While running errands this weekend, I went into a local big box store and was greeted with a sight I remember all too well: Back-to-School Shopping. Parents were huddled in groups around large cardboard displays with school supply lists printed on bright colored paper for all of the local schools. Students prowled the aisles and center displays, looking for the perfect notebook, pencil and even boxes of Kleenex. All at once, I felt the tinge of excitement I would feel when I was a child and this time of year would arrive. (Yes…I am a nerd.) But as an adult, I also observed the situation with newly discovered sympathy for my mother, who took me and my sister shopping just like this. Every. Single. Year. She must have felt as frazzled and stressed as several of the parents in the aisles looked at that moment.
As a working adult, I don’t experience the Back-to-School feeling in the same way. After years of being in school, fall still feels like the start of a new year to me, despite the fact that in my working life, fall is generally marked as a slow-down time to prep for the next year. But as someone who thrives in environments where I can learn and apply new skills, I make it a point to capitalize on the old, nostalgic Back-To-School excitement within my own career.
It should not be news to anyone that the days of working your entire career in a single career path, or even for a single employer, are long gone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, members of the Baby Boom Generation have an average of 11 jobs in their lifetime, with Millennials trending closer to 15. Now I would suggest that you should probably take 4 or so off of those numbers to correct for temporary summer jobs which many of us worked as teenagers and young adults; changing these jobs is a very different prospect than changing your job or career in midlife. But even taking those summer jobs into account, that’s still an average of between 7-11 jobs over your lifetime.What does that mean? It means that it is in your best interest to accept that your current position will likely change, and therefore it is wise to keep your skills current while acquiring new ones as much as you can. Nothing complicates a job search, initiated voluntarily or not, than realizing that your skills are 5-10 years out of date.
If you are fortunate enough to work for an employer that invests in your learning and development, fall can be the perfect time to learn some new skills on the job. If fall is more of a slow time, schedule in some professional development for yourself a few hours per week. Keep this going into the new year, and it will help keep you motivated to continue to keep your skills fresh. I am often surprised how much more I get accomplished when I schedule out things to accomplish, rather than just “winging it”.
If you do not have the good fortune to work for an employer who recognizes the value of providing professional development for their employees, do not despair! First, try asking if they would allow you to attend a few webinars; these are short and less demanding than full blown courses, and it is possible that your employer will allow you to do it a few times a week or a few times a month. If that succeeds, you can ask for more structured L&D opportunities in the future, once your boss has had time to see the benefits it brings to the team.
Your employer may say “Do it on your own time!”…a shame to see in the modern learning economy but unfortunately all too common. If they do, then by all means take them up on it. If you can carve out half an hour a day, or an hour or two on the weekend, pursue L&D on your own. I can already hear those of you with children saying, “Sorry…my day is too full as it is!” Might I make a suggestion? Try making a “family study time”, where the kids can do their homework and you can study for your own career as a family. Not only will it emphasize the importance of studying to your children (See? Even adults need to study!), it can serve as a learning opportunity for your kids if you can connect their school work to the real world. It doesn’t even have to be formal; reading the latest business book can count and give you some great ideas to take back to the office.
Remember, your career is far more important to you than it is to your employer, especially if they take such a backwards attitude towards professional development. You should do what you need to do to keep yourself in the know in your field, or to pursue interests which may align with your field in anticipation of your next career move. So use the Back-To-School season to think about what kinds of things you want to learn, and how you can learn about them!