A CAREER SHIFTING PERSPECTIVE FOR AFRICAN PROFESSIONALS
This blog post will be a reflection of the modern world of work for professionals, and the idea of shifting careers and learning new skills. The reflection includes how it is that career choices were made in the first place and how the world of work has drastically changed in the last few years.
As I write this blog, I reflect on how I made my own decision to study accounting (Yes my first degree is in accounting - I do not however box myself into that career as an identity. I have built up other skills since then hence I consider myself a multi-skilled professional, an entrepreneur, and a creative).
These were some of the key decision points I used at the time I decided to study accounting.
· I had the grades required to get into the program, so the option was on the table.
· I understood it to be a solid, safe career choice.
· Many adults around me also thought it was a good career.
· Many people aspired to be in that career.
· My older sister was on the same path.
· I had encouragement from my father to pursue this path. Rather than the Information Technology route that I had thought would also be interesting to consider (In his view, there was no reason to pursue IT in Africa, as we get all our computers from China anyway...)
And that was that, at 16/17 years old, the decision was made, and off I went.
As you can see, this was a very unsophisticated decision framework and many critical criteria were simply not considered.
I will admit that choosing to study accounting at the time when I did, was indeed a safe path, and has provided a decent (not exceptional) amount of opportunity.
However, this reflection is less about the decision made as a teenager on a career choice, but more about the general idea of making a lifelong career choice… Is that still a relevant way to look at life? What to do if you find that what you chose was not best in line with your strengths and interests, or a career choice that is simply just not providing you with a reasonable amount of opportunities.
WHY CONSIDER CAREER-CHANGING
There are lots of reasons one could consider career-changing including:
· Realizing that your professional skills are just not highly in demand in the market.
· An economic collapse in your country leading to a situation whereby the industries and jobs for which your skills would have been most relevant, are simply no longer thriving or even in existence.
· An over-saturation of skilled people in your chosen field.
· Rapid technological evolution leading to the redundancy of your skills/qualifications.
· Having invested in a career where when you start working in the job, you realise that you are just not a good fit for the realities of the role (eg. You studied medicine since you had the grades to get accepted into the programme, but after a few years in residency, you realise that you just cannot stand the reality of being around sick people in hospitals for the rest of your life).
MAKING THE DECISION
There are lots of reasons that might bring one to a crossroads where they need to make a tough career decision.
Regardless of what brings you to this point, the questions and considerations one faces might be some combination of these:
· I have invested so much energy and time into getting into this career, can I throw this all away.
· There are so few jobs available, I should just be grateful to have something and just carry on.
· I don’t have the resources required to invest in myself and make the change.
· I don’t have the willpower to put in the effort and learn something new.
· What will people say about me while I am making this change?
· Will the effort be worth it? Will the new career provide the opportunities and fulfillment I am hoping for?
There is a lot to consider indeed. My view around this is that it helps to take a longer-term view on the decision, than an immediate-term one.
While deciding to “career pivot” is a difficult one, it may be helpful to think about the following questions with a long term mindset
· If my skills are not as in demand as I thought they would be right now, what are the chances of them becoming more in demand 10 years from now? You will often realise it’s quite unlikely that they will, and that the struggle will only get more debilitating with time.
· Am I actually starting from scratch? Are there some learnings or skills which I have acquired in my current profession, which will help me in my intended profession? You will often find that you have transferable knowledge, skills and experience from your current role, so you not really starting from absolute scratch.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS (IS IT BUSINESS AS USUAL IN THE WORKPLACE?)
We are living in a time where there are an abundance of career and business opportunities, which simply did not exist even as recently as 10 years ago.
It is a world where a recording artist for example can be “discovered” and build a huge fan base and make good income, without ever having to audition for a record label. Where people can make more money sharing their interests, opinions and skills with others through platforms such as YouTube, than most people in Africa earn in professional careers. It is a world where new careers are rapidly being created and old careers are rapidly becoming less valued/redundant. We are in a world where creating digital products, packaging knowledge into online courses, sharing tips, tricks and daily hacks with a community of people with similar interests is legitimately a viable career option.
Many people who pursued and joined careers that were prestigious and would have easily earned you a comfortable lifestyle at the time when our parents grew up are finding themselves more qualified than their parents were when they entered the workplace, but less able to find any job at all. And for those that do find jobs in these fields, the majority are woefully underpaid.
We are now in the gig economy, where time and skill are prime real estate, and having relevant skills allows the holders of these skills to work remotely anywhere in the world at their leisure.
The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making a lot of older prestigious careers redundant at an astonishing pace.
WHAT COULD BE THE REPERCUSSIONS OF NOT MAKING A NECESSARY CAREER CHANGE
While it is understandable that many people may have sentimental attachments to their career choices and genuinely struggle to consider making a shift, even when it becomes abundantly clear that their choice is leaving them with limited options, one can not deny that there is a long term opportunity cost, to sticking in a boat that is going nowhere slowly.
The costs include impacting your mental and physical health from being constantly stressed and unhappy, no opportunities or low paying in your professional area and eventual complete redundancy within the marketplace for your skills.
YOUR CAREER DOES NOT DEFINE YOU
Many who have invested in professional careers view these careers as identity-defining.
A question about yourself in a social setting could be met with an answer such as “I am a lawyer”, “I am a doctor” or “I work at the bank”.
One understands where this comes from. Just a few decades ago, being in these careers guaranteed a particular set of life circumstances, which were highly lucrative financially and which were highly revered in the community.
But the world has changed so much that several doctors for example all over Africa, find themselves severely underpaid, and in extreme cases, months go by with absolutely no salary coming through at all. This is the reality for many trained professionals in Africa, professional status simply does not mean what it used to. Many with these skills are forced to leave their home countries in pursuit of opportunities in other countries that may (or may not) better recognize and financially reward their skill set.
So it really would help if people could detach their emotions from their professions, and seek other places to find personal fulfillment, validation, and define their self-worth, other than from a career label.
It is quite likely that it will benefit you to invest in skills that are very different from those you chose to pursue at 16/17 years old when you had an extremely limited world view of what these decisions meant and what opportunities they would afford you. Though in many cases these decisions were guided by adults around you, the reality is that these adults could not possibly have anticipated the huge shift in the world of work that has occurred in the past several years, hence in many cases, the guidance we received was antiquated before we even entered the workforce.
It would do one good to keep an open mind, stay agile, keep an eye on the economic and technological changes which drive the demand for new skills, and keep investing in learning the most in-demand skills. In essence, modern professionals have little option but to remain lifelong learners and develop multiple skills, if we hope to survive the extraordinary pace of technological and economic evolution.
WHAT DOES CAREER-CHANGING AND MULTI-SKILLING MEAN FOR AFRICANS
Africa’s circumstances as a developing region leave young people in a situation whereby getting any opportunity at all, to begin with, is extremely challenging. Oftentimes, when one finally gets that opportunity, it is unfathomable to think of letting it go - for any reason.
Young people in Africa don’t only have to think about their futures, but also often carry the heavy responsibility of supporting parents, siblings, and other children back home. So the idea of taking a risk to make a change, which could potentially improve our prospects, and the ability to support those around us have extraordinary repercussions in the immediate term.
With this added pressure of expectation from those around us, how can an African young professional who finds themself in this situation navigate their way to better opportunities in the future?
The reality is that for most African youth, the responsibility to look after others gives the risks and personal sacrifice required to leave a current career a huge opportunity cost. So how does one navigate this? I have a few ideas around how one might do this, and how one could try to make sure that the eventual change is worthwhile.
· Accept that it will likely be harder to make these changes than it would be for someone from a first-world country that has better social support structures. The reality for most Africans is that you may have to sacrifice sleep and socializing time, to make the time you need to learn new skills and invest in yourself, since leaving your current career may not be a realistic option.
· Use free resources online to learn new skills. There are several places online where people can learn in-demand skills for free
· Join online communities of people who share similar interests, or are undertaking a similar journey of change.
· Reach out to people online who have successfully navigated this change for a conversation and practical insights.
· Watch YouTube videos by people who work in the field you are planning to go to, to understand the realities of what the work entails and what their career opportunities and earning potential are like.
· Watch YouTube videos by people who have made similar career shifts to understand what their challenges were and what they would do differently in retrospect.
· Share your own journey with people around you and in supportive online communities. This can be a great tool for networking, and in itself be a Serendipity Vehicle (https://perell.com/essay/serendipity/)
· Consider short certifications and boot camps to learn new skills (especially if you are trying to build tech skills), rather than long diplomas or degrees.
· Given that you won’t have work experience in the new area you are intending to shift to, work on building a portfolio of evidence that showcases your use of the new skills you are learning. Your portfolio can be based on your projects, projects you have done for friends and family using these skills (eg. You are learning web design skills and as part of your portfolio, you build a website for a family member who runs a business)
· Shift your mindset from being overly concerned about “what people will say”, and focus on doing what you need to do to achieve the goal you have in mind
· Let go of the idea that a good career is only one that is office-bound. There are many opportunities for careers and businesses which one can identify and pursue if you shift your mind away from the “office 9-5” mindset, and open your eyes to the opportunities around you (what goods and services do people need in your country or local area?).
FEAR AND FAILURE IS NORMAL
I would like to leave you with a few final thoughts. One can not pretend that taking a step to make a change to your life, where the outcome is not guaranteed is not a scary experience.
However, fear is a normal and unavoidable phenomenon of life. Given that the outcomes of the decision are unknown at the point of making the decision, the possibility of the change being unsuccessful is certainly on the table.
When one stops thinking about failure as something to avoid at all costs, but rather as something one learns from and which can help direct you towards future success in line with your destiny in the world, one's mind is freed from the mental shackles, and empowered to learn, grow, change and explore.