The Skill of Adaptation

Careers in the future will require flexibility, something Central students learn through experience.From time to time I find myself in conversation with students (sometimes parents) who are eager to identify the one academic major that will lead directly to a job upon graduation. I think they would find it easier if one could just major in a job title. I understand the impulse. Financial security has become an overriding concern through a period of increasing economic and political volatility. If they can just select the right career path, then an enduring career will naturally unfold – they hope.

Having spent more than three decades of my life working in higher education, I am able to share with them the succession of “jobs of the future” I have heard recited in many circles beginning with “The future is plastics.”

Career fads have come and gone. I recall, for example, the finance and investment banking years. The advice was to get into a financial firm that would set the fresh college grad on a course to job security and financial prosperity. It did indeed work for some, though many either found it to be a poor fit for them personally or were disrupted in career by economic cycles, regulatory changes and acquisitions.

In the end we all realize there are no guarantees. There are many life-defining and life-changing factors that cause us to adjust course. We have seen profound changes in many professions and industries that have in turn redefined career pathways. Ready examples include healthcare, technology and manufacturing.

Oddly, the approach too many take in advising students about future careers is to concentrate risk by attempting to help them pick the one thing, rather than diversifying opportunities in the face of risk. What I tell students (and parents) is that the most important skill our future graduates will need is adaptation. Life and career pathways today are far less predictable than in previous generations. What I find most interesting is the kinds of adaptation skills our graduates need to be successful are the very same ones desired by organizational leaders from a wide array of professions and industries. They want individuals who can work in teams, understand human difference, navigate through cultural and linguistic barriers, communicate effectively in oral and written form, think critically and creatively and have a solid work ethic.

The best advice I can give students is to create for themselves many possible futures. While the potential pathways may all be related, the ability to adapt to changing conditions will serve them well. Our education at Central College is designed to foster this approach as students explore and discover. There is no better affirmation than the common refrain I hear from our graduates, “I can’t believe I got to do so many things.” I am confident it will serve them well.

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