THE BLOG

The Tao of Punxsutawney: Career Advice for Groundhog Day and Beyond

02/02/2011 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tired of shoveling where you work? Maybe Punxsutawney Phil will lift your mood. On Feb. 2, the famed ground hog did not see his shadow when pulled from his lair, meaning winter's end is just around the corner.

But what if frustrations linger after spring comes? Then it may be time to reassess your career. If you're like most professionals, you probably haven't done so in a while -- not voluntarily, anyway, given the paucity of opportunities available during the prolonged recession. Thankfully, your prospects are improving.

Where should you start? A former mentor of mine gave me some give advice that is worth repeating. "Start a career search by selecting the right industry," he said. "Then think about the layers of choices beneath. There's a right time to join an industry, as well as a right company, a right role and a right team of people." Let's start with the right industry.

If you were fresh out of college today and could choose, which industry would you select? The experts say go where the money is. Why? Because growth industries simply have more opportunities than industries on the wane. This may be obvious to people pushing fifty, but not as apparent to young men and women fresh out of college. Take the software industry. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of computer software engineers is expected to increase by 32 percent between 2008 and 2018 -- faster than the average for all occupations. According to the latest Bureau figures, the median annual salary of a computer applications software engineer is around $85,000, and his or her prospects for advancement are considered "good."

Now compare that to another exciting industry: graphic design. The outlook for these professionals is very different. Between 2008 and 2018, employment is expected to grow just 13 percent. Wages, meantime, are roughly half of what they are for software engineers, while job prospects are more limited. According to the BLS, "graphic designers are expected to face keen competition for available positions" in the future.

Does this mean that graphic designers should abandon their dreams for software? Of course not. But it might sway those with interests in software and design to choose an industry in which jobs, promotions and raises will be easier to secure. Will software always offer more opportunities? There are no guarantees, which brings me to my next point: timing. As my mentor told me, you can pick the right industry, but it doesn't mean a thing if your timing is off. If you were an engineer with a love for automobiles, could you imagine a better job than designing Corvettes for a living? Not in 1959. But 20 years later? Plastics would have been a better choice.

There are all kinds of things that can influence timing, including technological innovation, government regulation, demographic evolution and more. Before deregulation, for example, working in the airline industry was a dream job. It was glamorous, lucrative and secure, too. Afterward? Not so much. Today, commercial airline pilots make less than what they did a decade ago, and their job security is no better.

From a pure timing standpoint, it's hard to beat healthcare today. Consider: In 2010, there were approximately 39 million Americans aged 65 and older. By 2050, there will be nearly 90 million. To care for these seniors, the United States will need 14,000 more geriatricians than it has today. No matter what happens with healthcare reform, there will be tremendous opportunities for many professionals in this sector -- and for years to come.

But at which company? This requires additional research. Often two or more companies in the same industry happen upon the right idea at the right time. But rarely do both succeed. Take the battle in social media between Facebook and MySpace. For a while, it was unclear which would prevail. Eventually, Facebook did because it had a simpler value proposition. While MySpace focused on building the definitive hangout for teen music fans, Facebook aimed to become the world's largest online community. As early as 2009, it was clear Facebook was pulling away. A graduate offered a position with each company three years ago would likely have struggled to choose between the two -- that is until he or she considered what the companies were trying to accomplish. If you find yourself in a similar position one day, consider which organization is positioned and aligned to win in the long run.

In addition to industry, timing and company, you also need to consider the role you choose. As much as possible, try to work in roles that are critical to the overall mission of an organization. Chances are you'll have more opportunity for advancement -- or job security, at the very least. If the law is your calling, for example, then you likely will have plenty of opportunity outside of a traditional legal firm or the criminal justice system. But will you advance as far? Practicing law at a company that makes toys will keep you busy, but it may ultimately hold you down as well.

Finally, think about the people with whom you will work. It might seem presumptuous now, but if and when you get to the interview with the company of your dreams, take a long, hard look at the men and women you will be paired with. Consider their skills, dispositions and experiences. And then ask yourself if you fit in from a cultural, ideological and even ethical standpoint. If you don't share the values or dreams of the people around you, then you won't likely be happy.

Over the years, this advice has helped me navigate my career. I hope it serves you equally well on Groundhog Day, an occasion we professionals hold dear. May the shoveling soon end wherever you may be.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Author proceeds from sales of Doing Both go to charity. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.