Late Bloomers

British research suggests that a majority of adults discover their career talent on the job rather than in the classroom. The same is probably true for U.S. workers, meaning that companies should provide employees with a variety of experiences that help them find where they excel -- and foster those skills through training and development.

By Mark McGraw

What do you want to do with your life?

It's a question every student has heard at some point in their academic endeavors; most likely at a time when they're too young, confused and inexperienced to make a clear-headed decision on what career path they want to follow for the next 50 or so years.

And if recent research is any clue, many future members of the workforce never do find the answer to that question in the classroom.

In a survey conducted by British independent education foundation Edge, less than one-third (31 percent) of respondents said they found what they are good at in the classroom. Instead, they discovered their career talent through their first job (26 percent), later in their careers (25 percent), through work experience (18 percent) or through a hobby (15 percent).

The survey polled 2,022 British adults between the ages of 18 and 69. But the results are probably a good indicator of how many U.S. workers find their professional niche as well, according to Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

"People find what they enjoy through a myriad of experiences," says Ulrich, who is also co-founder and partner of the RBL Group, a Provo, Utah-based consulting firm.

"Classroom information generally teaches the basics ... but personal and professional experiences shape our identity. When we do things, we generally come to either run into or away from those experiences," he says.

When recruiting and hiring new employees, regardless of their experience, HR professionals should focus on a candidate's capacity to learn as much as they focus on the formal education candidates have already received, he says.

"Good recruiting is not hiring someone who can read and recite a book, but [someone] who can exercise judgment with emotional intelligence," Ulrich says. "Experience is a great teacher, if the student is willing to learn from the experiences."

A growing number of recruiters are concentrating more on finding employees with diverse interests and fewer preconceived notions about their career arcs, says Pat Galagan, executive editor at the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society for Training and Development. 

"It's all part of the move away from homogeneity in the workforce," she says. "And frankly, many companies prefer hiring a smart, enthusiastic tabula rasa onto which they can write the corporate culture.

"Most companies expect and encourage career growth, so potential is as important as having a clear idea what your true career is," Galagan says. "The opportunity to be developed is part of what keeps many employees engaged and loyal. And who's to say that people shouldn't have many successive career-related talents?"

To help nurture those talents, Ulrich says, HR must be instrumental in implementing training programs that emphasize practical, hands-on learning with a clear purpose.

" 'Tourist' training, where employees go to a course, hide in a classroom, recite materials and return to work has relatively little impact. 'Guest' training, where employees couple new ideas with work application, where they have a reason to learn what they are learning, and where the focus is equally on application as well as acquisition of ideas [is more useful]," he says.

Companies can also turn to vendors in the assessment industry to help identify employee strengths and skills, adds Galagan.

"Using these tests and profiles is often part of developmental programs for new hires all the way up to managers being groomed for senior-leadership positions," she says, citing Gallup's Strengths Finder as an example of an online assessment tool used by organizations.

Such evaluations, however, while certainly a useful indicator of an employee's potential, don't provide the complete picture, Galagan says.

"Aptitude tests and psychological profiling lend clues to a person's abilities," she says. "But unless you work for a manager who plays to your strengths, you may not have the opportunity to confirm them through trial and error."

Ultimately, many workers value those opportunities as much as -- if not more than -- other incentives, Ulrich says, and the employees who feel they have a chance to grow and learn within the organization are more likely to stick around.

"Retention comes when employees feel that their needs are best met through their experiences with the company," he says.

"Companies with terms and conditions that only focus on money or short-term results fail to capture employees' hearts and souls. Employees who continue to learn throughout their career will be most likely to stay employable, fresh and engaged."

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Nov 24, 2009
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