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Some Career Advice

Most people face four major decisions in their life that will go a long way in determining their success and happiness: What college or university they go and what they study is one. Who – or if - they marry is a second. Where they choose to live (ie, what country, city and neighbourhood) is the third and finally what career direction they take is the fourth major decision.  Not surprisingly, many people will face these decisions sometime between their late teen and their late 20s.

But how can I make money by studying History (or English or Sociology)?
A common misperception is that university is like plumbing school, i.e., that one goes there to learn a trade. The truth is that a university degree is used by employers as an indication of your ability to absorb and process information, accomplish difficult tasks on time and present your findings and persuade people of your point of view. Therefore don’t be surprised if your employers never ask you once about what you learned in your years taking that Philosophy degree. They don’t care about Nietzsche or Kant – what they care about is that you can figure out difficult problems. In economics it is called “signalling”; a university degree is primarily used by employers as a sign of future ability - not past knowledge.

What career to choose
One of the biggest dangers in choosing a career is simply to look at the past to see which jobs were most successful and then choose one of them. The risk there is twofold; firstly because of such past success many capable people select those fields and the market becomes very crowded; a large supply of willing and able applicants meets limited demand from employers.  Anyone with an understanding of economics knows that a market where there are many sellers (in this case of your labour) and fewer buyers is a tough place to start.  The second risk when choosing a career in a well-establish industry is that you will miss out on all the excitement and opportunities of in working in a dynamic, new industry. (More on that later).

The #1 rule: Determine what are you good at and what do you enjoy doing.
The great Greek philosopher Socrates famously said “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  When assessing various career routes the number one thing to consider is where your natural talents lie.  Every human on the planet earth is different and the wonderful fact is that almost every single one of us is good at something. The problem for many people however is that it is not immediately evident what that “thing” is!  The first clue of what you are good at is what you enjoy doing most because most people enjoy what they are good at; sports, reading, talking with/meeting other people, travel, beauty, computers, cars, fashion, music, acting, shopping, watching the news - even being facebook or surfing the web are all candidates to help one explore where ones natural abilities and interest lie.  In other words, you must start by examining your life a bit in order to determine which direction to set off in.

Expanding and contracting industries
If the number one rule is to determine what you are good at and what you enjoy doing then the second most important rule is to make sure you join an expanding industry. A growing industry is one where there are many new companies entering the space. In such industries, the supply of talent cannot keep up with demand – and that is where the best opportunities of promotion, pay increases and exciting works lays.

The truth however is that the successful careers (ie, the growth industries) of the past generation often fail to provide the most successful routes for the future. For instance, many people have enjoyed successful, well-paying careers in finance over the past few decades. But many of those same people will admit that the success did not come because they were so clever, the success came because, by luck or by judgement, back in the 1980s and 90s they joined an expanding industry and promotions and job opportunities fell into their lap. Had many of those same "clever" people joined, say, the manufacturing industry back then instead of banking, many would have enjoyed far less successful careers.

The professions; medicine, law and accounting
Take medicine for instance; a noble career to be sure but the amount of applicants trying to get into medical school each year has become overwhelming. While being a consultant surgeon at a major hospital may very well be the epitome of success, the truth is that the vast majority of successful med school leavers go on to become GPs in a local practice. There they are often faced with a tedious day-to-day routine of looking at peoples’ warts and bunions or dealing with minor wounds, colds and flu - or often mild mental disorders. This is often the case with most lawyers as well. While some law school grads will go on to become eminent barristers defending the righteous in front of a packed court room, most end up spending all their days as a solicitor just trolling through turgid contracts and documents. The same can be said of accountants – while a few will go on to become a partner in a global firm, the vast majority end up earning a very average income dealing with day to day tax affairs of the general public.

What about banking and finance?
Because the financial industry has proven to be so lucrative over the past 20+ years, many ambitious graduates now have their sights firmly set on a career in Investment Banking ("IB")  Unfortunately, while finance may well continue to enjoy relatively higher incomes in the future, the golden days of finance are almost certainly over. The financial sector of the economy has grown to an almost unsustainable size in the past few decades.  The recent credit crunch should be a healthy warning that all is not good in the world of finance. Indeed, it could well prove to be the next generation’s auto and steel industry where contraction and job losses become the norm.

How about becoming a Project Manager for Advanced Micro Devices?
Ask any student – or most anybody – to list all the careers they can think of and most people come up with the same old jobs that have been around for hundreds of years: Doctor, lawyer, teacher... cowboy, Indian chief, etc. But, what teenager ever declares that s/he wants to be a “Project Manager for company like Advance Micro Devices, “A Post Production Engineer or a “DVD Compressionist”? However, that’s the kind of career that most people end up in. An Corporate Events Coordinator for a firm like Autonomy can find themselves on a very generous salary, regularly flying business class to Tokyo or Rio staying in five-star hotels as they arrange conventions.

The future’s bright – the future’s different
So, where does the next great opportunity lie? Well in all probability the industry with the best career prospects does not even exist yet. When Eric Schmidt  (CEO of Google) graduated from the University of California in 1982 he could not have foreseen himself working for a search engine company as the internet didn’t even exist then. Or, when Charles Dunstone (the founder of The Carphone Warehouse) was in his early 20s, hecould not have imagined making a billion pounds from selling mobile phones because mobile phones were unheard of then.  It is almost futile to predict which industry will create the millionaires and billionaires of the future – but it is unlikely to be finance, conventional mobile phones – or even search engines.

So, what are the growth industries of the future?
Of course, any predictions come with a big risk warning of being incorrect. However, there does seem to be a few current trends and patterns worth assessing. One does not need to be a tree-hugging environmentalist to recognise that our economy cannot run on fossil fuels indefinitely - so alternative energies are certain to feature in any discussion about future industries. However, whether the next big energy will be wind, solar, tide geothermal or something else is still difficult to gauge. The opportunities may come indirectly such as trading carbon credits, fuel cell technology or a new insulation material. Whatever the actual product, alternative energy has to feature large in our future. 

Although the human genome has been mapped the real commercial breakthroughs in bio-sciences have been limited so far. Few people outside of the bio science industry will be familiar with corporations such as Amgen or Genetech but career opportunities in companies such as those abound.

Finally, this will come as no surprise to most college students but internet is still in its infancy. So much of the marketing industry is moving online nowadays. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and the various applications for social networking are certain to become far, far bigger than they are today. While most 15-25 year olds will be all too familiar with facebook, few of them will have any idea of the commercial possibilities that company and the industry in general hold.

And finally...
You do not need to be a scientist to work in the bio sciences nor a computer programmer to work in social networking. Indeed, you do not need to be an actor to work in the theatre nor a designer to work in the fashion industry. Each and every industry has huge demand in their respective marketing, human resource or finance departments.

After assessing your university degree, the attributes that any company in any industry really looks for is a good character, reliability, curiosity and an ability to get on with other people and work in a team.

The truth is that the best employees in the best industries will often say that they did not target any specific industry or company. What they did was to work hard at what they did, keep an open mind, maintain good relations with many different people and always ensure their reputation was good. When all that is taken care of a good career will tend to find you.

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