One credential, one career? Think again.

Every day, more students are hearing about how they will likely have many careers that span multiple sectors. Those who enter college or university expecting to train for a specific career, and then be in that career for the rest of their working lives, are part of a shrinking minority. 

So how are students coping with this world, which is so different from the one their parents grew up in?

In our recent writing on the paradigm of education and career goal development, we argued that students need to develop a more active and intentional relationship to the learning outcomes they’re looking to get from PSE. We also argued that they should pursue these learning outcomes with a well-informed understanding of which competencies today’s employers are looking for most, while constantly taking the time to reflect on their personal motivations as students. 

According to Matthew Thomas, founder of the career support platform Paddle, the future looks bright for those who embrace the new world of non-linear careers and use every opportunity along the way to reflect on what inspires and motivates them. 

We recently sat down with Matthew to chat about the concept of non-linear careers, and how students can thrive in their personal and professional lives by embracing the opportunities offered by this career model and by becoming more intentional about the decisions they make along the way, especially when it comes to postsecondary education. 

AG: Hi Matt, it’s great to speak with you. We’d like to start off by thanking you for your time and for the work you’ve been doing to help people thrive within the non-linear career model. 

Matthew: And thank you for the opportunity. It’s great to connect on this.

AG: For starters, Matt, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about how you came to be doing the work you do now?

Matthew: There's always been two really core activities I've always enjoyed. One has been education, learning things, teaching others, and seeing education as a holistic, broad activity. It's not just about being in a classroom, it's about how do you learn with others, and how do you learn while working and while following a path of lifelong learning. 

During my time at university, I advised many friends and even people I’d just met on their career paths, and helped them think about careers in a slightly different way. 

If you ask most people “point blank” questions about what they want to accomplish, achieve, or learn, or even how much money they want to make in their lives, most people don't give you a single answer, or even a range of answers. 

Most people say, “Oh, I've never really thought about that,” because when you're in school, you're just learning, and studying, and trying to get good grades. Then all of a sudden you have to get a job. When you're unemployed and you have to pay down debts, and you want to move out of your parents' basement, the path of self-actualization and self-awareness is not the first thing on your mind. The first thing on your mind is, "I need to find a job," so you often end up taking a sub-optimal job or a job that you didn't intend to in the first place.

This whole broken process of how people think about their careers, pick their careers—that's always been an issue in my mind, and with Paddle, it's a way to help people intentionally develop their careers in a way that reflects the changing nature of work.

AG: I understand that you've done a lot of research on the subject of non-linear careers, and particularly with people who have been quite successful at hopping from sector to sector in a variety of roles. If you were to give advice to someone preparing to enter the working world, what do you think are some of the key skills and qualities for thriving in a non-linear career?

Matthew: If there was one thing I would say, it’s to be intentional and to be curious. When I say intentional, it's to try to answer the questions that I alluded to earlier, around what motivations do I have, what skills do I want to develop, what issues do I care about, what cities or areas might I want to live in? If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there, so being intentional about that can help set the stage for the moment when you say, “Okay, then here are my goals.”

Be intentional about what you want, then be intentional about how any given experience can help you get closer to some of your goals. There's no single job that will accomplish all of your goals at once. If you can find that sort of job, hang onto it. But for most people it will be, “Hey, this job will get me X, and this program will get me Y, and this volunteer activity will get me Z,” and you have to stitch together what could be a string of full-time jobs or a portfolio of activities. That's the first thing I would say.

The second thing I would say is be as curious as you can, especially when you're in your 20s. If you have that plan, you can be creative about which options you choose, and that will allow you to see things that others won't see, and that will allow you to take the road less traveled. Intentional and curious.

AG: You may have heard in recent months that Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, was in the press for comments he’d made about how young people need to get used to what he called “job churn,” which some would say is code for precarious work conditions.

A lot of people found his statements very disconcerting, and I wanted to ask you about to what extent the concept of non-linear careers is tied to this presumably negative trend of people moving from job to job, but not by choice. 

Matthew: Whether you are facing precarious work or benefitting from a high level of skills and lots of financial backing, the fact that you will likely have a non-linear career stays the same. The goal for people in both positions is—How do I maximize the satisfaction of my motivations, and the impact I'll have with the people and the world that I care about?

The reason I want to say it's the same is because having a career path where one job builds on the other is possible even for someone who's facing precarious work. It might not be as fast and it might not be as intentional as it is for someone who has more options, but you can still do that if you're facing the area of precarious work.

As an example, let's think about people who are jumping around from customer service job to customer service job. Sometimes it's in a call center, sometimes it's in a restaurant, sometimes it's working for the GAP, but you're always in a customer service role. To some extent, you may not have a choice over which jobs you take, but the skills that you're building can be transferable, and can actually help you to take an intentional path to building on something, which can lead to something greater or better. This only happens, though, if you do it with intention.

AG: And so how do you design a tool that can help those who either are or aren’t involved in precarious work?

Matthew: One thing we've learned from the students who go to those schools and have used our software is that 95% of them, when using our software, have reported to us that they want to pursue careers in more than one sector. 95% of our users say they want a multi-sector career. 

There's a real, real groundswell of people saying, “I want to have a multi-sector career, and Paddle allows me to explore that in a way others don't.” That's the first and foremost kind of core student need that we found, and we’re able to meet them where they are (on their devices). We’re also able to respond to the fact that they want a multi-sector career, where most traditional resources point them in one direction or at a number of mutually exclusive careers that they have to choose from. Our solution said, “No, you can actually pursue three things at once.” You can't have three full time jobs at once, but you can certainly have multiple activities and build a portfolio from them. That's what our software helps people realize.

First and foremost, our work is an act of culture-building. It’s giving a name to this idea of a multi-sector career, taking a T shaped approach, a mix of depth and breadth, to help students see the value of being a jack of all trades master of some. That's our baseline assumption, and this software appeals to people who want that kind of career development. 

The second thing that the software does is helps people approach it with intention. It allows people to answer questions like, “What motivates me? What issues do I care about? And what skills do I want to develop?” Then the students can select exactly which sectors allow them to meet the intersection of all of those needs, then build a bulletproof plan to enter the new industry or sector and get their preferred jobs or careers.

AG: So when it comes to coaching more people to become more intentional about their choices and to have them reflect on their motivations, how do you ensure everyone can get that kind of support?

Matthew: When the vision for Paddle emerged, I think it's when we started asking ourselves, “How do we go from training 24 people a year to 24 million people a year?” For the three years preceding Paddle, I was developing executive education programs with the White House, but these programs are always limited to small numbers. You have 24 fellows a year, or you have 30 people in a single workshop. We touched hundreds over time, but at any given time it was maybe 24 people.

One question I've always had is how do we bring this to 24 million people? The answer is through technology. I'm not much of a technologist myself. I'm not an engineer. I am a probably middle-of-the-road adopter of technology. I'm not the first person who gets the iPhone. I'm not the first person who got the new mp3 player back in the day. I wasn't always that first person, but I adopted it before the average person did.

For me to think about a technology-oriented solution does not play to my strength or skill set, but knowing that technology would be the only solution here was critical, and that's when I met two co-founders who believed in the same vision and brought technology and engineering skills to Paddle. It’s technology that allows you to take a solution and scale it outward, almost infinitely.

AG: So far, you’ve had quite a bit of success working directly with post-secondary institutions, like the University of Toronto, Stanford, Duke, and Wharton. Based on your experience on those projects, and working directly with some major institutions, where do you see your software really complementing those schools' existing supports for students?

Matthew: There's two ways you can think about that. The first is that career centres don't reach nearly as many students as they would like to. There are budgetary reasons for that, but they haven't adopted technology to the extent that they could either, so when 15% of students see their career centre over the course of their four-year undergraduate1, using technology you can easily reach the rest, because students are already on their phones. Students are online and they respect and use modern-looking career tools.

Building a tool that looks like the internet that students actually use is critical, because that's how you can reach that extra 25% or 50% of people. It allows student career centres to say, “Hey, we're servicing 65% of our campus, not 15% of our campus.” Technology allows you to reach more people.

Two, the student data that we collect and share with the career centres is enormously valuable for planning career centre events, planning which speakers to bring, and what events to hold, and what sectors and jobs to focus on, and allows even the career counselors to understand their students in a way that would otherwise probably take a two-hour conversation. It can fast track the entire counseling process and get right to the point as well.

AG: Very interesting. That about wraps it up for now, Matt. Thank you so much for your time. 

Matthew: This was great. Thanks to you, too. 

1. Figures drawn from Canadian University Consortium 2015 Graduating University Student Survey. Page 45, Table 10.3.

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