How to Tell If Your Job Is a Stepping Stone to a Career

Inside A New York Career Fairs Event Ahead Of Initial Jobless Claims
Sarah Blesener—Bloomberg via Getty Images

When it comes to seeing a path forward in their current roles, half of employees feel like they have a career while half feel they have “just a job,” according to an August 2019 survey from CareerBuilder.

But what is the difference between seeking your vocation as a work-a-day role versus a stepping stone to bigger things? And does it matter?

Considering that the same survey found that 32% of employees plan to leave their roles this year, it does matter for companies that want to attract and retain talent, says Michelle Armer, chief people officer with CareerBuilder. She was surprised at the findings. “From a talent acquisition perspective, that’s very encouraging. From a talent retention perspective, that’s really scary,” she says. 

Career vs. job

When people talk about having a “career,” they’re typically referring to having a role that offers “meaningful progression over time,” says career coach Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. However, having a “job” it’s more of a placeholder —a way to make money that may or may not be aligned with their ultimate goals for themselves.

Work often creates a sense of purpose which can lead to greater overall satisfaction, Clark says. In fact, a 2018 Pew Research Center report said that career ranked second only to family in what gives people meaning to their lives. “If you feel that you have a career and a professional purpose that you’re working towards, that is certainly preferable to feeling like you’re just punching the clock,” Clark says. 

Career coach Allison Holzer, co-author of Dare to Inspire: Sustain the Fire of Inspiration in Work and in Life points to the research report “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relationships to their Work.” The report identified three categories of work orientation: those who have a job essentially do it for the money; those with careers have a deeper personal investment and measure achievement through advancement and money; and those with callings do their work because of the fulfilment it brings, regardless of reward. 

Holzer also posits whether there might be a generational component to the findings. She points to research that millennials want to feel like their work is meaningful and part of a solution. That may be more of a motivating factor in how they choose to earn money than being on an upward trajectory, she says. 

Finding the right fit

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people who feel like they aren’t on a career track are heading for the door. Armer says understanding the employee’s mindset is important. People may change their opinions about their career paths or growth opportunities at different stages in their lives, she says. Sometimes, an individual may be highly engaged in their career for a period of time. Then, something may happen in their personal lives that takes priority. Or, they may be spending more time pursuing interests outside of work. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking for a new opportunity.

“There is something extremely noble in somebody that wants to come to work and give excellent output and results and make an impact in the work that they do, but then they’re also satisfied going home,” Armer says.

Managing across the spectrum

For managers seeking to keep talented employees, whether they’re looking for a regular paycheck or a path to the CEO’s office, the first step lies in understanding their motivation. “It’s crucially important for employers to understand what motivates their employees,” Clark says. Whether you’re blocking an employee who’s seeking a career path or pushing another one who’s looking for a way to earn money while spending 35 to 40 hours a week likely isn’t going to make anyone happy. Look at your employees as individuals and help them establish the kind of work relationship they want. 

Shifts in performance management techniques can help, Holzer says. As more companies abandon the annual performance review for more regular check-ins and feedback, managers have more opportunities to take the pulse of their team members and find out where they are. 

Armer agrees. “As an employer, you want to be agile as to the percent of your population that feels like, ‘Right now I’m in rapid growth mode. I want to develop and continue to grow in my career.’ And then there might be some people that just think, ‘Now is not the right time,’” she says. But, don’t pigeonhole people —their feelings may change over time.

And, regardless of the role the employee wishes to take, if the individual is someone you want to retain, provide them with the support and training they need be successful, Clark says. The CareerBuilder survey reinforces the importance of doing so. More than half of respondents (58%) say their companies don’t offer enough opportunities to learn new skills and help them move up in their career. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of employees who work at places that don’t offer educational opportunities would take advantage of them if they were offered. 

Talented employees have different needs and motivations when it comes to the way they spend their workdays. Understanding those individual attributes and ensuring they remain connected with the meaning in their work, is the key to motivating them, regardless of whether they’re on a career or job-focused path.

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