It had always been a long established norm to define career path and corporate ladder as almost one and the same. As had been advised by our parents, family members, teachers, and colleagues, most of them company-employed, that to be successful, you have to find a profession that you want, graduate from university, find an employment that suits you, and work hard to advance up the corporate ladder and therefore advance through your career path as well. That's still sound advice, especially when you're a new grad just starting up, and I agree that it's a formula that sometimes still works until today.
But what has changed? There are considerably more firms now, all of them vying for excellence in their chosen business field or perhaps attain a specialization that no other can offer. The world is littered with carcasses of establishments that fail to compete at the top level or produce a specialized product/service. Also with the rapidly improving Internet age, corporations can now offer their services from all over the world, when before they're limited to the geographic location of their offices. All this contributes to a very stiff competition to the global market that sees companies being made or broken at a fast rate. This leads to firms being constantly on the look out for top talent, actively spending on recruitment firms so they can separate the wheat from the chaff. They constantly need innovative people who will contribute further to the growth of their establishment.
On the other hand, there also significantly more professionals today, not only because of population growth, but also because education system all over the world are rapidly improving, and technological advancement is no longer bound to the western hemisphere alone. This leads to a huge burgeoning world-wide population of graduate professionals all seeking top employment. And with the information age we are in, where almost everything can be researched and studied online, almost everyone with the proper determination can learn and advance his skill to be a world-class professional. A lot of companies are outsourcing manpower nowadays in order to cut costs.
So how does this affect us, as professional employees? We need to re-visit the tenets that had been given to us by our mentors, are they still applicable, in part or whole, to the current rapidly advancing market we are in? If you believe it is still applicable, all well and good, but if not what can we do?
I believe that the old approach still works, but as with any technology it needs to be updated to stay current with the market trends. First and foremost, and this still holds true ever since, we need to find a profession that we want. We need to love what we do, appreciate our profession's part in the world, recognize our purpose, and enjoy our professional achievements. And we need to have well-defined career paths, planning early on our how we want to progress through our career path. This is important to have clarity on this, for if you don't plan it properly, someone else will plan it for you (most probably your boss or company), and you most likely will find later on that their plan for you isn't exactly what you want.
Secondly, we need to be good at what we do. With the competition nowadays, being just "ok" is not ok anymore, you would need to excel at certain points to even be considered. A relevant quality Bachelors Degree will always be a good platform to start from, and a Masters and Ph.D will always work wonders for your professional growth. Then comes employment. We need to find an establishment that can provide us with the career development we need. A large proportion of our skills learned will be from professional experiences, and it is only proper that we actively seek out the projects that we need to further enhance our skills. Many companies often have management and technical trainings established already for employees to benefit from, and usually some of them will be aligned to the career path you want. But more often than not, one company alone cannot provide you with all the training and experiences you need. Hence the need now to separate corporate ladder and career path. This is where we start to deviate from what has been deeply ingrained in us.
For clarity purposes, I'm defining corporate ladder as a person's advancement through a certain company's hierarchy of supervisory positions, and career path as a person's professional growth in his chosen field of endeavor. For some, their career path IS climbing the corporate ladder. That's all well and good, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for some, me included, it's not quite as simple as that. I'm a structural design engineer, I want to be technically good at what I do, and there are certain structures that I want to do. I want to continuously progress towards my goal by slowly ticking off one-by-one the structures I want to learn how to design and proving that skill by actually designing it. And I have a long list. Companies sometimes cannot fill up that long list of ours. It is easy to get pigeon-holed once a company likes your performance on a certain project and you are constantly asked to do the same type of work over and over again. It's all well and good for the firm since you are now very efficient at what you do, but precious years could pass and you're not growing anymore.
Firms recognize this restlessness and proposes promotions up the corporate ladder as compensation. You have a better title now, higher remuneration, and you're leading more people. But all in all, you're still doing the same thing over and over, albeit with control of a much larger group. For those looking for management growth (climbing the corporate ladder), this may exactly be the opportunity they're looking for. But for those looking for technical expertise growth, I believe that's almost equal to stagnation. So you have to move on to follow your career path, sometimes this can be done requesting for new challenges from your company, by lateral movement within the firm, or by looking for other companies that can provide what you need. There are great companies that can provide both corporate ladder and career path growth, but they are few and very picky with hiring, and chances are their corporate plan won't perfectly align with your career path.
Titles provided by companies are just that, titles that define who you are within their corporate hierarchy. They could or could not mean something out on the outside world. When applying for other companies, your high-sounding title might not mean anything if you don't have the proper experience to back it up. But the skills you gain, though not as flashy as a title, is what defines who you are professionally. In the end, it is the projects you've been involved in and the skills you've gained from it that will provide the satisfaction of accomplishment, not the promotion.
So more often than not, it's either you'll need to stick with just one company to follow the corporate ladder, or keep moving on from company to company (or by lateral movements within the company), to follow your career path and gain the skills you need. Companies are now just meeting points of individuals along their career paths where they can improve and share their skills, not the final destination.
I only have around seven years experience working for engineering firms, but on all of them the common mentality I see from many of my colleagues seems to be to get promoted as fast as possible. Development of skills seems secondary to promotion, in fact, they seem to just go with the motions of developing their skills just to get promoted. I believe it should be the development of skills first, the promotion secondary.
Don't take me wrong, I believe that the corporate ladder is important as well (my boss might be reading this, so don't want to get fired :P), but focus first on your career path, develop the skills that you need, and the corporate ladder will follow.
(Also once you've progressed enough and have a unique idea worth pursuing, you could branch out and start a business of your own or with a group of like-minded people. But that is a story for another day.)