Career Advancement Without Experience

Lacking experience, contract workers find it difficult to advance to a job with expanded responsibilities. But it can be done. Siobhan O'Mahony discusses research into the concept of "stretchwork" and the increasing complexity of career management.
by Julia Hanna

A worker seeks fulfillment in a new job involving expanded skills and responsibilities. The dilemma: Without prior experience in the field, how can she prove her capability to a potential employer? The challenge is even more daunting for contract workers making their living outside of an established organization.

What they need, say researchers Siobhan O'Mahony and Beth Bechky, is "stretchwork" that fits with an individual's previous experience and yet extends their skills in a new direction. Stretchwork can help workers bridge the gap to a more rewarding position and enable them to manage and advance their careers in the less predictable world of contract labor.

But how do you land those kinds of jobs?

In "Stretchwork: Managing the Career Progression Paradox in External Labor Markets," forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal, the authors examine tactics used by contract workers to obtain stretchwork. O'Mahony is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School while Bechky is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis.

"More people are working in more organizations over the course of their careers," O'Mahony says. "In addition, they're moving in and out of contract work. There are a number of open research issues here, such as questions of health insurance and retirement. What we did was focus on a very specific problem: I'm qualified to do X, but what I want to do is Y. How do I get there?"

For their study, O'Mahony and Bechky surveyed two strikingly different groups: high-tech contractors and film crew members. While roles in the film industry tend to be more fixed—a key grip on one project will most likely perform the same function on a different project—the work of high-tech contractors varies widely from job to job.

People who are good at presenting their prior experience can narrow the gap between their past experience and future capabilities.

"Film crew work is also intensely co-located and collaborative, with intense periods of togetherness," O'Mahony says. "Tech workers are usually off on their own and don't necessarily work in teams."

In the end, however, the differences between the two groups played less of a role in the study than their commonalities. "Both are trying to do the same thing in terms of their career; get the next job that will get them the next job," O'Mahony says.

Stretchwork Strategies

The researchers identified four successful tactics for obtaining stretchwork that were common to both groups:

  • Differentiate competence. Anyone hoping to advance must distinguish his or her performance on the job. This is particularly true, however, for contract workers—because they are paid for each short-term job, their employers are likely to subject their work to close, frequent evaluation.
  • Acquire referrals. Because high-tech contractors tend to work with a number of clients, brokers, and fellow contractors, they enjoy a broader social network from which to draw referrals than most permanent employees. In the film industry—where most hiring is done based on a production manager's previous experience with an individual—referrals are a vital aspect of getting any job, particularly if it stretches a worker in a new direction.
  • Framing and bluffing. "This is one of the most creative attributes for obtaining stretchwork," O'Mahony notes. "People who are good at presenting their prior experience in a way that allows for an easy translation to the desired job can narrow the gap between their past experience and future capabilities." Adopting a hybrid job title to identify oneself—"director-screenwriter," for example—can also help establish authority in more than one area.
  • Discounting. Accepting pay below the market rate is a temporary disadvantage some contract workers are willing to accept, if it means gaining the experience and exposure that will lead to a new position. One technical writer put it this way: "I turned down solid offers from three companies, all paying over $100K a year…I would take a job at $55K if they're using a totally new technology so I learn something…It's like playing pool…You hit the green ball with the white ball, and the point is to place the white ball to get the next shot. So I take that job in order to learn skills for my next project."

The assumption that skills transfer easily from one context to another rarely holds, O'Mahony notes; making that transition frequently involves hidden work of a social nature. Future research might test which tactics are most effective in translating skills from one assignment to another, or it could examine how strategies for obtaining stretchwork might differ, depending on the types of skills individuals hope to acquire. Further work could also be done in other industries; while the high-tech and film worlds are far apart in some sense, they share the common characteristic of highly skilled, specialized workers.

I'm qualified to do X, but what I want to do is Y. How do I get there?

There's also potential for examining the overall shape of a contract worker's career over the course of a thirty- to forty-year period. "If one's career path is no longer through an organization, what are the long-term consequences of the individual assuming greater and greater responsibility for career progression?" O'Mahony asks. "The problem is, this is a relatively new phenomenon, and longitudinal research takes time."

The New Career Path

With that said, there should be ample opportunity to study this area further in the coming years. "The increased focus on the external labor market is not a trend that is reversing easily," O'Mahony remarks. "There's been a fundamental change in the compact between the employer and employee that is not going away."

In other words, the notion that one's career path will follow an orderly succession of jobs is long outdated.

"I don't think we have good research available that points to the uneven nature of progression," O'Mahony concludes. "People assume that they will keep moving up until they plateau; the fact is, the process may be much more bumpy than they expect."

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.