What we mean by career rock climbers

Governor Whitmer’s first State of the State address marks a major turning point in the state’s approach to improving the well being of Michiganders. One now public investment driven. After nearly three decades of disinvesting in education and infrastructure in favor of lower taxes, Governor Whitmer made the case that Michiganders have paid a high price for letting our infrastructure crumble and our schools deteriorate.

Included in her State of the State address was a description of the path to economic success as looking a lot more like rock climbing rather than climbing a career ladder. She used the term to define career success as having multiple pathways and then laid out initiatives to make post-secondary education more affordable.

To us preparing career rock climbers is not only about making post-secondary education more affordable––although that is important––but also about redefining the foundation skills education, from birth through college, is designed to develop. Moving away from a narrow focus on academic skills and first-job skills.

We came up with the term career rock climbers in a 1999 analysis of focus groups we did with metro Detroiters who had good-paying jobs without a four-year degree. The pattern was that most got to those jobs without formal technical training. That the more common path to good-paying work was spotting and taking advantage of opportunities. Some times in the same field as their previous job, but many times in a completely different field.

Far different from conventional wisdom that the predominant path to a good-paying job for those without four-year degrees was learning a trade. And this was in a Michigan still enjoying mass high-paid factory jobs.

We have recently replicated those focus groups with similar findings. Paul King, ROI Insight President,––who led the focus groups and household survey research––summarizes the findings on skills and training this way:

  • The pathway to success continues to be analogous to rock climbing – an ad-hoc, non-linear track that includes lateral moves – but this survey reveals a variety of rock (career) climber types, based on their experiences, education and motivation.
  • Being adaptable, resourceful, curious, patient, persistent and kind are qualities found in most individuals interviewed. They see these traits as necessary for advancing in their careers and believe there is a need to teach younger individuals coming into the workforce these traits.
  • People skills are valued more than technical skills. However, when it comes to training, they place a higher value on self-taught skills or those learned on the job, above those learned in a formal school or program setting. This is reinforced by those within our sample who are in managerial roles, possibly having first-hand knowledge of the needs of the business.
  • While occupation and position influences income, there is little correlation with and individual’s education alone and income earned. Our research subjects who have only a high school diploma are generally as successful (in earnings) as those with an Associate’s degree.
  • Non-blue-collar workers are more likely to value people skills and see a need for more computer training, while blue-collar workers are more likely to value continual learning, work ethic and on-the-job training.
  • Most say that specific skills are required for acquiring and keeping their jobs, but most of them learn those skills on-the-job.
  • The research suggests that a two-tiered training approach may be in demand, with a first tier focusing on highly valued people skills and a second tier focusing on industry specific technical skills.

(The results of the focus groups can be found here. The household survey results here.)

So the foundation skills for a successful good-paying career for those without a four-year degree are not primarily occupation-specific skills. There are a set of so-called soft skills as well as lifelong learning skills that come first. In many ways these are similar to the skills that are characteristic of Google’s most successful professionals and managers as reported by the Washington Post:

The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

So for all of us––no matter what one decides to pursue as a first job or as a next job––the foundation skills for forty-year career success are broad rock climbing skills, not occupation-specific skills. As futurist Heather McGowan describes it occupation specific skills are the aps, learning how to constantly find new work is the operating system. First and foremost we need education to develop that operating system in all Michigan kids.

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