The Next Episode

As employers and employees face an ever-changing job market, can nonlinear careers become a new normal?

Since childhood, Karen Keogh knew she was going to be a registered nurse, just like her mom. But those well-laid plans hit a snag when she was a sophomore in college. That’s when her mom placed a syringe in her daughter’s hand and pointed at an orange.

“You want me to stab the orange?” Karen asked, feeling woozy.

“It’s just an orange,” her mother said.

Weeks later, when her college instructors brought out a cushion to demonstrate how to puncture human skin, Karen felt the room go dark. Needles, it turned out, were literally a sticking point. When she came to, it was to the face of the nursing dean, who told her, “We need to have a conversation.”

The nursing student needed to find a new career.

One fateful encounter with a needle sent Karen down a path that she admits she couldn’t have dreamed up on her own: First she became a social worker, then a political operative, and then finally a division head at a global financial services company. While the career map that she followed might seem, to an outsider, to be a series of zigs and zags, to her it makes a straightforward kind of sense. “I’ve never been scared,” she says. “At the end of the day, all my roles have been connected to helping people. That’s always been the common theme.” Her skills remained firmly in place: She was a doer, a scrappy hand-raiser, as she puts it. If she had to toss one map, couldn’t she just as easily find another?

A New Normal

Karen's story helps illustrate a peculiar facet of today’s job market: the nonlinear career. Experts agree that the era when workers could reasonably expect—or even desire—lifetime employment at a single job is a relic of the past. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently reported that nonlinear job-hopping was no longer something reserved for entry-level working teenagers. Rather, across various fields and various shades of collar, career flux has become an acceptable norm.

Over the past few decades, working adulthood—ages 25 through 50, the crucial period of an employee’s productivity and earning power—has transformed from a time of relative stability to a time of discovery, restlessness, and exploration. While the BLS estimates that baby boomers hold an average of 11 jobs during their working adulthood, millennials, many of whom entered the job market in the shadow of the Great Recession, might be on track to switch not only jobs but entire career trajectories at an even higher rate. In the words of journalist and author Farai Chideya, we are living in the age of the “episodic career.”

The modern career trajectory isn’t necessarily a climb to a destination, but rather a continuum.

For the Americans who seem to be accepting this new norm and negotiating their place within it, the modern career trajectory isn’t necessarily a climb to a destination but rather a continuum. It is a journey between episodes, with experiences that inform and build atop one another, all creating growth opportunities and new potential for fulfillment.

Mike D’Ausilio, managing director of human resources at JPMorgan Chase, has seen the rapid shifts of our current and ever-evolving job market from both sides: as employer and as employee. Recently, his company began to search outside the customary pool of business or finance majors for next year’s recruits. “When you think about the ways the market keeps changing—the disruption, the speed, the digital desires of people to do everything on their phone—this is going to create skill sets we didn’t necessarily look for in the past,” he says. “It’s forcing us to look at other industries.” D’Ausilio doesn’t see this trend changing anytime soon, either. “There are going to be skills five, ten years out that don’t even exist yet.”

Skillful Transitions

In many ways, Anthony Odierno is a poster boy for career switches. He is a graduate of West Point and a decorated combat veteran of the Iraq War, in which a grenade attack caused his medical retirement from service. A military brat, Odierno had assumed the army would always be his home base. Instead, his home base turned out not to be a physical place but a series of personality traits and skills that would transfer from job to job.

“Early on, I learned how to be adaptable,” he says. “We lived in 13 different places growing up. In the military, you conduct a huge variety of types of missions in different environments. Adaptability is something that applies across the board.”

Upon returning to the States, Odierno enrolled in business school at New York University and became involved with Wounded Warrior Project, through which he happened to present an award of appreciation one night to former baseball star Johnny Damon. The chief operating officer for the New York Yankees heard Odierno speak and invited him to interview for a paid internship helping to manage stadium operations, which he landed. Odierno parlayed that experience into a job at a financial services company, where he started out in the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs at JPMorgan Chase. Nowadays he helps manage the financial institution’s consumer real estate division. Different missions, different environments, and yet: “I’ve always managed people,” Odierno says. “I took over a platoon when I was 22 years old and led them into combat. There are skills you can learn early on: running, managing, leading a team, moving toward a common goal. That’s essentially what I do today.”

Karen had a similar experience. She was working the phone bank at her job as a social worker when someone overheard her improvising on a call with a union member, ditching the printed script for a more personal conversation. She was calm, relaxed, and happy to talk shop over the phone with a total stranger. That someone, a supervisor, casually asked her, “Have you ever thought about politics?”

No, as it turned out.

But for the next 20-odd years, she pursued yet another wholly different career track, working in the trenches of political campaigns and using the skills she was learning to transfer from one episode to the next.

What's Your Story?

These days, transferable skills are what a growing number of employers seem most excited about exploring, at least according to several career coaches and headhunters. Skill sets that prove to be relevant across a variety of job sectors—team management and customer service, for instance—create opportunities for people to be hired but also open new avenues for advancement within that company, as happened with Odierno.

Lauren Laitin, Founder and Principal of Parachute Coaching, a career and leadership coaching firm, specializes in preparing job candidates who are facing significant career switches. The key, per Laitin, is helping people locate the narrative through lines of their own lives, the episodes that link disparate experiences and histories, while highlighting transferable skills. “Develop a clear, honest story about why this transition makes sense.” She says employers want to know two things: “That you’ll be able to do the job and that you are going to love it. The more your story can answer those questions, the less concerned an employer will be in saying yes, even if the transition is unconventional.”

Devin Martin, the founder of LifeStyle Integrity, endorses the same approach. “Focus less on the CV, more on the story that connects them,” he says. “What’s becoming valuable are the capacities to pivot, to adapt, and synthesize, and these aren’t industry-specific.”

“Candidates who haven’t been trained, who haven’t been already thinking down a one-track tunnel,” always stand out from the pack, says Rafael Cosentino, head of the recruitment company Talenya. All three career coaches report that more and more, employers seem curious, if not eager, to hear novel ways of approaching prospective hires. “Most business owners value someone who can take ownership of a situation,” says Martin. They want someone “who can think on the fly, far more than [they want] those who are really good at checking boxes other people have drawn for them.”

Employers want to know two things: That you’ll be able to do the job, and that you are going to love it.

D’Ausilio agrees. “Teams that are diverse outperform non-diverse teams every day of the week,” he says, adding that facilitating nonlinear careers can also be a great way for employers to keep the best talent around, surprisingly enough. To that end, D’Ausilio tries to strike the right balance between an employee’s desire to explore varying career opportunities and his own company’s desire to retain great talent. “[At] a company like ours, I tell people, ‘You can do a lot of different things over time. You can have a number of different careers without ever having to leave the company.’”

Taking the long view in the midst of an episodic career is easier for some than for others. Still, no matter where and when a person decides to make the leap, a valuable attribute will always be a valuable attribute. “Speak well. Be intelligent,” Martin encourages. Laitin agrees and adds that “the key to creating a sense of comfort in your future employer is confidence. Be confident.”

Or be a scrappy hand-raiser.

“I would’ve been a good nurse, I think,” Karen says, laughing. These days she looks back on her college-age ambitions from her current position as Head of Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. Helping people is still her guiding star. All the leaps she’s made may have been large or unexpected, but she has always maintained confidence, courage, and more than a little optimism—perhaps the most valuable skill set a person can have. “I’ve never shied away from career moves, and perhaps that’s because I enjoy change. My general advice is to make sure you’re always learning, growing, and constantly developing in your career,” she says. “All the different demands and responsibilities I’ve navigated over the course of my career have made it an exciting and an ever-evolving one.”

And this all started because she was afraid of needles?

“Very true.” She adds in a whisper: “I’ve gotten over it a little bit.”