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Working in America: The New Professionals – Creative Career Path in the 21st Century

The 21st century is moving swiftly into its formative teen years, and the jobs economy emerging from it is looking less and less like decades past. In this first issue of our new series Working in America, we survey this uncharted landscape through the eyes of the people on the frontier of this evolving workplace; a workplace where there seems to be almost as many career paths as there are careers in this dynamic jobs economy.

Tours of duty

For several years, economists and commentators have been talking about the “gig economy”. In a May 2016 article from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the author highlights some of the occupations where the gig economy is expanding. A scan of those top “gigs” includes jobs like musicians, painters, software developers, writers and drivers — reading more like a list of second jobs, casual employment, avocations and part-time work picked up in-between full-time positions.

In the recent best-selling book, “Alliance,” co-written by one of the founders of LinkedIn, the authors offer a more relevant and accurate take on the 21st century career path. ‘Tours of duty’ describe what we’re witnessing from our vantage point in the workplace. The career trajectories of many American workers, from the skilled trades to white-collar professionals, comprise 2-4 year stints at companies. Stints – or “tours” – where the employees contribute intensive value while being well compensated and increasing their own employability.

In a 2013 Harvard Business Review article written by the “Alliance” authors, they describe an emerging new concept where the firms and employees recognize the mutual value in resetting the rules of workplace engagement. “The company gets an engaged employee who’s striving to produce tangible achievements for the firm and who can be an important advocate and resource at the end of his tour or tours. The employee may not get lifetime employment, but he takes a significant step toward lifetime employability. A tour of duty also establishes a realistic zone of trust. Lifelong employment and loyalty are simply not part of today’s world; pretending that they are decreases trust by forcing both sides to lie.”

Meet Nti Awakessien

We didn’t have to look far among the thousands of Aerotek engineering contract employees to find a prime example of this trend. Nti (like “En-tee”) Awakessien is a project engineer barely into her thirties, who’s already enjoyed three tours of duty, rich in rewards as well as interesting and valuable work experience.

Aerotek contract employee and project engineer Nti Awakessian
Nti Awakessian
Project Engineer

Nti was strategic in her education choices, receiving her BS degree in civil engineering and then enrolling in a master’s in architecture program. After testing the job market, she then went on to earn a master’s degree in urban design. She spoke with us about how she has carved her rich career path. “I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. My early journey was certainly a bit unique. My family lived in Oman when I was in elementary school, moving to Nigeria where I spent my high school years. By the time I graduated from the University of Maine with my degree in civil engineering, I already had a feeling that I’d be travelling a unique career path. It looks like I was right!”

Nti’s first tour of duty was as a civil engineer with Maine’s Department of Transportation. Although she was getting great experience, she wanted something different. Her next three tours of career duty, in hindsight, seem as well planned as they were fortunate. Nti will tell you they were the natural outcome of a job journey that comes from simply remaining open to the sound of fresh opportunity.

A journey not a race

“My first stint in grad school was in Boston, studying architecture. I worked concurrently in the architecture field while taking three to four classes a semester. My first position was working on interior architecture for hospitals in the Boston area, and then I worked at a firm focused on the adaptive reuse of old buildings, turning them into apartment buildings. It piqued a curiosity that would drive my next career move — I knew that this is what I wanted to do. After that, I connected with an Aerotek recruiter about a job with a small architectural firm focusing on adaptive reuse of public spaces. I quickly became well-versed in the regulations and applications of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a great run there, I was hooked on the psychology of how people feel and behave in spaces and public environments. Before long, I’d moved to Cleveland to get my masters in Urban Design and Planning at Kent State. During my time at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) I learned much more about the use of public spaces, one of my studio classes implemented a real life project on how to adapt and reuse public spaces called Pop Up Rockwell. Pop Up Rockwell was a temporary transformation of downtown Cleveland’s Rockwell Avenue, designed to test ‘complete and green street’ improvements under real-world conditions. My team and I went on to win the 2013 Excellence in Student Planning Award. This studio project inspired my thesis, Transitional Urbanism. My project explored something closer to home – how refugees resettle in new environments, particularly urban environments. What is the quality of their experience, coming from such a different world when they try to adapt to a new place? How do they assimilate, while still holding onto their past, as a community? Sometimes, it’s really as basic as how to get from point A to point B in a dizzying and complex new environment. It was fascinating work, developing prototypes for living environments. My previous work in architectural design in Boston came in very handy – how do we reuse and re-adapt public spaces for new users? I wanted to explore how to use urban design and architecture as a catalyst for success to create livable and vibrate environments that support self-sufficiency, as refugees transition and adjust to a new environment.”

What’s clear about Nti’s approach to career navigation is a common focus: learn something new and seek ways to apply her newfound knowledge and skills. What’s also clear is that her inherent thirst for new knowledge is grounded in a deeper passion, an openness to change and growth. As much focus and intensity as Nti brings to each of her “tours”, her passion for growth means her career is much more of a journey than a race.

The scenic route

What comes next in Nti’s career shouldn’t be too much of surprise, even if it might seem different than the work that precedes it. “After grad school, I worked at a few engineering design firms. One of the positions was as a structural engineer performing structural analysis of cell phone towers. Next, I worked as a transportation planning engineer on what appeared to be a pretty straightforward brief, but turned out to be anything but. It was a project to design and build a highway extension. But the neighborhoods where this extension was planned for included people’s homes, very vibrant communities. There was a significant and organized resistance from the people in those neighborhoods. I learned a lot, again, about people’s attachment to place and their strong need for home. The very human design for a familiar, physical place to build and make community. You might think it odd, but when I look back on this phase of my career I like to call it ‘taking the scenic route’. The path of rich experiences that all led me to where I am now. But not before I took an imposed, but welcome break, hitting the road to explore Europe.”

A view from the bridge (558 of them)

One of the ever-present anxieties for everyone working in America in this dynamic jobs market is being laid off. The Brent Spence Bridge Project connecting Ohio to Kentucky lost its federal funding, which in turn ended Nti’s position, but providing a much welcomed break. After a trip abroad, she returned refreshed and ready for her next chapter. She began checking her daily email feed from Aerotek and spotted an opportunity she felt was purpose-built for her. The only hitch was it was in Pittsburgh, and she lived in Cleveland.

Silhouette or surveyors working against a sunset sky

Aerotek’s Pittsburgh office was having a difficult time filling a very special slot for a new public-private partnership (P3) project to rebuild 558 bridges — the largest road or construction project in Pennsylvania’s history. “Our recruiters were having a hard time finding this very special engineering candidate, so we broadened the search. We extended the search of our database of contractors and there she was,” recounts Matthew Lord, an account manager at Aerotek’s Pittsburgh West field office. To hear the story from Nti’s side, the match seems to have been ideal. “When I saw the job description I had zero doubt that I was a great fit. Matthew’s team and the process they laid out were pretty straightforward and simple. Short story was, I interviewed on Wednesday, had the job offer on Friday, and started within a week. The cool thing was I got the pay package I wanted. I’d found the contract employee job match made in heaven.”

The project Nti was joining is also a sign of the changing times when it comes to working in America. In the past, such a huge public works undertaking would have been just that – a public project owned, designed and managed by the state. But the objective was so ambitious and the budgets so restricted, that savvy directors at the PA Department of Transportation knew they needed a creative business solution. So they put the bid out for a private entity to enter into partnership with the state.

Two rolled up architectural project plans atop a flat plan

Nti says, “It’s beyond cool what we’re doing, we are designing and rebuilding 558 bridges in three years. My job is to oversee ten design squads spread across the US. Located everywhere from Oregon and Washington state, to New York and here in Pittsburgh, I coordinate with each of these teams, pushing production to meet deadlines, validating contract costs, coordinating design and constructability issues. I also oversee the quality check and assurance with each design package. What qualifies a bridge for the rapid bridge replacement project is it that it must be constructed in 10 weeks or less. That’s significantly less time than a typical one-off project might entail. The project database geeks hooked my team up with a custom-built Google Earth interface that allows us to do some very cool things with traffic flow analysis, signage, speed limits, barrier placement and everything else. This tool allows our regional teams to work on bridges in Pennsylvania while telecommuting from across the country — all from in front of our screens. Everyone is familiar with the deep frustration of sitting in traffic jams caused by construction. I know I am! In directing these engineers, I can help to reduce this anxiety to the greatest extent possible. I quickly started tapping into my previous experience in making time spent in public spaces as comfortable and positive as possible for people. We’ll never be able to make people feel good about having to add a few extra minutes to their daily commute for ten weeks. But we can do whatever it takes to make that delay less anxious than it might otherwise be.”

Alliances Over Lifetimes

From our vantage point, the current state of working in America is drastically different than it was just a few short years ago. Nti Awakessien’s early career path is strong evidence of this change, the growing trend towards professionals working as contract employees, and taking a more creative approach to their careers. Another former LinkedIn executive, Ben Casnocha, talks about the deeper implications for this seismic shift in business and the people who work there.

Addressing the SHRM Talent Management Conference & Exposition last year, Casnocha suggests both employers and employees reset the traditional dynamic of their relationship for the mutual benefit of both. Speaking about the different world we live in where workers no longer expect to remain with a single company for their entire career, Casnocha says, “A bargain is struck: If the employee does great work for the company, the employer will help transform that worker’s professional career, even after they’ve moved on.”

Casnocha concludes his talk urging companies and employees to embrace an entirely new type of value relationship. “If an employee successfully completes a tour of duty, they get invited to the network. Lifetime employment may be over, but a lifetime relationship can and should endure,” he said, closing with this: “You can co-opt them to continue to add value to the company, and you can continue to invest in them. To say that ‘You may only work here for a few years, but you’ll be an alum for life’ is a powerful message.”

We wanted to gauge whether Nti’s career and her current job relationship aligned with this new contract between employer and employee. When asked about Nti’s contribution to the engineering consultancy leading the Pennsylvania bridges project, Nti’s manager was unequivocal: “Nti is a bright energetic engineer, willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. We couldn’t be happier with the quality, professionalism, and dedication that she brings to our project.” From our conversations with Nti, we knew she’s been collecting high value experiences and skills in her current project. But we were curious to learn whether she’s been keeping in touch with colleagues from previous jobs. “I still reach out to the people I’ve worked with in past positions — often times to network, but also just for friendly conversation,” she said with an audible smile.

The End of Business as Usual

Nti’s story is one shared by an increasing number of mobile professionals whose career trajectories are changing the way we think about work in the US. There’s the obvious other side of this evolving workplace — the businesses where this work culture is evolving. In a recent Quartz.com article analyzing the changing face of business in America, the author cites numerous cases – from Warby Parker to Zappos and Google – where business innovations are altering the relationship between companies and the people who work there. Zappos has introduced their innovative business management theory of holocracy. Google encourages workers to “write their own job descriptions”. Warby Parker applies their system of “Warbles” to democratize business planning.

The types of industries witnessing growth show the dynamic US workplace economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics published these projections for the fastest growing industries through 2024, and they align with what we’re seeing nationally at Aerotek. From healthcare to construction, professional services to retail, education to government services, the US industrial landscape is looking much different than it did only half a generation ago.

Bridge in the foreground with cityscape and sky behind

Where these businesses are growing and evolving is also changing, sometimes in surprising ways. Our Pittsburgh office offers a case in point of this changing industrial landscape, according to Matthew Lord. “It 6rsquo;s been said that Pittsburgh is the new Portland. In recent years, we’ve seen the median age actually decrease for the first time in many years, as we see ourselves becoming a magnet city for young professionals. What’s drawing them are the companies opening offices here, in cities like Pittsburgh, to take advantage of the younger, growing professional workforce. Companies you might not have previously imagined in Pittsburgh, technology businesses like Google and Uber. But we’re also seeing growth from healthcare businesses and higher education, which is rapidly changing the employment profile in a city where just a few short years ago, things looked very different.”

Again, Nti’s case illustrates this accelerating trend of professionals opportunistically following the money from Boston to Cleveland and now, Pittsburgh. We wondered what she imagined her next career move might be – where, and in what industry.

Learning is the New Doing

“I absolutely love my work on the PA bridges project, because I’m learning and growing every day. But I also know it’s got a fixed term to the project, so I’m equally excited about what my next opportunity might look like. Maybe that’s because one of my guiding principles in life is to never be afraid of trying something different. If I had any advice for young professionals just starting out, it’s this: Don’t box yourself in. Especially for a woman working in engineering or design, you have to be ready and eager to go toe-to-toe. So, be bold, be smart. Also, be likable, but be firm and assertive too.”

For young professionals like Nti, career advancement and job satisfaction in the workplace of 21st century America has a lot to do with something else – the thirst for the new and the need to scratch the enduring itch of curiosity. Nti quickly confirms this. “The best part of my career is this: I never stop learning. I think it’s a pretty universal drive, regardless of your profession. To be successful and happy at your job, you have to be open to learning. You have to be open to advice. You have to be open to change, and embrace it — to go with it.”

Working in America is clearly a breaking story. Future articles in this series will continue to explore what this means for the people we put to work each day and the US businesses, towns and regions that rely on them to thrive and prosper in America. Interested in reading about more of our great contract employees? Check out our Business Insights page. We’d love for you to join our team, so consider creating a free account today, or search available career opportunities.