally, you'll also engage in activities that allow you to develop transferable skills.

Couch recommends finding ways to "use and develop tech skills, marketing, social media, and leadership skills. Also, data analysis will be very important in just about any future job you will have."

Don't just take a class and move on. "Use [new] skills regularly so you don't lose them," Couch says.

Are there any challenges you can anticipate encountering on your professional journey? Lent describes two types of activities that can build your confidence while also giving you options when you need them.

Career Renewal Activities These types of actions, such as assuming a leadership role or taking a professional development course, can help you advance your current skills and develop new competencies.
Emergency Planning Planning ahead of time allows you to react quickly when change happens and teaches you the importance of creating a back-up plan for when potential problems arise, such as sudden job loss.

Success rarely happens without assistance. Think about the different types of support networks you can build in your career and personal life. Take time to develop positive relationships and expand your professional network.

Identifying and connecting with a mentor while you are in college can improve your undergraduate experience and aid you with the transition from school to work.

The key to supporting yourself in your career planning and development is to be willing to clearly communicate what you can offer and what you want to do. Share your strengths and goals with others, and don't be afraid to ask for help from your support systems, both on and off campus (e.g., career center, advisors, mentors, family, professional network).

A woman writes on a post-it note that's been stuck to a glass wall in an office.

Develop Resilience

The American Psychological Association describes resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress."

Over the course of our careers, we can expect to face several challenges. According to Lent, it is our ability to anticipate, cope, and bounce back from these obstacles that speaks to our reslilence.

Consider how you react to unexpected disruptions to your plans. You can improve your resilience by developing specific skills and behaviors. The website Mind Tools offers a resilience quiz to assess your current skills in this area, along with suggestions for improving your overall resilience.

Tips for Developing Resilience

Manage stress through wellness activities. Get enough sleep, build physical strength through exercise, and increase mental strength with positive thinking. Build healthy relationships. Focus on strong connections with friends and colleagues that emphasize compassion and empathy. Set achievable goals. Consider the long-term implications of challenges you may encounter and move forward in a purposeful way. Build self-confidence. Rely on your skills and abilities, and understand what you can and can't control about the future.

Lakeisha Mathews, director of the University of Baltimore's Career and Internship Center, explains that "events like COVID-19 have happened in history before, and though the way we live and work may be altered … students who are able to be adaptable and learn to manage their fears and anxiety will be able to come out on top and thrive."

Prepare for Your Future Career

The need to redirect your career path can come from many different directions, such as personal burnout, unanticipated financial needs, and jobs that are no longer available due to automation or economic changes.

Now is the time to assess where you are in your professional journey and focus on building skills and resources that allow you to face challenges and take advantage of opportunities as they emerge.

We can all learn from — and throughout — 2020 to make the best decisions for our career planning as we try to overcome the changes caused by the pandemic.

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