Posted on May 19, 2020 by Sydney Tancowny

Augustana alumna Kristen Cumming, 09 BA, provides valuable career advice in our first ever Ask an Alumni Anything.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes in our lives, especially in our careers as many of us have had to pivot to working from home and digitally. However, during this disruption we may have the chance to reflect and ask questions: What do we want out of our careers, what work do we find most meaningful and how can we prepare for what’s next?

Kristen Cumming (’09 BA) is an Augustana alumni, former faculty member and a speaker, facilitator and trainer on recruitment and retention, leadership and execution who has operated a successful consulting practice for the past 20 years. Her interest in improving the connection between people and their work is complemented by a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and a Master of Education degree in Workplace and Adult Learning.

Kristen joined us for our first ever Ask an Alumni Anything to answer our student, alumni, and community members’ career questions.


Q: I’m graduating soon and am starting to look for jobs. What’s the most important thing for me to keep in mind, especially right now, as I’m applying for jobs, and what can I be doing to make myself more marketable to employers?

A: This labour market will not be the same as any other we’ve experienced. Several factors in this: COVID, global economic downturn, poor energy sector performance…all the conventions we’ve typically followed may not apply. Most important thing to keep in mind is that there will be more competition for jobs and organizations may be quite risk averse until the economy stabilizes.

You may have heard of the “gig economy”. In the gig economy, work is packaged as temporary, project-based efforts. Think contract or freelance. This economy is enabled by online forms of communication and collaboration. The gig economy has been around for a long time, but I expect it will be gaining ground now and for the next while.

When you think about what work you find desirable, think about more fluid forms of that work. This may include temporary, seasonal, and part time configurations. All these types of configurations give you a chance to bring value and show your skills. It gives employers a chance to see how you work and fit in. This kind of work will keep your resume current and many employers will choose their long term, permanent employees from that pool of temporary, casual, part time, or contract workers.

The gig economy demands good money management skills. In it, you don’t rely on a regular, consistent paycheque; you get paid when you work based on what you negotiate. You have to send out invoices, track expenses, etc. You’ll also need exceptional time management skills. The gig economy means possibly working on several projects at once, none of which care about the others. It will be up to you to ensure that you commit to a manageable schedule and that you have the discipline to set to work everyday and achieve your objectives. Finally, you’ll need to market yourself. Get yourself on LinkedIn and connect to people in the industries or companies that capture your attention. Don’t just connect passively, introduce yourself and ask questions. Post regularly and share your thoughts and projects. It may be useful to get a web page up that profiles your intentions, your skills, and projects that you’ve completed. If you don’t have any projects – create them! You can post an article, a vlog entry, or an idea that you’d like to pursue. You are your own product in the gig economy, and you’ve got to share your best qualities so that others can envision ways of working with you.

Finally, trust that meaningful work is still getting done by amazing people throughout the COVID disruption. Be open to all sorts of ideas that you hadn’t considered in the past, and take time to explore possibilities that don’t look like conventional success. In these may lie a future that may ideally meets your needs, matches your style, and offers you a platform to do the meaningful work you want to do!

 

Q: Post-COVID, what industries do you think will see the most growth that may not have seen it prior to COVID?

A: COVID will disrupt many areas of the economy that we have often taken for granted. Likely, the hospitality and tourism sector will be deeply disrupted, plus travel, real estate, and more. As we get through COVID, certain areas of the economy have gained. Online retailers like Amazon and Shopify have made gains in the market, tech enablers like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have gained, too. The key will be to see what new problems are emerging; for example specialized cleaning solutions for public gathering spaces will be a big deal and virtual event coordination will be useful in the near term.

But after the near term, then what? Rather than inventory the new “hot” sectors (which will attract all sorts of competition and only be hot while they’re hot; then, you guessed it, they may go cold), train your eyes to see the unmet needs around you and get skilled at finding solutions to those unmet needs. This way you stay ahead of what’s hot, you stay ahead of competition, and you build the resilience and problem solving capacity to respond to changing needs as they’re changing, growing your skill set accordingly. Watch for patterns and trends, for expert perspectives, for persistent complaints, and troublesome challenges. These indicators are your dashboard for growth!

 

Q: What is the biggest secret to retention within a business or organization?

A: There is no secret to retention! What a great question!

First, let’s define retention. Generally, we think of it as people staying with an organization over time, but more importantly it is people staying engaged and productive and satisfied in their work. Now, employees move between positions for many reasons, some of which are entirely outside the influence of a manager or organization. Retention is all about the things that are within the influence of the organization, and this is no mystery. People need four things to stay:

1. They need to understand the big picture purpose of the organization and how their work supports that purpose. They need to understand how they contribute meaningfully and why they matter at work. Key word choice here—understand. You may, as a manager, broadcast it and print up the company’s vision on napkins, but what really matters here is that people understand it. You have to check in, hear from people, and understand how they make sense of the purpose of their work within the organization.

2. They need to be able to do the job. They need the skills, knowledge, relationships, tools, time, etc. to perform well. Once we set them onto a purpose-driven mission, we need to ensure they have what they need to succeed. You can imagine that a truck driver without fuel in the tank, a tennis player trying to work with a baseball bat, a bookkeeper who isn’t trained in current software, or an assembly line worker unable to keep up with the pace of the line—typically, they aren’t going to stay. The work is just too frustrating and they can’t do their best. Conversely, we have to also ensure that people are appropriately challenged so that they get to stretch and grow their capacity. People want to succeed and grow in their work, we’ve got to make sure they can in our organizations if we want them to stay.

3. They need some room to influence. Once they commit to the purpose of the company, and they’ve got all the tools to do the job, create opportunities for people to make decisions, take action, and take ownership. Through this, workers are more committed and accountable. They get to put their unique stamp on their work and they will want to stay to see how their legacy unfolds. We’ve got to let go a bit and allow people to do their jobs without micromanaging so that they can be proud of what they’ve done.

4. People need appreciative feedback. They need us to take account of their effort and talk with them about it. This goes beyond high fives at the end of the day, it is about providing descriptive feedback about their work and considering what they need to know to grow. All feedback is constructive, it all helps people to succeed in their life. We need to provide it informally and often, and we should consider who they are as a whole person (that’s the appreciative part) when we do it. When we engage with people as they are, appreciate who they are, and acknowledge the importance of the work they do, this is the key to retention!

As you can see—there is no secret. Retention is about supporting people to do great work and appreciating that they do it.

 

Q: Any tips for deciding which career path to choose?

A: Reframe the question into “which path to choose next”. Here’s what: you are already on a path. You are already working, learning, doing something. And likely, you are figuring out what you want less of, what you want more of, what works for you and what doesn’t. This is all very useful. Every place on the path is useful this way.

Here’s what else: you get to make this choice over and over again throughout your life. The world changes as we change and we don’t have to make a “one and done” choice and then live with it, good or bad, forever. What works for you now may not always work for you and that is awesome. We get to choose again and again. What is absolutely crucial is to know who you are, what works for you, and what you want more of. Then, start making decisions that get you more of what you want, and less of what you don’t want. This is career development. You can imagine that every single decision, no matter how trivial, could get you closer to, or further from, your desired life. There are very few game-changing decisions. Rather, most people make many, many small decisions that add up over time, getting us incrementally more and more connected to the path of our dreams.

Let’s consider a choice between two part time jobs, one of which gets you connected to a great manager with lots of contacts in a field you find fascinating, the other offering opportunities for travel and a great paycheque. You have to know yourself, I mean really know yourself, well enough to understand which is a better fit for you. This means getting some distance from others’ opinions and desires for you, and settling in to what really, meaningfully works for who you are authentically. You’ve got to understand your values, your needs, your preferences, your interests, and the things you want to achieve. And you’ve got to accept that every decision is a risk. If you learn that something doesn’t satisfy you as you’d hoped, you make another decision. The world isn’t static, and you aren’t either. Learn from every situation and then make another choice.

 

Q: What preparations should students make for scholarship interviews?

A: I have a particular frustration with this issue and am so glad for the question. Of course students should know their own academic track record, future goals, plans to achieve, and so on. Crucially, however, get to know the origins of the scholarship. With online mass scholarship applications, students often apply for everything that the search function tells them they are eligible for. This is not enough. Get to know how long the scholarship has existed and why it came into existence. Know how the funds for the scholarship are generated and how they determine eligibility. I sat on the panel for a scholarship that was generated in the memory of a student who was passionate about a particular subject. When candidates were asked about the subject, many had no idea how the scholarship came to exist. They had done no research. Learn as much as you can. The information will help you in writing your applications, essays, and in your interviews.

 

Q: What elective subject is recommended for students who are going to study BCom?

A: I can’t offer an objective response to this question, but I am happy to offer my subjective experience and opinion. I like when a candidate’s education reflects seemingly contrasting areas of study so long as it is a genuine reflection of who they are and how they operate in the world. When people do that, I find that they can conceive of issues from multiple perspectives and find interesting, more holistic solutions for problems. I find, too, that they can build relationships with diverse groups of people. They have broader social literacy, so to speak. So, I like a candidate with a commerce major and a minor in visual arts, or science, or something that they also enjoy learning about that isn’t commerce.

Now, don’t let this idea become contrived—what I am saying is choose from outside of commerce if there is something you love outside of commerce. If you only love commerce, be that person unapologetically! I am biased, of course, by my own career. I have a BA in economics with a minor in drama (Theatre Studies – Performance, to be specific). It has really, really worked for me. I love to make story out of numbers and my theatre background helps me to bring that story to life to diverse audiences. So let’s reject the notion that there is a prescribed “right” set of academic ingredients that will get you the job you’d like. I haven’t seen evidence that there is a “right” mix that works (at least not for long). So choose what is uniquely your mix of interests and trust that out there, somewhere, this will be perfect.

 

Q: What career path would you say is safe from potential unemployment during periods like this pandemic?

A: Such a complex question and no easy answer, but some ideas to consider. As you look around at how our country has responded to COVID-19, you’ll see evidence of the consumer-facing work that has remained active. Groceries stores, health care, education, etc. all continue to work and you can be confident that we’ll need these workers through most any crisis. But give a thought to the work you can’t readily see. I can promise you that every IT/IS expert right now is working overtime (imagine the massive wave of traffic on every network and all the companies rushing to get work-from-home solutions in place). Your utility workers are keeping community infrastructure in place. Logistics, supply chain, transport and delivery systems have been stretched. These are all interesting areas of work that likely increase during a crisis.

Now, keep in mind that staying employed during a pandemic should only really be a fraction of your overall working lifetime. Don’t pick something that is awesome during a pandemic but otherwise just okay. Other areas of the economy are generally stable and only occasionally disrupted. Make the choices that are generally stable over time if you want to avoid unemployment, and prepare yourself for disruptions by having savings, staying in a learning mindset so that you can make change when you need to, and keeping a strong network of contacts in all sorts of areas so that you have information and support no matter what happens.

 

Q: My university degree didn’t set me apart from anyone like so many of us were told. What will? 

A: You’re right. A degree in this labour market is table stakes. According to Statistics Canada, 54% of Canadians have college or university qualifications, so a degree puts you squarely in the middle majority. What sets people apart is what they do with their degree (and any of their experiences). What sets people apart is the mindset with which they engage in their education. If we’re talking about distinguishing ourselves for employment (among other things), an employer wants to hire people who will take a good position and do great work with it. They would love to hear from candidates who take a fairly routine degree and make it meaningful. Example:

Interviewer: Tell me about your education.

Candidate: I knew I wanted a liberal arts degree so I could understand diverse perspectives, but I wasn’t sure what to pursue. My first year I took a range of classes to get lots of exposure and when I took my first sociology class, I was hooked. I immediately made sociology my major and was so grateful that one of my profs was willing to let me work as a research assistant on a summer project related to youth justice. It really sparked something in me. I got a part time position working in a youth home during my second and third years and that really helped me understand how my degree would relate to real social systems in my community. In fact, it was my supervisor at that job that suggested I apply here. I feel like that first sociology class set me on a path that I am excited to explore.

Now, here’s what: this candidate gives an employer confidence that they will be engaged, curious, solutions-focused and self-motivated. We are set apart when we infuse typical qualifications (like a degree) with our passion, interests and values and make the degree a reflection of who we are. Those qualities emerge in how we approach our education for sure, but also show up in how we approach our work, our relationships, really every part of our lives. So your job is to approach your degree with curiosity, motivation and engagement, and trust that in that mindset you have a better chance than most at finding something you can get really excited about. And when you find something you can get excited about, it gets easier to go the distance, take chances, make decisions, sustain your motivation, all that stuff. And trust me when I tell you that all that stuff sets people apart. So, if you want to be set apart from the crowd, your degree won’t do it, you do it in how you approach your degree. It is definitely within your influence and control and will change all areas of your life meaningfully.

 

Q: I don’t know what to do with my life and the jobs I have tried have left me feeling unsatisfied and unhappy. At what point should I just pick a career that I think (hope) I would enjoy and put all my energy into trying to get into that career? What if I make the wrong choice? 

A: I am so sorry that you’re feeling unsatisfied and unhappy. Work is one of the defining features of our life and when it doesn’t feel satisfying, sometimes our whole life feels out of alignment. I have some questions and maybe some advice. I hope this is useful.

  • What specifically is happening that you feel unsatisfied and unhappy? What is missing, exactly?
  • So what if you make a wrong choice? Objectively, what might happen if you pick something that doesn’t spark joy?
  • What guided your choices so far? What formed your expectations of the jobs you’ve chosen so far?
  • How many occupations do you even know about? What options did you consider?

So many things to unpack here. First, the average person can name maybe 50 occupations before breaking a sweat. There are well over 40,000 in Canada. How many did you consider before you chose? How did you get to know about them? Perhaps the path that best suits you isn’t currently known to you. Maybe it resides in the 39,950 occupations that most people can’t name.

Second: let’s imagine you are on a path through life and every step on the path you learn more and more about yourself and what you want and need in this life. With every step we are trying to find joy and satisfaction and happiness. The only way for this path to yield more satisfaction and happiness over time is if we get super good at learning about ourselves as we go. Not in general terms (I just don’t like this), rather in very, very specific terms (this doesn’t give me enough creative expression, or I don’t enjoy being micromanaged, or I really enjoy exactly this amount of team work, or I am not ethically aligned with our service model, or I just love how I get to organize and refine our procurement systems). And, of course, there’s a catch: you change over time. So you keep learning, because what satisfies you now may not satisfy you forever. What will you do when that happens? Of course you’ll make a different choice. Unless there is a truly deal breaking consequence, we can make a different choice. This is the reality of the path over our whole lives. We get to make different choices when things change.

So, clearly I do not think it will be helpful to mark some arbitrary calendar date at which point you’ll pick some occupation and just suck it up and suffer through it forever. Instead, get really, really clear about what is happening and then get busy looking beyond your known world for work that may be better suited to you. Typically there are three ways to do this: PUBLISHED, PEOPLE, and PRACTICE.

Published material is cheap, convenient and easy. Get your Google search engaged. Look through business directories in your community until you find something you’ve never heard of and then dive a little deeper. Look through lists of occupations or classification systems (trust me, this is a thing) and then search for vacant positions in your community. Scroll through job postings on LinkedIn. Do this until you have a list of interesting prospects that you’d like to consider more deeply. Next we reach out to people: get the hive mind working for you. Reach out on social media for information on the prospects you’re considering. Connect with industry or occupational associations, ask for informational interviews. Ask people what makes them satisfied and happy in their work. After you’ve done this, you’ll need to find out for yourself. The practice piece is about getting real exposure. Look for classes, volunteer opportunities, be a consumer, attend a conference, or perhaps take a part time/temp/casual job. The good news is that if you are more and more intrigued as you get practice, each of these experiences will give you access to information about possible work, about good companies, and connect you to people who make hiring decisions.

Don’t believe the hype—pop culture would have us believe that if it is meant to be, it is effortless. This is entirely nonsense. It takes work and diligence and clarity and focus to find a path that satisfies you. It takes more of the same to sustain it over time and change. Roll up your sleeves and get at it. No worries.


You can learn more about Kristen and her work at her website, http://cantosperformance.com/


Posted in Alumni, Augustana Campus, Featured. | Permalink

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *