“T” versus “π” Approaches to Career Building

Excerpt from “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential” by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. (TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC; (© 2017 by Barbara Oakley).

Traditionally, career development has been thought of as having a T-shaped trajectory. A person trains to acquire one in-depth area of expertise, be it accounting, mechanical engineering, or 20th century British literature. This deep expertise then was balanced by a variety of other, lesser “horizontal” skills—computer abilities, people skills, a hobby in woodworking. Patrick Tay, however, has done much to help Singapore grapple in creative new ways with career resilience. A member of Singapore’s Parliament, as well as an influential figure in the National Trades Union Congress, Tay began lobbying several years ago for what he calls a π-shaped approach to career building—two areas of deep knowledge, balanced by a modicum of knowledge and ability in other areas.

In the new economy, it was clear to Patrick that you should not just have one area of expertise. Even if you went through the trouble to acquire two tiny fields of expertise among the millions of areas of expertise available to humans, that’s still twice as big as what it had been. Two areas would give far more options and flexibility.

Patrick realized that, in a modern economy, “second-skilling” is necessary for career resiliency—it gives you options and flexibility. Naturally, if you already have an intense, difficult-to-acquire deep skill such as being a medical doctor, you can’t easily just pop over and pick up another equally difficult-to-acquire second skill—say, becoming a lawyer. But no matter what your first skill, you protect yourself by having some second skill—deeper than just a dabbling in another area. That second skill can either complement the first or give an alternative path if your personal situation changes. Implicit in Patrick’s approach is that we can all learn more than we might think.

People often make the mistake of thinking that First World economies such as Singapore’s enable the luxury of career change. But this is a misleading perception. Singapore’s economy, much like many First World economies, has gone through many peaks and troughs, even in Patrick’s lifetime. There was an economic crisis in 1998, then another in 2003 due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which cut travel in Asia to skeletal levels. Another hit with the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

“With job obsolescence, one deep skill might not be relevant in two or three years’ time—things are changing so rapidly,” Patrick notes. “There have been retrenchments, downsizings, restructuring, and offshoring. In this new, modern economy, you cannot have just one deep skill. It’s good to future-ready yourself with two deep skills.

“For example, people can work in a bank and have an in-depth understanding of a particular niche type of work, or type of software and how to use it. But if that particular financial product or kind of work becomes obsolete or goes offshore, then you’ll be out.”

I ask whether two skills are something every worker can have. Could, say, a bank worker have a second skill?

A bank worker needs two skills, Patrick explains. In the volatile banking industry, for example, a bank executive can be the first one to get the ax if she doesn’t meet her sales targets. A backup skill can be vital. But developing that second skill can be surprisingly straightforward—sometimes there are incipient skills just waiting to be developed.

For example, there is a particular niche Patrick calls “relationship banking.” This type of banker doesn’t just have banking skills, he or she has relationship skills. And skills at relationships are valuable in other areas: counseling and social work. People in these fields are in high demand in Singapore due to its aging population and other social challenges. If a relationship banker can second-skill him- or herself in, for example, counseling—he or she can hop into the high-demand social service sector. If there’s a financial crisis, in other words, there’s a fallback.

Singapore’s Workforce Development Agency and the Ministry of Manpower fund programs to support second skilling in both young and old. In fact, those who are 40 and above can get enhanced funding when they undergo certification in counseling programs—even if these counseling-related certifications are not relevant to their work. That is, unlike employer-supported programs that only offer funding to train employees in skills relevant to their jobs, the government also funds individual-initiated programs that may not be directly related to their current occupation. The entire country is moving toward individual choice and selection in adult continuing education.

Thanks in part to Patrick’s lobbying, Singapore is practical in how it approaches funding. Through the SkillsFuture program, every Singaporean who’s above 25 years old receives 500 Singapore dollars in a virtual credit account. This money then is used to offset training expenses in anything they might want, not just what their company wishes. “You might think $500 is not a large amount,” says Patrick. “However, many programs are already funded 80 to 90 percent. So the $500 can be used to pay for the unfunded portions, which, previously, we had to fork out from our own pockets.”

Why support second-skilling from an individual’s, rather than an employer’s, interests? This encourages employees to build on their skills: to up-skill, re-skill, multi-skill, and second-skill—and to give employers the funding to incentivize this process.

Excerpt from “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. (TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC; © 2017 by Barbara Oakley).

Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, MI; a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego; and Coursera’s inaugural “Innovation Instructor.” Her research involves bioengineering with a focus on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Together with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, she co-teaches Coursera’s massive open online course, “Learning How to Learn.” Dr. Oakley has received many awards for her teaching, including the American Society of Engineering Education’s Chester F. Carlson Award for technical innovation in education and the National Science Foundation New Century Scholar Award. She is the author of seven other books, including The New York Times bestselling “A Mind for Numbers.” Learn more at BarbaraOakley.com.

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