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Adapting to new job trends with career cushioning

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The workforce is shifting: Artificial intelligence is sparking conversations about automating jobs, mass layoffs are continuing across industries, and workers are expecting new levels of transparency and flexibility from their employers.

These challenges and changes are highlighting the importance of adaptability, resilience, and having a well-prepared Plan B.

From embracing alternative forms of education to harnessing the power of the gig economy or career cushioning, the modern professional toolkit is expanding to accommodate a spectrum of strategies.

How does one best prepare for these emergent trends and harness their potential to propel their career forward? Learn how these trends can serve as powerful catalysts for personal and professional growth.

5 career trends that are changing the workforce

Automation: The effect of new technologies on jobs is anticipated to be a net positive over the next five years, according to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2023 . Job displacement is expected to be outpaced by job growth caused by new tech, but it will vary by industry and career. For example, the fastest-declining roles (relative to their size) are clerical and secretarial jobs, due to digitalization and automation.

Remote work: It seems that remote work is here to stay in at least some capacity — a 2022 McKinsey survey indicates that about 58% of American workers have the option to work from home at least one day a week . Flexibility like this gives time back to workers, and broadens career opportunities geographically.

Diversified workforce: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 73% of students enrolled in higher education in 2022 were considered nontraditional , because they were older than 24, had a full-time job, were taking classes part time, or one of the other qualifying reasons. This trend is diversifying the workforce and expanding talent pipelines to include candidates from new learning backgrounds.

Pay transparency: As of 2023, one-quarter of the U.S. labor force is now covered under pay range transparency laws , according to the National Women’s Law Center. An additional 23% live in states that are considering adopting similar legislation this year. Pay transparency is linked to narrowing wage gaps and provides employees and prospects alike with the information to knowledgeably pursue positions and negotiate with employers.

Mass layoffs: Company-wide layoffs are continuing to take their toll: 224,000 jobs have been eliminated in mass layoffs in 2023 so far, according to TechCrunch. Uncertainty and fear drives professionals to adopt more strategic approaches to career management, such as participating in the gig economy or side hustles.

What is career cushioning?

Career cushioning refers to the practice of intentionally creating a safety net or backup options within your career path to mitigate the potential impact of unplanned changes or setbacks. It involves diversifying your skills, experiences, and networks to ensure you have multiple avenues to pursue in case your current job or industry faces disruptions.

In an era of rapid change, career cushioning is the shield of resilience that empowers individuals to navigate uncertainties and emerge even stronger. Rather than relying solely on one job or skill set, you strategically develop a range of skills and connections that can provide stability and opportunities if your current career trajectory takes an unexpected turn.

Career cushioning can look like:
  • Skill diversification: Instead of relying solely on one specialized skill, cultivate a range of skills that are transferable across industries. For instance, an engineer might also develop strong communication skills, project management abilities, or data analysis expertise.

  • Continuous learning: Regularly engage in learning opportunities, such as online courses, workshops, or certifications, to stay updated with industry trends and acquire new skills. This could involve learning coding languages, digital marketing techniques, or leadership strategies.

  • Side projects: Pursue side projects or freelancing gigs in areas of interest beyond your main job. This not only provides additional income but also expands your skill set and creates a safety net of alternative income streams.

  • Networking: Build a robust professional network both within and outside your current industry. Attend conferences, seminars, and networking events to establish relationships that could lead to potential job opportunities or collaborations.

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Why is career cushioning important?

A proactive approach to career management empowers individuals to not only weather the storms of change but to thrive amidst uncertainty. Employers estimate that nearly half of workers’ skills will be disrupted in the next five years, according to The Future of Jobs Report 2023 from the World Economic Forum. Surveyed businesses anticipate that changing systems will make cognitive skills more important than ever.

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In each Future of Jobs Report since 2016, surveyed companies predicted the share of workers’ skills that will change in the next five years. In 2016, companies said 35% of workers’ skill sets would be disrupted. In 2018, 2020, and 2023 their responses were 42%, 57%, and 44%, respectively.

For example, complex problem solving will enable professionals to provide solutions where algorithms fall short. As machines automate routine tasks, the uniquely human skill of creative thinking will also shine. The ability to envision novel solutions will drive progress and differentiation.

And as digital technologies integrate deeper into every facet of our lives, individuals with technological literacy will possess a distinct advantage. The capacity to navigate digital tools, interpret data, and harness the power of technology can become a gateway to success in a tech-driven world.

Embracing career cushioning is more than a strategy. It’s a powerful mindset that places the individual at the center of their career trajectory, instead of keeping them entirely subject to the decisions of others.

By diversifying skills, nurturing creativity, and fostering technological acumen, professionals construct a safeguard against the uncertainties that lie ahead.

How can you cushion your career?

Recent data reveals that while 57% of U.S. workers aspire to upgrade their skills, the availability of employer-provided training programs remains uneven. 

The American Upskilling Study (PDF, 3.5 MB) from Gallup highlights this disparity, illustrating that 54% of individuals in computer and math-related occupations benefitted from employer-sponsored training, while 19% in transportation or moving services enjoyed similar perks. This discrepancy has the potential to exacerbate the skills gap, favoring skilled professions while leaving others lagging behind.

For those committed to career cushioning through upskilling, the journey might necessitate stepping beyond the confines of employer-based training. This challenge, though daunting, can place individuals at the helm of their own professional advancement. 

Some pathways to upskilling towards that career resilience include:

Courses: Online short courses can be a great way to quickly equip yourself with new skills, keeping you adaptable amidst industry shifts. from the technical to more cognitive, human skills. edX offers thousands of online courses to help expand your toolkit and strengthen your professional flexibility. From specific, technical topics like Python and JavaScript, to cognitive, human skills like leadership and innovation, there is something for every learner.

Professional Certificates: These programs are a series of courses from top universities to build professional skills and earn credentials. Professional certificates from edX provide flexibility for those with full-time jobs to upskill in a variety of fields, such as computer science for artificial intelligence or business management.

Boot camps: These programs offer certificates over the course of 12, 18, or 24 weeks and are designed to equip learners with a portfolio of work. With part- and full-time options, a boot camp can fit the needs of busy professionals looking to network and upskill.