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The wisdom of flexible plans

The conclusion sounds good to all those who believe planning and being sure what you want to be in the future is a good thing. The devil, however, is always in the detail. First off, it turns out that if you know exactly what you want to do in the future, or have a good idea, you are deemed to have a plan.

I wouldn’t say no to swanning around on a motor yacht in the Bahamas, but don’t ask me how I intend to get there because I haven’t a clue. I don’t think most people would call that a plan. An Australian study released a few years back also confused ambition with having a career plan.

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MicroCredit:Kerrie Leishman

If we look at the results they present from a survey of 7500 graduates, there is also reason to question the headline claim. I’ve used the same proportions presented in the report to illustrate this for a year 12 class of 30 students to make it clear. In this class, 12 have a good idea about what job or career they want to pursue and there are 12 who have a vague idea. About three know exactly, and another three have no idea.

Then fast forward to after the whole class has graduated from university. Twenty end up in professional jobs, three go on to further study, and six end up in non-professional work. One is unemployed.

Nine students who had only vague or no ideas about their careers ended up in professional roles, compared with 11 who knew well or exactly what they wanted. This is hardly compelling support that those expressing ambitions are more likely to end up in professional roles, as though there was a causal link. The report’s data indicates 45 per cent who had a vague or no plan ended up with the same broad outcome as those with clearer ideas. Given issues like measurement error and the like, this difference is not particularly impressive.

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People who are willing to articulate their ambitions may be more socially confident than others, and this may play a role in their securing professional roles subsequently. Also asking people to recall whether or not they had clear career plans six years previously may also introduce bias.

This is not an argument to say that we should not engage in career planning. Instead it is a plea to get more ambitious and creative in what we are trying to achieve, which surely is career readiness − equipping all school and university leavers not necessarily with narrowly defined plans, but with the skills to be able to make decisions and construct plans, but also abandon them when circumstances dictate or something better comes along.

I suspect there will be increasing numbers, recently lost to the workforce, needing the skills of reinvention as whole enterprises are lost to the circumstances of the COVID crisis. Rigid, narrow plans are not likely to be all that helpful.

Jim Bright, FAPS is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy. Email to opinion@jimbright.com. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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