Working alumni from all generations discover that being employed in this turbulent economy requires reinvention, innovation and flexibility.
By Heather Peavey Johns
Being downsized out of a career is rarely an easy adjustment, but when it happens at the end of a career, it can be particularly devastating.
"I stared blankly at the person giving me the news. A voice in my head just kept repeating, 'Say nothing.' When he was finished, I simply took the packet of papers and left the room without a word," remembers Betty Kordes Samuels '62. "I had been blind-sided. When I reached my office, I fell apart crying and left. It was a Friday at about 2 p.m. I left a Post-It on my computer that said, 'Had to leave early.' Then I cried most of the way home."
Samuels knew the economy was bad and that the large hospital where she worked, located just outside of Philadelphia, was in trouble. But she never dreamed her many years of dedicated service as the administrative assistant for the chief of the Department of Anesthesiology would be deemed, in the face of the hospital's financial struggle, all but irrelevant.
"I had been taking on more and more responsibilities when, after 16 years and just two years short of retirement, I was summoned to our conference room to learn that my job was going to be restructured to a half-time job, meaning half-pay, half-vacation, half-benefits," remembers Samuels. "This was not acceptable."
Rather than suffer the constraints of her restructured job, Samuels, at the age of 67, chose to begin again and seek new employment. However, she soon discovered that she was competing with many equally skilled applicants for very few jobs, and she wasn't alone. The hard-hit economy rendered many Bucknellians unemployed, at all stages in their professions. They were forced to reassess their own skills, to search for jobs in new and unfamiliar fields and, ultimately, to reinvent their careers.
Reinvention isn't a new concept in the working world. Professionals often reinvent themselves throughout their lifetimes, and in doing so they create what career development experts call "the protean career."
"The idea of a protean career was premised on the idea of going through many different careers in our lifetimes," says Michael Johnson-Cramer, assistant professor of management. "Pundits reinvent these numbers every year. The simple fact is that people are holding more jobs and changing careers with greater frequency. People once held three to seven jobs over a working lifetime. That average is closer to 10 for younger Baby Boomers. And the number is certainly going up for today's young workers."
Named for the mythological sea-god Proteus, who reinvented himself to avoid having to foretell the future, this concept was first introduced by Douglas Hall in his 1976 book Careers in Organizations. He defined the pursuit of a protean career as an internally motivated choice driven by aspirations of self-fulfillment. Today, as the economy dips and dives, jobs remain scarce and entire industries face collapse, the concept of a protean career is less of a choice and more of a necessity. No longer does it describe the career path of savvy workers trying to achieve personal goals. Instead, legions of sucker-punched professionals are reinventing themselves not for success, but for survival.
"You see people shape-shifting and developing themselves in different, nontraditional ways," says Johnson-Cramer. "People have to learn to be adapters. That's the only skill that is going to get them through this crisis."
Adapting to changes in one's surroundings is an instinctive human response. "Particularly in this environment, there are pockets of the economy, and subsectors of specific industries, that have been so negatively affected that no matter how you had performed in your career, the destruction that has taken place caused it to be exceptionally difficult to find a job in that specific industry," says W. Blake Sturcke '93. "As such, this economy has very much created a need for professionals to be much more flexible and nimble with respect to their career."
The virtual collapse of a bank he joined in May 2008, following 15 years at Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank, placed Sturcke in a situation that compelled him to adapt his skillset to the new paradigm in his specialization within the investment banking industry. "Shortly after I joined, the firm came under pressure from tremendous write-downs relating to an earlier acquisition, leading to a government led bail-out of the bank" says Sturcke. "This unexpected series of events abruptly placed me in the worst labor market the financial services sector has seen in at least 70 years."
Sturcke had to modify career plans. "If there aren't opportunities in this area where I've worked the better part of my career, where do opportunities exist where my experience and professional assets will allow me to excel on a new career path, or at least contribute meaningfully to a firm in an interesting capacity over the near term?"
Professionals are learning that their education and experience qualifies them to work not in just one field, but in many. "The technical term is meta-competencies," says Johnson-Cramer. "It's not just that you've learned how to do something. You've learned how to learn how to do things. Journalists have learned how to write articles, but if they're aware of how they learn, they can apply that skill to learning to multimedia design or web-development."
This was a particularly challenging task for those on the final leg of their careers. Samuels, only two years from retirement, had to adjust her perception not only of the job market, but of her own skills and experience. "Difficult as it was, I kept my options as open as possible," she says.
Samuels took full advantage of her large network of friends and associates to find a new job in a new field. She sent e-mails to her friends and former colleagues asking for help finding a job. After a few false starts, she found a position at a company that manufactures sterile products for pharmaceuticals, "an area with which I have absolutely no familiarity," says Samuels. "My previous employment had involved education, then medicine. This company manufactures sterile products for pharmaceutical companies. Much chemistry, which is not my thing at all."
According to Sturcke, who is currently working in a strategy and business development role for a technology services company, focusing on meta-competencies at the expense of setting limits can pose some risk. "If you take an approach that's more horizontal, then you could get into a 'where do I go from here?' situation," he explains. "If an executive determines that she is analytical or has terrific relationship skills or is an excellent strategic thinker, but comes to a realization that those skills are relevant all across the economy, a challenge may emerge in terms of focusing energies on one or two specific industries or verticals."
Sturcke believes that a Bucknell education, networking and the help that Bucknell can provide, provides an excellent foundation for the inevitable twists and turns of the protean career. "As I have learned, in a somewhat challenging manner, careers often do not progress in a straight line," he says. "One must be prepared to navigate the curves in the road as well as to enjoy the periods of stability and rapid professional growth."
Some generations may be better prepared to navigate career curves than others. Johnson-Cramer says he believes the response to the current economy is, in some ways, generation-specific.
"Gen-Xers graduated from college in the early 1990s, the beginning of the tech boom, but also a deep recession," he says. "They didn't have jobs or the typical hiring process, and were underemployed and generally entrepreneurial. Also, corporate downsizing started to happen, so even the people who thought they had corporate jobs didn't have secure corporate jobs." Johnson-Cramer contends that Gen-Xers are therefore somewhat prepared for the economy's current state of flux. "It's not surprising to them," he says.
Baby Boomers, says Johnson-Cramer, had a much steadier career trajectory and therefore are experiencing the current economic woes quite differently. "The first Baby Boomers graduated from college in the late 1960s. The economy was bad during that time, but it was still largely riding the boom of the post-WWII period," he says. After college, they went to work for large companies and in the financial sector. "For the most part," says Johnson-Cramer, "even though the world was changing around them, they followed the typical career security path."
As parents, Baby Boomers were eager to share their secrets for success with the children of the Millennial generation. "Their career advice to their kids has been to get a good education, get an internship at a big company, get a job offer, go through your last year of college, get your degree, go to the job, work your way up, get an MBA - literally it's mapped out for them," says Johnson-Cramer. "Baby Boomers created amazing successes this way."
Many Millennials enter college with a good idea of what they want to major in and what they want to do after they graduate. "I think historically, the common advice is that you really need to determine what you want to do," says Sturcke. "You need to have a focused job search so that you're efficient with your time. In conversations with potential employers, you need to convey to them a sense of conviction and understanding of their business. That was traditional wisdom, and in a normal market I think that's right. This gives you a roadmap. You can identify the companies in the industry you should be trying to talk to. There's more of a framework to follow."
Now, however, that roadmap is out of date for both the Millennial generation and their Baby Boomer parents. At a time when people whisper words like "recession" and "depression," "some Baby Boomers are just as surprised as their kids are," says Johnson-Cramer. "People in turbulent industries, like healthcare, are reaching the end of their trajectory. It's not a given that the next step takes them further up the career chain. But they still need to bridge the next five or 10 years, somehow."
Millennials, like the Gen-Xers before them, are being tested very early in their careers. "These are students with wonderfully admirable qualities," says Johnson-Cramer. "They're eager, well-networked - in some ways they're the perfect organizational players. It'll be interesting to see if they can convert some of the resources they have at their disposal."
One such resource is networking. For young Buckellians who haven't had the opportunity to excel at one career yet, much less launch a second one, being able to reach into a large pool of experienced, employed alumni is invaluable.
Sophia Leong '09 and Kelly Hanlon '09 both expected to get positions in the finance industry after graduating from Bucknell. "I thought I had a job lined up going into my senior year," says Hanlon. "I interned for Goldman Sachs Operations in Jersey City over the summer and was unofficially told I would receive an offer." But with the market crash, the job offer never materialized.
"Searching for jobs this year was nothing short of chaotic and disappointing," remembers Leong. "I applied to numerous places and spent more time drafting cover letters than doing class work. Ultimately my work paid off, as I had several interviews - but offers were hard to come by."
Leong and Hanlon were prepared, and educated graduating seniors who were ready to start down a career path they'd envisioned and planned for months, if not years. When the economy seemed to close off those paths, they felt frustrated and anxious. Instead of reinventing their fledgling careers, however, many young alumni are choosing to overhaul their expectations.
"These graduates are faced with a completely different dilemma: competing against people who have been done with school for years, but are laid off or out of work and are competing for the same positions," says Allison Hirsch '08. Every candidate needs some sort of an edge. It may be their GPA, their leadership skills or their internship experience. I believe that the most beneficial edge, though, is the connection they can gain from networking."
Hirsch reached out through Bucknell's Career Development Center to let graduating seniors know about opportunities at Lockheed Martin, where she works as a financial analyst. "At first, I was skeptical about the position because it didn't seem to fit my perception of 'sexy finance,' which was investment banking and accounting," admits Leong. "Allison helped me realize that Lockheed Martin offered opportunities beyond Wall Street, and that seemed to fit with what I wanted to do."
Hanlon was also hesitant to apply. She didn't have any contacts in the King of Prussia area and wasn't thrilled with the idea of moving there. But her job search continued to stagnate, so she took the plunge and landed an interview and was glad she did. "The Bucknell connection with Allison was the only way I was made aware of this opportunity," said Hanlon. "I would have never have thought Lockheed Martin would have such a great program in finance."
While today's economy will undoubtedly recover and take its place in the history books alongside other perils of financial turmoil, the resourceful, determined Bucknellians who have seized the opportunity to reinvent their careers may provide a glimpse of a new, emerging workforce. Alumni of all ages are showing remarkable resilience in a difficult time, with their eyes focused on the future. "I have absolutely no regrets," says Samuels. Proteus would be proud.