Syracuse University

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New study links desire, competency, career path

May 06, 2008

Amy Mehringer
(315) 443-3834

Amy Mehringer

In today's fast-paced, quickly changing work world, the days of working for the same company for an entire career are well over. In the 21st century, most people understand that they will work in multiple positions for multiple companies over the course of their careers. But will they work in multiple industries? For example, will a Wall Street investor always work in finance? And if not, what impact does "sector-shifting" have on available labor and career patterns?

Original research conducted by a team from Syracuse University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Utah that includes Kira Reed, assistant professor of management in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, finds that competency and desire play key roles in "sector-shifting."

"'Sector-shifting' essentially means to what extent an individual is likely to move across industry boundaries and what barriers there might be to that kind of movement," says the research team. "We found that the more an individual feels equipped and competent to work in a particular sector, the more likely it is they will want to stay in that sector for the duration of their career."

The study indicates that the desire to work in a particular sector mediates the relationships between an individual's perceived competence and employment in that sector. In other words, the more an individual wants to work in any given industry, the more likely they are to feel competent in that industry and thereby perceive they have more opportunities in that industry.

The study is particularly relevant for individuals pursuing or interested in pursuing master of business administration degrees (MBAs). The research team elaborates: "We found that individuals with full-time work experience before earning an MBA are likely to feel more competent than individuals without this work experience. Interestingly, though, full-time work experience prior to entering a graduate management program does not always lead to continued work in that sector after the MBA degree is earned."

However, individuals who were employed in their most-desired sector at the time of graduation are less likely to switch sectors throughout their career. "Work and educational experience are tied to competence and therefore both impact sector employment and `sector-shifting'" says the research team.

Not surprisingly, individuals with MBAs report a greater competence for work in the for-profit business world than do their non-MBA counterparts. This perspective is not shared by all non-MBA holders; individuals with master of public administration degrees (MPAs) reported feeling just as competent for work in the business world as do individuals who hold MBAs.

"Overall, these findings help us understand more clearly why certain individuals seek out work in certain industries -- it is tied to their desire for work in that industry and to the level of competence they feel for working in that industry," say the researchers. "In short, although people may move from job to job, the industry in which they choose and desire to work still matters over the course of their career."

The study, forthcoming in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, notes that building a sense of competence to work in all sectors may give graduates the most encouragement to seek a good employment fit with their career preferences.

Reed's current research interest includes investigating how firms utilize their intellectual capital, particularly their human capital, in performance enhancing ways.

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