Career paths: How to find yours and why it matters

August 6, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is a career path?

Why is being conscious about a career path so important?

4 types of career paths

16 examples of career paths

Start working on your career path today

Imagine this — you’re thinking about your career goals and how fulfilled you’d be in your dream job. Think about what success looks like for you and how you’ll feel on the first day of your ideal job.

Have you ever mapped out the steps you need to take to prepare yourself for that job? What qualifications will you need before applying for that position? What types of companies need that position? 

You might need to meet certain requirements for your dream job. Knowing these requirements ahead of time will help you prepare for that job. This may include a college degree, a special certification, or on-the-job experience. One of the best ways to prepare for your dream job is to create and follow a career path. 

This is where a career path comes in. A career path is a specific set of jobs that prepare you for upward growth in your industry. In this article, we’re going to discuss different career paths, along with the skills you need to create your own career path. 

Organizational career path

An organizational career path (also known as a career ladder or vertical career plan) is a career path that you create with your direct manager. The goal is to climb a career ladder within a company. 

While many career paths lead to management positions, there are several for those who don't aspire to management.

Many organizations have already developed a career path framework for their employees. Here's what the process may look like: You create a career path with your manager. Together, you will establish career goals for you to meet. These goals will prepare you for the next step in your career path, including:

  • Helping with special projects
  • Taking an online course
  • Earning a certification
  • Mentoring colleagues
  • Shadowing a colleague for a day 

To stay on track with your career path, you should review your milestones and goals often. You also need to review your career path with your direct manager at least quarterly. Work with your manager to schedule times to check your progress together. 

Personal career path

A personal career path is one that you create for yourself. It's based on a self-assessment of your skills, interests, hobbies, values, and passions. A personal career path can lay the foundation of your career without being restricted to one organization. 

If you’re ready to create your career path, start by making a list of the skills you’re good at, followed by your interests and hobbies. Then write down the things that matter most to you. 

Look at everything on your list and think about the industries that could benefit from your talent. For example, if you’re great with children, consider a career path in education. If you prefer healthcare more than teaching, look into a career path for pediatric nurses or doctors.

You can also take a career path quiz or a personality assessment to find out the best careers for you.

With a personal career path, you have complete control of your career development. A personal career path may require more work, but it can be very rewarding. You have to take the initiative to find resources that help with your career development. Research the things that will prepare you for the next job. Network with others in your industry even if they work for a different company.

Why is being conscious about a career path so important?

Companies use career paths as a way to increase employee retention and engagement. Employees are more likely to stay with a company when a well-defined career path is in place. Employees are also motivated to grow within a company when there's a well-understood career path. This, in turn, helps the company reach its short-term and long-term goals with less turnover.  

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A study done by Glassdoor found that having a lack of career growth leads to employee turnover. Employees who don't receive a pay increase or change in title after a few years are more likely to resign. Companies that offer that career growth are much more attractive to employees. This is especially true now that the workforce is shifting to more remote work. 

Employee turnover can be pretty expensive too. When you factor in the costs for recruiting, hiring, training, and onboarding, replacing an employee can cost up to 21% of an employee’s annual salary. One study found that career development programs will save companies a significant amount of time and resources

As you can see, establishing career paths are critical to organizations. But what’s in it for you?

A career path gives you clear next steps.

You won’t have to wonder about what your next promotion will be. Having a career path will show you the concrete next steps you can take in your career. This includes the skills and experience that you’ll need to get along the way. 

Your productivity and motivation increase. 

When you’re working toward your own career goals, you’re likely to be more motivated than someone who doesn’t have a career path in place. You’ll be more productive because your career vision stretches beyond the task or project at hand.

You can determine if your current employer supports your career path.

After you develop your career path, you can check with your current employer to see if those opportunities are available. 

For example, if the next step in your career is based in another city, ask your leadership team if you’ll need to move to fill that role. 

If your current company doesn’t offer one of the positions in your career path, see if they can create this position for you. If they can’t, this could limit your career growth with that organization.

Once you create a career path, it will be easy to see if career growth is attainable with your current employer. You’ll also know what you need to do to achieve your long-term career plans.

4 types of career paths

There are four types of career paths—knowledge-based, skill-based, entrepreneur-based, and freelance. Every kind of career path caters to a specific set of qualifications that help you perform your job.

Knowledge

Knowledge-based career paths allow you to use the knowledge you acquired over time to do your job. Employees in human resources, marketing, and accounting all follow a knowledge-based career path. Other examples include IT professionals and engineers.

Skills

Skill-based professions need an understanding of how a specific job function operates. These are often physical, hands-on, or service skills. Many of these roles fall in the construction industry, as well as performers, artists, and restaurant chefs.

You may notice that many positions are cross-functional. Your job may need a combination of knowledge-based and skills-based work. This is the case with lawyers, doctors, and administrative personnel.

Entrepreneurs

An entrepreneur solves a problem or a specific need by selling their own product or service. An entrepreneur can work independently or start a company and hire employees. Many startups, including BetterUp, began with an entrepreneur solving a problem for consumers.

Freelance 

People hire independent contractors (or freelancers) to perform a specific job or project. Freelancers offer many services, including graphic design, consulting, home repair, and photography. 

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16 examples of career paths

The key to having a solid career path is identifying the skills and experience needed for the positions in your career path. You won’t be guaranteed a senior manager role just because you’ve been a manager for two years. You have to demonstrate specific skills that show that you’re ready for the next step in your career.

Knowing what lies ahead in your career path can help you focus on the right skills. 

Job responsibilities, qualifications, and a company's needs change so much in today's workforce. You can't set a career path and expect your career to just run on autopilot. Keep an open mind and adapt to changes where necessary. 

The current work climate requires employees to be flexible in their roles. An Executive Assistant may need the skills of a project manager to do their job. Upper management across industries needs to have a basic understanding of Human Resources. 

It's important to stay on top of your industry trends and adapt to these changes. Stay proactive. Talk to others in your field to learn about how your career path is evolving. 

Here are some examples of career paths that you can explore.

Accounting: Staff Accountant > Senior Accountant > Accounting Manager > Senior Accounting Manager > Firm Partner

Administrative: Administrative Assistant > Executive Assistant > Office Manager > Event and Conference Planner > Event Manager > Director of Events

Advertising: Advertising Sales Agent > Advertising Sales Manager > Account Manager  > Account Executive > VP of Advertising

Construction: Constructive Services Associate > Site Manager > Construction Manager > Facilities Manager > Project Manager 

Customer Service: Associate > Team Lead > Manager > Senior Manager > Director > Chief Operating Officer

Writer/Editor: Staff Writer or Journalist > Associate Editor > Editor > Senior Editor > Editor-in-Chief

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Education: Para-professional > Classroom Teacher > Curriculum Administrator > Assistant Principal > Principal > District Superintendent

Engineering: Junior Engineer > Senior Engineer > Project Manager > Senior Project Manager > Engineering Consultant

Human Resources: HR Coordinator > HR Manager > HR Director > VP of HR > Chief of HR  

Lawyer: Summer Associate > Junior Associate > Senior Associate > Partner > Managing Partner

Marketing: Marketing Coordinator or Marketing Specialist > Marketing Manager > Director of Marketing > VP of Marketing > Chief Marketing Officer

Nursing: CNA > IPN > ADN-RN > BSN-RN > MSN > DNP

Restaurant: Host/Hostess, Prep Cook, Server > Service Manager > Assistant General Manager > General Manager

Retail: Sales Associate > Team Lead > Assistant Manager > Store Manager > District Manager > Regional Manager 

Salesperson: Sales Rep > Territory Manager > District Manager > Regional Manager 

Alternative path: Sales Rep > Account Manager > Key Account Manager > Director of Business Development > VP of Sales or Client Success

Technology: IT Help Desk > Help Desk Manager > Network, Cloud, or Systems Administrator > Network or Systems Engineer > Security and Compliance Director > Chief Technical Officer

You'll notice some similarities in these career paths. Some industries share the same career path, only with different titles. 

As you climb up your career ladder, you'll see a progression of responsibilities. You'll transition from completing defined tasks to delegating tasks to others. You will also be responsible for more decision-making and leadership. 

Sometimes, your career path will require flexibility. Don’t shy away from a lateral move in your career, especially if it gets you one step closer to your next vertical move. This is especially true if you change industries or career paths.

5 skills to cultivate your career path 

As you progress through your career path, you will develop specific skills that prepare you for the next role. Some skills will be industry-specific, while other skills will be more common across all industries.

The following skills will contribute to the success of your professional development.

Adaptability

As mentioned before, every job during your career path may not be a step up on the career ladder. Sometimes a lateral move will be just as impactful as a vertical movement will be. It’s vital to remain adaptive and open to changes in the trajectory of your career.

Communication

Communication is a vital skill for anyone on their career path, no matter the industry. When you grow in your career, you won’t just communicate with your teammates anymore. You may be communicating with C-level executives, external clients, potential employees, partners, etc.

Effective communication will prove that you’re not only ready for the next role in your career, but you’re also able to communicate as a strong leader. Communication as a soft skill 

Leadership

There may come a time in your career where you evolve into a position that requires you to lead a team. Having strong leadership skills will help you cultivate your career path. Think about the managers and mentors that you’ve had. What qualities did those leaders have that made the most significant impact on you? What leadership styles do you want to adopt for the teams that you’ll lead?

Problem Solving

As you will find in most career paths, the work you do will evolve from task-based work into strategy-based solutions. Problem-solving skills will help you with that transition.

Take the problem of high turnover for example. A Human Resources Coordinator may solve this by recruiting two new Marketing Associates. The Director of Human Resources will suggest strategies that the coordinator will execute. Developing strategies that solve problems will be essential through your career path development. 

Time Management

Time management won’t always be about how much work you can get done in a day or a week. Employers also evaluate the results that you produce within a given amount of time. The way you prioritize and delegate tasks will be an example of your time management skills.

There are several online resources that help with time management. You can check out the dozens of books about time management too. 

Start working on your career path today

It’s never too early to start thinking about your career path. It’s never too late either! If you’re excited about growing in your career, creating a career path is the perfect first step. 

Start by assessing your current skills, interests, and experience. Then think about your ideal career. The jobs and skills that you need to move from your current position to your ideal role will make up the steps in your career path.

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Published August 6, 2021

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