At a glance
By Jessica Mudditt
Mid-career professionals are in a unique position: they have amassed considerable skills and experience, but still have many years left in the workforce.
According to a recent OECD report, mid-career professionals are less likely than early-career professionals to undertake training and upskilling.
However, as automation and AI start to transform finance and accounting functions, those who lack initiative in building their skills risk losing out on future opportunities.
“If you’re not strategic about upskilling, you will get left behind,” says Aaron McEwan, vice president of research and advisory at Gartner.
“Your job will get carved up or automated. The people who come through who are curious, ambitious and hungry will pass you by. Eventually, you end up with a reputation of being ‘old-school’.”
Barriers to overcome
Despite their importance, training and career development can often take a back seat to a myriad of other tasks and responsibilities for the mid-career group, whom the OECD report defines as being aged between 40 and 54.
This age bracket tends to have more domestic care responsibilities, while also moving into more senior professional roles. This creates the upskilling perfect storm.
Complacency is also a factor, says McEwan.
“When you’re in the earliest stages of your career, things like certifications, qualifications and formal training are not just appealing, but necessary for progression.
“When you get into your mid-career, you’ve probably developed an expertise set, and you don’t need those pieces of paper to get you in the door. You are probably already through the door, so to speak.”
This can lull professionals into a false sense of security if they aren’t consciously thinking about their long-term goals.
The OECD report has found that mid-career professionals are less likely to participate in training that could lead to future roles. More often, the focus is on training for their existing role.
This finding does not surprise McEwan. Those in the earlier stages of their careers are still in what he calls the “exploration phase”. Doing a variety of courses is a way to test the waters and gauge interest in topics and specialisations.
“When you’re at mid-career stage, you’ve got a lot more to lose by changing direction,” McEwan says.
“Doing so comes with a lot of risk and anxiety. You’re more likely going to double down on your current expertise.”
He also believes that some organisations are not attuned to the development needs of mid-career professionals.
“It would be wrong to assume that mid-career professionals are not as interested in upskilling and getting better at their jobs. We’re just not offering them the right options, or the time, space and flexibility to do it.”
He says that mid-career professionals can benefit more from what is known as a “crucible role” rather than formal training opportunities.
These can be short-term assignments that serve as a stepping stone to acquire a specific set of experiences or capabilities. An example includes a secondment overseas to lead a small project team or working within an innovation or incubation unit.
Unfortunately, these roles are often in short supply.
“Few organisations are willing to offer an untested leader the opportunity to lead a critical business function,” says McEwan.
“They are not creating those crucible opportunities that allow people to accelerate to the next level. Therefore, they’re stuck, because the only way to get to the next level is to get experience and a reputation for having done it.”
Embrace the upskilling challenge
McEwan has personal experience of the challenges and rewards of mid-career upskilling.
“It was unfinished business for me,” he says. “I had previously had to quit a master’s part way through because the program was based in the Gold Coast, and I was living in Brisbane.
“I was working a full-time job, and I was a lead singer in a band. I just had too much stuff going on.”
Ten years had passed since he’d abandoned the degree, so McEwan decided to pick a new topic. He chose something he was deeply curious about – coaching psychology.
At the time, he was juggling being the head of a major consultancy business and had a young baby. He was much busier than when he gave up on his first master’s degree.
“I was over-stretched, but it was totally worth it,” he says. “That’s not because it has necessarily translated into career opportunities – I’m not an executive coach.”
While it was not a qualification that McEwan needed for his role or to make career progress, he considers the degree beneficial.
“It’s going to expand your horizons and demonstrate to your stakeholders that you are committed to lifelong learning.
“And that is one of the most important signals that you can project to the world.”