Can You Really be a One Career Person These Days?

With the crazy nature of the current job market, can you really expect people to stay in one job for the rest of their lives? Caitlin sat down with senior lecturer and labour market expert Bill Cochrane to discuss why people change jobs and how the University and their degrees are evolving to this ever changing job market.

Nexus: What do you believe are the drivers of change for people to change jobs? (Could it be we have a more mobile population? Technology? Personal drives?)

One, I think that there’s a question of necessity in that the labour market contains lots of short term and temporary jobs. A lot of the jobs people first enter into in the labour market aren’t open-ended jobs, so ones with fixed-termination dates. So people are forced to change jobs by that. The other one I think is important is that a lot of wage progression happens by changing jobs. So that people aren’t necessarily being promoted within jobs that they garner improvements in wages and salary by moving between jobs. So that at the beginning of peoples careers they may well distil a strategy of changing jobs largely to increase their pay and conditions. Necessity or the desire to improve their status. There are some people who leave because they don’t like the terms and conditions under which they are employed, and people who also leave jobs because of external factors such as assuming caring duties or something like that.

Nexus: How adaptable are different degrees? Do you think degrees have the ability to be applied in a range of different contexts? Is the flexibility of the content considered when designing degree content to allow for vocational changes?

I think that a lot depends on the specific degree. There are degrees that have a strong vocational attachment, lawyers, doctors, engineers, even accountants that are people who have an occupational identity. There’s a clear occupational pathway there, so those degrees are quite anchored. Other degrees are more in the business of providing a broad range of generic skills that I think that the degrees in the labour market quite often have a signalling effect, they tell you that somebody is at least passably literate, is able to focus on a task for an extended period of time, and is able to perform the sort of tasks that are expected at the higher-level end of entry-level skills. There’s also filtering and that if you’re in the labour market you might not want to interview all possible candidates, so you just have a cut point for lots of jobs now, a degree is a cut point where employers won’t consider anyone without a degree. Having a degree signals certain skills and attributes, but it also is a limitation in entry, they don’t have to consider people without degrees. With lots of degrees, there is a strong generic skill component and obviously all degrees have transferrable skills attached to them; The ability to reason, the ability to write, those sort of things and you can move around from. For example, the humanities that may well find themselves in a job that isn’t directly related to the humanities but will draw on their ability to be a good writer.

Nexus: How is the idea of being a life-long learner factored into a degree?

It’s more that you acquire a broad range of skills in pursuing a degree that allows you to go onto further learning, without those basic skills, like research skills and things that you’re able to really engage in the learning. The real role of degrees in life-long learning is establishing those basic skills that are necessary for pursuing further learning. They put people in the position where the chances are any further learning they do is related to their employment so, it’s the entre to having the skill necessary to engage in employment and then in the course of their employment; they use those skills they learnt in their degree to further their education. It’s like a toolbox.

Nexus: Is it the role of a university to put you on a specific path for a specific career or should they be giving you the opportunity to get into the variety?

Universities do both in that obviously there are some activities where people have to be focused and that’s where there is a clearly defined vocational structure. To proceed in that particular vocation, people need to have certain baseline skills so that those degrees are far more prescribed so they are going to be educating for a single purpose. But Universities also have a broader obligation to turn out intellectually literate citizens. It’s meant to be more than just learning a narrow set of technocratic skills to be able to participate in critical thought, to be able to approach problems in a particular way, to do that broader range of things. I don’t think Universities should ever be just restricting themselves to purely instrumental vocational education, they need to be doing something broader and for individual students, they want to be creating graduates who have a broader sense of society and their place in it and the responsibilities that go with it, rather than purely vocational and instrumental.

Nexus: Are students coming to University with the expectation of a single job for life now?

I think that there is an expectation that there’s going to be a fair amount of hopping around. I don’t think that people have well-formed expectations. There are some that enter into the vocational oriented degrees that have a desire to become a lawyer or something like that but I think most people come here with some sort of nebulous-linkage between “I’m going to get a degree that equals having a job,” which isn’t particularly well thought through at the beginning exactly what the nature of that linkage will be in any detail.

Nexus: Do you believe students are choosing degrees based on versatility and easy to move between industries?

I don’t think that the majority of students would be doing that. I think the ability to move between vocations comes from the generic skills that are inherent in the degrees like reading, writing and being able to think all those kinds of attributes allow people to move between different jobs rather than necessary the degree itself. Back in the day, when I worked for the government, there were people who had all sorts of degrees like earth science and stuff, we were just administrators so there was no real relevance in the degree but because they demonstrated that they were capable of independent thought, they were all employed. Degrees have flexibility in them but I don’t think students particularly seek out degree structures that have most flexibility or anything like that.  

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