1. Home
  2. Insights

Working in America: Tours of Duty — Career Building in the 21st Century

Gone are the days when we landed a decent job straight out of high school or college and stuck around for an entire career. Companies rarely offer such “employment for life” opportunities and even fewer workers have come to expect it. Analysts point to a range of contributing factors, such as uncertain economic times, increased workforce mobility and the changing nature of work.

Aerotek’s business puts us in a unique spot between talent and the businesses that need them. As we think about this extremely dynamic marketplace for jobs and employees, we offer some insights about the “tours of duty” trend in career management. There are challenges and opportunities for companies struggling to grow, and the many people working in America.

Pick your tour

The concept of multiple career tours of duty was famously coined by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, in his 2013 book The Start-up of You and a follow-up work The Alliance. Hoffman suggests that there is not a one-size-fits-all tour of duty model, but it should be adapted to fit the industry you’re in and the role you play. In an article on The Alliance’s companion website, Hoffman suggests three types of tours of duty models:

  • Rotational tours, designed to provide scalability, an approach that can be more widely applied to skilled trades and blue collar workers.
  • Transformational, designed to provide adaptability with a personalized approach, requires a greater investment of management time.
  • Foundational tours, designed to provide continuity in a more permanent approach “codifying the culture and institutional memory of the organization.”
A new alliance

The changes brought about by globalization and the information age called for a new type of alliance between workers and the companies that employ them. Hoffman explains it in a Harvard Business Review article describing the forces at work in the workplace and the emergence of this new pact between employers and employees:

“The new compact acknowledges the probable impermanence of the relationship yet seeks to build trust and investment anyway. Instead of entering into strict bonds of loyalty, both sides seek the mutual benefits of alliance. As allies, employer and employee try to add value to each other. The employer says, ‘If you make us more valuable, we’ll make you more valuable.’ The employee says, ‘If you help me grow and flourish, I’ll help the company grow and flourish.’ Employees invest in the company’s adaptability; the company invests in employees’ employability. As former Bain CEO Tom Tierney used to tell recruits and consultants, ‘We are going to make you more marketable.’”

The reality tour

One of our star contractors working in the life sciences industry is Jana Doyle. Here’s how Jana describes her first long-term tour with a global pharmaceutical company. “I was with them for 14 years and it was a great time for me professionally. I started there as a data manager and quickly moved up to a position as manager of quality standards. From there I was elevated to clinical study manager and then ultimately promoted to clinical research program manager. I held that position until it was outsourced to a clinical research organization or CRO. That’s when I found myself back in the job market.”

Medical researcher examining specimen in lab

One of Jana’s great skills is landing on her feet. We’ll return to her career journey below. But her story is not untypical and it reveals as much about the uncertainties of the job market as it does about the strategic crafting of opportunistic employment stints, one company at a time.

Reasons for leaving

Many are quickly finding that the new pact between their managers and employees is an essential point of leverage in creating competitive advantage. Companies that fail to make this realignment pay the price of lost talent and other costs associated with not just replacing that talent, but also the costs invested in employees who choose to leave.

A 2015 study by CEB revealed the top most dissatisfying aspects among departing employees that led them to leave. As the chart below reveals, the lack of long-term opportunity is the top reason, well ahead of compensation.

Infographic about the lack of future career opportunities being the top reason for attrition, produced by Aerotek

Source: CEB

Another recent study from Willis Towers Watson finds that “one in three hires leaves a job within two years.” As noted in the study’s finding, this level of employee turnover is bad for business since it forces employers to find replacements and absorb the costs of recruiting their replacements. Add to this cost the investment companies have already made in training and upskilling talented employees who leave for opportunity elsewhere. We see the significant bottom-line impact this problem presents for businesses without a plan for adopting to this new marketplace for talent.

Human capital investing

Robert Davis was visiting his uncle in Birmingham from his home in Georgia two years ago when his uncle asked him what his job prospects were. Robert said they weren’t great and so his uncle offered him the chance to stay in Alabama, and connected him with one of our Aerotek recruiters. After an initial placement ended prematurely, Robert’s prospects were dimming when our team placed him in an environmental remediation firm serving the construction industry. Here’s how Robert describes the investment he made into a growing industry.

“After losing out on my first job, what made all the difference was how my recruiter still believed in me, still supported me. I was committed to proving myself — to me, to my new employer. I work for One Stop Environmental on some very physical and hazardous jobs like pressure testing water pipes and removing buried oil tanks from sites. When we go to a job, it’s very sensitive. I’ve learned it pays to take as long as it takes to do a job safely. How much do I want this? I’m investing seven days a week, 12 hours a day in this job. That’s how much.”

President and CEO of One Stop Environmental, Shannon Riley stands alongside Aerotek Recruiter Amy-Jean Hargrove and Account Manager Cody Doores. At right, Aerotek contract employee Robert Davis is pictured on-the-job.

From left, President and CEO of One Stop Environmental, Shannon Riley stands alongside Aerotek Recruiter Amy-Jean Hargrove and Account Manager Cody Doores. At right, contract employee Robert Davis is pictured on-the-job.

We asked Robert to describe his career strategy. “Even though I’m still fairly young, I believe there’s a simple formula to how I got to this spot in my career. Work hard, and then work harder. Be dedicated, stay focused and above all: keep learning. Learning is the key and that’s why I’m excited about going permanent soon on this job. That not only moves me up in pay and responsibility, but it gets me more training. Like Department of Transportation training so I get my commercial driver’s license. Then I can then drive the same trucking rigs I just get to ride on now.”

But for all the investment Robert is making into his career — the investment his employer is making back into him is obvious. “That training, and the learning opportunities every day, that’s what my company invests in me. My boss is pretty amazing. He’s honest with me — he said if I ever find something better, he’d respect me always if I took the opportunity. But he also told me something I already knew — he values me very highly. I told him ‘I’m not going nowhere!’”

Building a skills portfolio

A central element of the tours of duty phenomena in the American workplace is a mutual understanding that employees and companies realize that their time together isn’t forever. This naturally makes investing in employee training and skills development a negotiation. But we also know, and conversations like the ones we’ve had with Jana and Robert confirm, that the building of a skills portfolio ultimately falls on the person themselves, regardless of their chosen industry.

A 2015 article by career coach Terri Mayes recounts her career as a case study for how a professional — in any industry or discipline — must take ownership of their skills building, starting early and continuing across their careers:

“My career within one company had me working not only in call centers, but also in the supply chain, in sales, in sales and call center operations at HQ, running business lines as a general manager responsible for merchandising decisions and the profit and loss of the business, and then at HQ in human resources leading the talent focus for the company.”

Clearly, Mayes is fueled by a powerful ambition. Yet even as her path involved a number and diversity of jobs and accruing skills, her advice is well-heeded by people working in almost any field in America. She also describes an important outcome of this skills building approach. “My tours of duty in such a diverse career path gave me two critical assets — an internal and external expansive network … [and] provided me the ability to see a full picture of a business need from the market needs, the customer desires and experience, to the operational aspects of the business, as well as the internal human capital considerations.”

Mayes goes on to note that these experiences and skills have become assets, “assets - in addition to my work ethic, communication skills and leadership capabilities — afforded me promotions, recognition, and special assignments.” And what’s in it for the company that invested all this opportunity for learning, skills building and advancement? According to Mayes, and our experience tells us she exactly right, “[it] afforded the company a fully engaged employee that repaid this investment in spades.”

Aerotek contract employee and machinist Xai Vang

Xai Vang, Machinist

School or work

One of the challenges in managing a career that includes multiple tours of duty is how to continue building the skills and learnings that maximize your value in the jobs marketplace. Xai Vang is an Aerotek contractor who is relatively early in his career, but has already confronted the career-critical question about when to take the time to invest in skills building and learning in school, and when to focus on work experience.

Here’s how he describes his choice — “I was fresh out of high school, attending a career workshop, when Aerotek Account Manager Jim Johnson took me under his wing and landed me my first position in a machine shop. After that contract ended they placed me in my second job which gave me some great early experience in machining blades used in the construction industry. After that contract ended I knew this industry was for me, so between jobs I enrolled in machining school, focusing on learning CNC machining. But, while still in my first semester, Aerotek called with another opportunity that was tough to pass up. I made the career decision to put school on hold because this new job is fulltime and I’m learning as much more on the job than I was in school.”

Money in the bank

Many of the companies we work with believe that an employee shouldn’t be forced to choose between work and school and invest in training and education outside of their on-the-job training programs. According to an article in Inc. magazine, companies investing in this type of employee development makes solid business sense. They see increased employee retention, attract talented workers and increase employee value to the business. As the article points out:

“A good employee is like money in the bank. That well-trained, confident, and engaged employee … is going to do better work for you in the long run … saving [the business] money, as employees become more efficient and proficient. Employee development also has the potential to increase sales and output. Either way, that's good for your bottom line, and that's exactly why … employee development is not an expense, but an investment.”

We work with a diverse range of workers, from general labor and skilled trades to advanced engineers, and we’ve noted another advantage that company investment in employee training provides the business. As the Inc. article explains, “hourly employees, especially, don't always receive the benefits that salaried workers in larger companies are accustomed to. Providing employee development as part of the hiring package gives you a competitive advantage over other similar jobs and wages.”

The challenge of change

We returned to Jana Doyle to get her take on the ultimate effect of multiple tours of duty on her 25-year career. “I can look back at my career and honestly see that my greatest growth has always come from change. In many cases, these changes weren’t my own choosing. But my response ended up being the same. Grow, learn and take on new challenges. Nothing lasts forever. And I don’t say that with pessimism. It’s a very positive aspect of a rich career. I’ve proven that to myself. Growth comes, I think can only come, from change and transformation. I needed to succeed. This was my only plan. I think it worked,” Jana told us.

The insight Jana shares is more applicable in our current dynamic and uncertain economy than ever. The unique challenges, and opportunities, this presents to companies and the people they hire, are fresh and evolving.

Often, moving from one job to the next isn’t by choice. Some companies may take for granted the loyalty, commitment and skilled productivity of a workforce increasingly comfortable with taking what they’ve learned and moving on to the next opportunity.

Working in 21st century America

From our vantage point, we’ve witnessed the rapid and inevitable evolution of the employer-employee relationship. Part of the value we add is providing companies with the opportunity to tap into a skilled and ready-to-work community of American workers.

As the research and experts suggest, the companies gain a competitive advantage by providing employee enrichment, training and advancement. We’ve also learned that the employees who seek out learning and skills-training, whether on their own dime, on the job or paid for by their employers are best positioned for long-term success.

Robert Davis, our construction laborer, isn’t currently looking further than the next step up at his current employer. But when we asked him what he saw ahead in his career, he surprised us with his long-view. “When I was seven years old, I learned how to break horses. That’s a tough skill to learn, since the only way you get really good at it, is to figure out how to stop being thrown. I love what I do and look forward to whatever challenges my next promotion and learning level offer me. But, I’ve held onto one of my horses and keep it in a small pasture outside of Birmingham. Maybe one day, after a successful career in my industry, I’ll turn that little pasture into a farm,” Robert said.

With all the triumphs and set-backs Jana Doyle’s career — we’re struck by her calm but powerful tenacity. We asked Jana for her take on the new jobs economy and what it means for people just starting out. “I’d recommend they build and nurture a strong network of support. When I look back at key moments of truth in my career, I realize how keeping in touch with my Aerotek people has been key. We check in, we go to lunch together. We went through some very personal times together and they’ve become personal friends,” says Jana.

“The other thing,” Jana continued, “I tell my younger colleagues to do is keep constantly improving themselves. Move forward regardless of what happens. Trust in yourself. It’s a matter of survival. In my case, 25-plus years of not just surviving, but growing, changing and building an extremely rewarding and gratifying career in a field I love.”

We couldn’t have expressed it any more clearly or passionately. Our team at Aerotek is motivated every day by the strength, adaptability and courageous creativity of people like Jana, and Robert and Xai. Whatever your story is — whether you’re a manager or employee navigating the new jobs landscape of this early century — we invite you to get in touch. Check out some of our job openings or create a free career account today.

Xai Vang appears courtesy of Account Manager Jim Johnson and Senior Account Recruiting Manager Rachel Klick. Jana Doyle appears courtesy of Senior Professional Recruiter Dedra Pritchard, Account Manager Andrew Honore and Account Manager Chris Russo. Robert Davis appears courtesy of Account Manager Cody Doores and Recruiter Amy-Jean Hargrove.