Career Mobility

Career MobilityCareer mobility represents individuals’ patterns of transitions between organizations and within organizations in the course of their work lives. It is a very broad term that essentially incorporates all possible movements in one’s career. As organizational layoffs and restructuring are becoming common, it is not surprising that employees, who realize that lifelong job security may no longer be a realistic employment goal, are ready to become more mobile. In fact, moving across jobs and even occupations is now the rule rather than the exception. Unlike in the past, today people increasingly have multiple career transitions and changes, such as internal transfers, job rotations, overseas assignments, switching from full-time to part-time, and changing employers and occupations. These frequent career transitions and changes in recent years are attributed to an increasing emphasis on learning, skill enhancement, meaningful work, personal control, job satisfaction, and career satisfaction.

The interest in obtaining a variety of work experiences across jobs and occupations (careers)—and therefore individuals’ constant movement across these boundaries—is causing careers to become increasingly “boundaryless.” In the era of boundaryless careers, people’s work experiences are not limited to only one or two firms. Instead, their careers span across multiple firms and employment settings. As such, portable skills are important assets. When equipped with portable skills, employees more easily move from one employer to another and from one occupation to another. Multiple career transitions also further facilitate the building of repertoires of skill sets that can benefit individuals’ careers in the long run.

Types of career mobility can be differentiated on the basis of at least two dimensions. The first mobility dimension is vertical-horizontal. A vertical movement involves changing to a job with a significantly higher or lower level of responsibility. The second mobility dimension is internal-external. An internal movement is narrowly defined as changing to a job that is offered by the same employer. An external movement involves changing to a job that is offered by a different employer. Crossing these two dimensions gives rise to four generic types of career mobility, which will be discussed in turn below: internal-vertical, internal-horizontal, external-horizontal, and external-vertical. One’s career often contains multiple instances of these transitions.

Internal-vertical career movement involves changing to a job internally with increased or decreased responsibility. Taking a promotion offer from the current employer is a common example. Specifically, being promoted is traditionally the most desired type of career mobility, because it can enhance status, responsibilities, satisfaction, and esteem. Also, promotions often improve one’s financial rewards on the job, which are generally valued. It has been suggested that two theoretical perspectives on upward mobility are particularly relevant to understanding what predicts employees’ promotions: a contest-mobility norm and a sponsored-mobility norm.

The contest-mobility norm perspective suggests that all individuals have the same likelihood of winning the competition for mobility on the basis of their individual merits. The goal of this system is to give elite status to those who earn it. People compete with each other in an open and fair contest for the advancement, and victory comes along to those who demonstrate accomplishments. For instance, those who have better human capital investments, such as higher levels of education, are more likely to obtain internal promotions. Work experience also increases one’s likelihood of obtaining promotions, because work experience is often valued and thus rewarded in the labor market. Skills acquired in training and development programs also equip employees with more competencies and skills for competing for promotions.

In contrast, the sponsored-mobility norm perspective suggests that established elites pay special attention to members who are deemed to have high potential and then provide sponsoring activities to them to help them win the competition. Thus, those who have early successes are more likely to receive sponsorship, and those who do not are likely to be excluded from such support activities. For instance, one’s broader social network at work should result in greater career sponsorship from senior colleagues, including supervisors and mentors, which can, in turn, increase the chances for promotions. Also, those who are able to manage their impressions better or have stronger social influence skills should also have more promotions because these skills increase interpersonal liking. Thus, this theoretical perspective implies that social factors play an important role in determining who gets ahead. The contest- and sponsored-mobility norm perspectives together suggest that employees’ competencies and hard work and employers’ support and sponsorship collectively result in upward mobility.

Demotion is another type of internal-vertical career movement. Because layoffs are common in recent years, some employees may accept demotions in return for not being laid off. However, as one would expect, it is a common research finding that demotions lead to unfavorable job attitudes, such as lower fairness perceptions and greater turnover intentions. The exception is when an employee volunteers for the demotion. One of the motives to do so is to better understand the operations in an organization. Another reason is the desire to equip oneself with different sets of skills. Compared with promotions, the topic of demotions has received less research attention.

Internal-horizontal career movement is changing to a job that entails different tasks or settings without significant change in responsibility, while remaining with the same employer. In response to the intense global competition, organizations in recent decades have frequently downsized or restructured their operations, creating new work tasks or redesigning old ones. This gives rise to abundant opportunities for internal-horizontal transfers, including internal job rotations, relocations to another city or state, and international assignments. This type of career mobility may be increasingly welcomed because, as mentioned, employees may want to work on jobs that allow them to build repertoires of different skills.

More specifically, an internal-horizontal career transition causes disruptions to as well as generates benefits for one’s work and career. The possible disruptions associated with such a change may involve losing one’s place in line for promotion; losing social ties; disruptions to family, especially if the change involves a geographical move; confusion about one’s own goals; and general stress caused by adapting to the new environment. However, such a change can also be beneficial if individuals want to expand their skills sets or networks, obtain new experiences and personal growth, rejuvenate their careers, or forge paths for future promotions or are bored with their current positions. A decision to take the internal-horizontal transition is made when the benefits are believed to outweigh the costs.

One of the most important costs to consider is whether the change involves geographical moves. Horizontal transfers that involve geographical moves are often less welcomed than those that don’t. For instance, relocation to another city or state should be less desired than internal job rotation. However, relocation has occurred more frequently in recent years, especially for those who work in large corporations. It has been found in research that those who have less to sacrifice in leaving their current communities (e.g., have fewer social ties) are more willing to accept relocation. However, when the relocation is an overseas transition, more unique factors have to be considered. It is widely acknowledged that expatriates face a variety of obstacles and challenges in their overseas transitions, such as language barriers, stressful environmental conditions in the assigned county/region (e.g., potentially unstable political situations), learning and sensitivity to cultural differences and local customs, as well as work-related adjustment issues. In terms of research, a number of studies in this area have investigated the adjustment of expatriates. One of the factors that facilitate their adjustment is support from different sources. For instance, it has been found that positive attitudes of and support from spouses facilitate expatriates’ transitions. Furthermore, home country organizational support, local country organizational support, and supervisor support are all related to expatriates’ work, interactional, and general adjustment. Expatriates’ premature departures are said to indicate unsuccessful overseas transitions.

Another increasingly common type of internal-horizontal career movement is changing from full-time to part-time status. The benefits of such a change include freeing up time to take care of families and pursue other interests, decreasing work stress, and making working multiple part-time jobs possible if the individual does not want to work in the same environment all the time. Possible costs include lower income, reduced chances of promotions, loss of some fringe benefits, and feelings of alienation at work.

External-horizontal career movement involves changing to a job with a different employer that entails different work tasks or settings without a significant change in responsibility. That is, it involves individuals leaving their current organizations and looking for similar jobs. It can entail changing employers with or without changing professions. For instance, a nurse may work in different hospitals over the course of his or her career. Another nurse may quit working in a hospital and become an assistant at an elder care center.

Changing employers is said to be highly common in boundaryless careers. A great deal of research has been devoted to identifying predictors of voluntary turnover. One consistent finding is that “morale” factors (e.g., job dissatisfaction) dominate individuals’ decisions to change employers. That is, the main reason people change employers is that they are not satisfied with their current jobs or/and organizations. However, in recent research, a number of non-morale-related factors have been identified as being relevant to predicting voluntary turnover. For instance, those who perceive a lack of sufficient opportunity for skill enhancement will express higher intention to change employers. This is not surprising given that, as mentioned, individuals increasingly emphasize knowledge acquisition and personal learning. Furthermore, employees want creativity at work and in their careers, too. It has been found that employees are more likely to leave when they perceive that their jobs or work environments do not allow or promote creativity. Thus, employees increasingly switch employers for reasons other than general like or dislike of their jobs or organizations.

Changing occupations is a huge decision, though it is becoming common. The individuals have to “start from scratch” and learn a new set of skills for the new occupation. This creates psychological distress and financial burdens for the individuals as well their families. Furthermore, there may be limited choices of occupations. Thus, as in the case of changing employers, research in this area continues to identify predictors of occupational turnover. For instance, it has been found that males, younger individuals, or those who are less satisfied with their jobs have greater intentions to leave their occupations. Furthermore, occupational context variables, such as professional role orientation and occupational commitment, negatively predict occupational turnover intention. Changing occupations can also be precipitated by social factors. When one’s network is more diverse (i.e., knowing more people of different backgrounds), one is more likely to change occupations as a result of more career information and opportunities. Also, when one has more instrumental relationships (from which one obtains career-related advice), one is more likely to change occupations.

Finally, external-vertical career movement involves changing to a job with a significant change in responsibility and working for a different employer (i.e., a diagonal movement). For instance, an associate professor with an outstanding publication record may be invited by another university to become a full professor. An outstanding football player may self-recommend himself to another team and become the new leader of that team. Some people quit their jobs and become the owners of new firms. Finally, some people may be laid off and settle for jobs that are of lower importance in different organizations (i.e., external demotions). This type of career mobility is perhaps the least desired. Not surprisingly, this group of individuals has more negative job attitudes after transitions, because they constantly compare their current jobs with their previous ones.

A growing number of employees who are laid off choose to start businesses of their own. It has been found that certain personality traits, such as being emotionally stable, distrusting, expedient (less conscientious), and tough-minded, predict new business start-ups. Entrepreneurial orientation also predicts this type of career transition. Those with a strong entrepreneurial orientation emphasize creating something that is new and valuable. Overall, this type of external-vertical career mobility (business start-ups) is still relatively infrequent, and therefore research on it is still limited.

Bridge employment is another type of external-vertical career movement. It involves a person’s employment after retirement from full-time work but before his or her entire withdrawal from the labor force. It usually involves significantly less workload, such as part-time or temporary work. Researchers have found that employees report greater likelihood of engaging in bridge employment if they are healthy, younger, have high organizational tenure, earn lower monthly salary at the time of retirement, have declined previous early-retirement opportunities, and have working spouses or dependent children.

To conclude, career mobility involves intra- and interorganizational transitions. Internal-vertical, internal-horizontal, external-horizontal, and external-vertical career movements have been increasingly common in recent years. Researchers in this area often focus on one specific type of career mobility. However, we also need to make sense of the patterns of career transitions individuals create. For instance, why do some people prefer internal-horizontal transitions over internal-vertical ones? Also, what is the relationship between changing employers and changing occupations? This search for traceable patterns of career mobility is especially important and interesting in the era of boundaryless careers. Though careers are increasingly boundaryless, people still act according to some dispositional sources of influence, such as values, interests, and personality. As such, it is likely that we will be able to predict why certain individuals create certain patterns of changes in their careers.

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