HR expert: A modern career is yours to shape

The days of the gold pen are over.

Job anniversaries are rarely celebrated, and besides, few people write with ink anymore. Say "pension" to someone younger than 30, and they'll think it's a foreign Airbnb youth hostel.

So it's not surprising that over the last 20 years, employees are job-hopping twice as often as previous generations. In other words, the ink never dries on a millennial's résumé.

"The definition of work in the '50s and '60s is significantly different than it is today," said Jim Ward, a career coach, author and former human resources executive with more than 30 years in the industry.

Ward's new book, "New Directions: Successful Strategies for Career, the Workplace, and Personal Growth," is being published in January by Greenleaf Book Group.

"The definition of a career is a series of sequences of work," Ward said. "It's not necessarily working for 25 years at the same company."

A resident of Newport Beach, Ward worked as the head of HR at Pimco, Allianz and Salomon Brothers for many years. He has seen the good and bad of corporate life. The bottom line is no company will ever take care of you forever — not now.

"The implied employment contract is profoundly changed," he said. "Lifetime employment doesn't exist anymore. Corporations are hiring people based on their skills, but there's no guarantee that the company is going to look out for the employee for their benefit. The company is looking out for their benefit, not the employee's benefit."

For Ward, this realization hit home first with the oil crisis in the 1970s. The Texas native started in the boom-and-bust oil business. Later, he saw the same pattern in the financial industry.

"Over the years I've seen a lot of trials and tribulations," he said. "I saw the real ugly side of downsizing. So a lot of the people I was involved with hiring, I was also involved in the downsizing and outplacement of these people. I got to see the real humanity side of people with excellent backgrounds and credentials who just couldn't find work."

When Ward tells stories of good people who are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, it's obvious why he spent his career in human resources. There's a practical compassion to his voice and demeanor.

Fundamentally, he's a survivor, which means he's good at helping people find their own new bootstraps.

"As an employee today, you have to look at yourself as a commodity to a certain degree, where you've got skills and you're selling those to the highest bidder," he said.

Whether you've been laid off or are just entering the workforce, the first step is to do an honest evaluation of yourself.

"Often, people don't spend enough time thinking about well, who am I? Let's look in the mirror. What am I good at? And how do I transition those strengths and weaknesses into something I'm going to enjoy doing?" he said. "I think it's so important to enjoy what you do. We spend a lot of time working. We spend more time with our colleagues than we do our families to a certain degree."

Even if you land a job, there's no guarantee you'll stay long.

According to a LinkedIn analysis of the résumés of its members, over the last 20 years, the number of companies where people worked in the five years after they graduated has nearly doubled. In other words, people who graduated between 1986 and 1990 averaged 1.6 jobs, while people who graduated between 2006 and 2010 averaged nearly three jobs.

Ward said this change has dramatically affected the employer-employee dynamic.

"You look at people today, and they may have many careers in their lifetime doing different kinds of things," he said. "It's not uncommon for people to do 100% contract work. They might consider themselves an agent for hire.

"They might work at Google for two to three years or IBM for two to three years, and a lot of these companies are hiring contract labor. It's cheaper. They don't have to provide benefits to them. So the workplace is profoundly changed from that perspective."

As a result, Ward encourages his clients to prepare for change. It's OK, he said, to be an Uber driver on the side to make ends meet, for example.

In his book, he talks about cultivating a toolbox of strategies. Choose and plan a career path that excites you. Don't let a career transition immobilize you. Rethink how to find a job, and position yourself for a new future.

Perhaps most importantly: Be open to feedback and possibilities.

"One of the things I saw during my corporate days was that to succeed you needed to have lots of things in your favor," he said. "You get hired because of your intelligence, and you stay employed because of your social competency and to a certain degree your emotional intelligence, but often it's more than just IQ, right? So I've seen lots of very smart people graduate from top-tier business schools that fail miserably.

"I think it's about social competence and emotional intelligence to be able to understand who you are and what kind of shadow do you cast on people."

In the end, Ward said any new direction in your life is up to you. The fear of change is only a hindrance, not a help.

"Financial fear is often number one," he said. "How am I going to pay my bills? Part of this is gutting up and getting out of your comfort zone. It takes a lot of courage. You make it work. You put your creative energies into the thing that works for you right now.

"You're the CEO of your company."

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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