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Young Professionals: Six Keys to Building Your Career

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This week two new studies (one by The Economist and one by Quantum Workplace) highlight how rapidly young professionals' view of their careers have changed. While startups continue to be exciting and people desperately want to work for pre-IPO companies, research shows that most Millennials (under the age of 30) are starting to really mature in their career thinking.

Here is some data:

Young People are Getting more Serious: The days of young people smoking marijuana, hanging around on the street in cities like Berlin, or kids in the UK engaging in binge drinking are slowly coming to an end. The Economist research shows that these teams of youth are going away and people are focused on their education, career, and making a living.

"Across the OECD, a club of 34 mostly rich countries, enrollment of 15- to 19-year-olds in education increased by 11 percentage points to 83% between 1995 and 2011. Among adults in their 20s participation in higher education has increased by a third. Young people who are studying rather than in paid employment have less money for hedonism." (The Economist article).

People in their 20s rate "professional development" as their #1 issue in selecting a great place to work. The Quantum study, which surveyed 400,000 professionals, rated the top drivers of engagement by age and look what they found (it's not surprising).

Fig 1: Quantum Workplace 2014 Employee Engagement Trends Report

College Education is among the biggest drivers of satisfaction at work.
The Quantum research shows very clearly that "more education" results in "happier career." The chart below shows a clearly upward slanting trend toward education and engagement.

What this shows is that despite all the hype about the high cost of a college education and the disruption of education by MOOCs and other content companies, people are still finding that a college degree does result in a "better job."

Fig 2: Engagement vs. Education, from Quantum Workplace Engagement Report

Young professionals: this is your time. What this data, coupled with the strong jobs report launched earlier this week, shows is that we have entered a period of time where younger workers (people in their 20s and early 30s) are now getting far more serious about their careers.

Young Professionals: Welcome to Your Career - Six Keys

As an aging baby boomer who spends my career looking at talent and business trends, let me summarize some suggestions:

1. It's time to take your career seriously: make sure you achieve your goals, openly communicate with your manager, and express your ambitions clearly.

When I was young I was far too shy (and not even sure) about my personal career .. and not until my late 20s did I really have any idea where it was going. Don't worry if your current job doesn't seem like your "dream job" - learn everything you can, contribute positively, develop great relationships, and express your desires in an open way. Today more than ever employers will help find you the right next step, as long as you're doing good work in your current role.

2. Seek out the mentoring and advice of others.

Now that you've become a little more serious about your career, take some time to have lunch with a more senior friend, work associate, or even family friend. Ask them about their career, what they learned, and how they decided to do what they do. Building a career will take decades, and you will get lots of good ideas on which direction to go from many of us who have been down this path.

3. Stay open to changes and diversions in your path.

The one thing I would say about my career (and I hear this from most senior people) is that I could never have predicted it would go where it went. Every job and every assignment will teach you something new: something about work, something about life, and something about yourself. Stay open to these new assignments and opportunities and look at them as your stair-step path toward your eventual "perfect job," whatever that may be.

4. Teach yourself every day.

These days we have so much learning, content, and information available online you should spend your commute time, travel time, or down time learning something new. Read about a new company or technology; follow a business leader you admire; take courses in new technology or tools; and learn to use all the tools around us. The world of business changes faster than ever - you should get comfortable being a "continuous and relentless learner."

5. Push your limits.

The most valuable learning experiences you will have in your career happen when you get thrown into the deep end of the pool and think you can't swim. I had a whole series of jobs I was not qualified for, but after months of hard work and lots of late nights, I figured most of them out and each one became transformational in my own career growth. If your boss offers a new assignment which is both important and new, think hard about taking it!

6. Be yourself.

Last year I wrote an article called "Learning to Be Yourself." Now, more than ever, as the job market heats up, you should spend some time learning what you are really all about. I was always an introvert and shy as a young professional, and sure enough that eventually brought me into a career as an analyst, researcher, and entrepreneur. Don't try to copy someone else who appears to be getting ahead - your path will be much more valuable if you stay true to yourself.

"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."
― Oscar Wilde

"Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else."
― Judy Garland

Building a career is a never-ending process, and even if you get layed off or your boss fires you, it's part of moving forward. A good friend of mine is a senior HR executive and she was just ousted from the company she worked at for many years. Rather than think of this as a "failure" or "mistake," I encouraged her to think about it as the opening of a new door to her career - one as an HR leader at a new, perhaps smaller company who will value her skills even more.

Every career is unique and you can succeed in a myriad of ways. I admire my doctor for the career he built; our family nutritionist is a highly successful professional in her chosen field; whenever I hire a contractor or consultant I learn about their career and am usually fascinated by their experiences.

The research clearly shows that over the next 3-5 years career development will be one of the most important issues in the labor market. Employers: take heed - if you don't offer these kinds of "tours of duty" (as Reid Hoffman calls it in The Alliance), you'll lose good people.

And those of you in the first ten years of your own journey, strap yourself in for an adventure and enjoy the ride. If you follow some of my advice, every day will be a growth experience and you'll look back 30 years from now and say "wow, what a great career I had."


About the Author: Josh Bersin is the founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life. Josh is a published author on Forbes, a LinkedIn Influencer, and has appeared on Bloomberg, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal, and speaks at industry conferences and to corporate HR departments around the world. You can contact Josh on twitter at @josh_bersin and follow him at .

Image by Steve Wilson under Creative Commons License