Adaptation: The case for versitility in a specialized world

Eric Wendt

We’ve learned a lot about career upheaval lately.

We’ve watched third generation shrimpers sunk by the devastating BP oil spill, witnessed wounded vets suddenly unable to do the jobs they left behind to serve in wartime, and seen mothers and fathers laid off by the tens of thousands. Even astronauts are left floating in this job market as NASA retires its shuttle program.

Millions of families are adapting to tumultuous circumstances. While adaptation is always hard—think quite literally about fish out of water—Nebraska Wesleyan alumni seem to carry those special traits that allow them to quickly evolve in good times and bad.

But what are those traits? And how do alumni make the most of them in uncertain times?

Special Circumstances

As millions work to find new direction in the job market, experts everywhere laud education. Some call for ousted workers to simply re-specialize. The former shrimper graduates to become, say, an equally specialized machinist.

“Employers may want that particular skill set, and so at times a narrow skill focus may work to your advantage in a job search,” said Janelle Andreini, director of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Career and Counseling Center. “However, there will be other times when an employer needs someone more adaptable to multiple roles in a work setting.”

Maneuvering from one specialty to another may simply shift vulnerability rather than eliminate it. “The problem is that people have become so specialized that they specialize themselves out of the market,” said Gary Chaison, a labor relations expert on American Public Media’s “Marketplace Money.”

Yet workers often have good reason to specialize. Stable circumstances invite us—even require us—to focus narrowly. We create professional niches by sharply honing certain skills to our environment. We promote ourselves, saying, “I am valuable because very few people can do this special thing.”

But instability can quickly turn this logic on its head. Once jarred from our custom (and accustomed) niches, we’re forced to admit, “I am less valuable because I can do very few things.” And we realize—in time, we hope—that we must evolve.

The problem is that people become so specialized that they specialize themselves out of the market.

Melissa Green is co-director of Wesleyan Advantage, the university’s program for working adults. Like Andreini in the Career and Counseling Center, Green speaks daily with people in the midst of professional evolutions. “It makes employees feel insecure to see others with more education being hired to do the same jobs that they’ve been doing with only a high school education or perhaps an associate’s degree,” Green said.

Some even hear from their employers that they wouldn’t be hired if they were to apply for their current jobs today. Green added, “They don’t want to be searching for a new position in this volatile job market without the advantage of a bachelor’s degree.”

Green and Andreini agree that a Nebraska Wesleyan degree represents more than a badge on a résumé. It reflects a capacity to evolve.