IN the current economic environment where jobs are difficult to secure, there is significant debate about attracting new entrants as older employees leave the workforce. Organisations seldom consider the position of mid-career professionals, who are generally seen as a stable cohort with an established career.

MidCareerYet recent research indicates that despite having valuable expertise to offer organisations, this group feels unjustly overlooked and under valued.

Typically, a mid-career rail professional is 45-55 years of age. Many are thinking about whether their career is proceeding in the direction they imagined when they first started working and whether it is time to make a change before it is too late. A survey of mid-career rail professionals from 30 countries conducted in late 2015 found that generally the mid-career point is viewed with the possibility of going in one of two directions: either into a maintenance phase where the career plateaus, or with the prospect of reaching new heights.

The mid-career professional group has a wealth of knowledge from their career experiences, and potentially have ideas to increase the productivity, efficiency and outcomes of companies in all areas. Considering that companies are worried about creating and applying new ideas and innovations to remain competitive, actively utilising these skills, knowledge, experience and enthusiasm therefore makes good business sense.

Prajogo and Pervaiz (2006) link the process of innovation in companies to the skills and talents of all individuals who have experience in the workplace. It is through this lens that we explore how rail companies can tap into the mid-career rail professional group to address the innovation agenda required of organisations while at the same time re-engaging and reinvigorating the careers of this cohort.

In our survey, we found the top two challenges faced by mid-career rail professionals at all types of rail organisations (except political bodies) are: work-life balance (31.1%) and career advancement (30.2%). A third challenge, talent recognition (15.1%), was categorised as a standalone issue but combined with career advancement, equates to 45.3% of survey respondents. This shows almost half of survey respondents are concerned about where their career is heading and that their talent, skills, abilities and knowledge are not appreciated.

There is then a strong likelihood of staff becoming disengaged at mid-career if they are not encouraged or appreciated in their role. This in turn causes them to look for new opportunities or not give their best at work. A large number of participants (59%) reported that they are now actively taking responsibility for their career as they feel ignored by their companies. The 207 participants who reported this had all been in their current role for one-10 years with most employed between four and 10 years. The majority of these professionals were subject matter experts, project managers and program managers (21.7% each). In general, the mid-career group showed low levels of confidence towards HR (6.6%) and their management (16.8%) in supporting career advancement, career development and talent recognition.

One of the key issues reported by survey respondents about developing their career relates to dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. As professionals move into their mid-career, we identified five distinct pathways considered by individuals both within and outside of the organisation that would provide career advancement and an improved work-life balance.

These include pursuing a technical specialisation with a team or a management role, which is favoured by men as the time needed to dedicate to both roles are substantial and offer limited flexibility for part-time work. Outside of their current organisation, professionals contemplated becoming a consultant, joining another company that had less demanding schedules or undertaking a complete career change.

In the organisation’s favour is the finding that many professionals say they lack the courage to pursue the consulting pathway due to uncertainty about continuous work. Many felt they did not have the complete set of business skills to promote their services and run an enterprise.

The career plateau which typically begins at around 45 and continues until the late 50s, can be successfully addressed. Firstly, it needs companies to recognise this potential plateau and dip, and then to actively develop strategies to concentrate on the possible disengagement and how to re-engage people in the mid-career group in order to better utilise their skills.

New goals

There are some strategies that can help individuals feel more enthusiastic about their job. These include setting new goals for the period between the ages of 45 and 55, which might include developing new skills, studying a new qualification, or pursuing a new hobby or interest. Our survey found that many mid-career professionals felt ‘burnt-out’ from emotional exhaustion due to job demands so investigating health issues, becoming more active or physically fit and changing lifestyle habits can dramatically increase enthusiasm for work. Seeking out a mentor or coach can also provide new career insights and help develop strategies to tackle the day to day career issues.

Many professionals in our survey were interested in sharing knowledge and ideas with professional networks, and pursued this in their own time even when their company did not support the interactions by providing suitable resources to do so.

Traditionally, the rail industry has operated in a hierarchical system which is still largely evident today. In many organisations where innovation thrives, more organic structures are visible, characterised by more flexible working arrangements and the engagement of staff in different roles to contribute ideas to current issues and problems. These staff feel that their talents are maximised and their contributions valued.

In all successful organisational initiatives, the unreserved commitment and support of executives is a driving factor. Gaining their support is therefore essential to the success of any initiative to better recognise and utilise the skills and expertise of mid-career professionals.

One way in which senior managers can support the mid-career professional group is to develop a set of guiding principles for line managers and supervisors so that they are aware of the importance of engaging and retaining this group of employees. We have identified five principles for the organisation to consider:

  • Take time to get to know your staff, talk to them and listen to their fears, concerns and aspirations.
  • Encourage more innovative work approaches: at least 50% of staff who completed our survey want to have some control of their career and their destiny, indicating that personal fulfilment and self-actualisation are the greatest unmet needs with rail industry mid-career professionals.
  • Develop savvy business skills: invest in talented people so that they learn about innovative work approaches and entrepreneurial skills to help them work in a more business-like manner.
  • Invest in your employees: talented mid-career professionals are looking for opportunities to network with others, develop contacts and gain new knowledge to keep themselves enthused and their career moving. Managers can provide teams with the task of determining which events are most suitable and use these functions as a reward for good work. 
  • Be the watchdog on work: give your employees challenging projects but don’t overload them. Implementing a set of guiding principles around the mid-career level sends a message to the rest of the organisation that this group plays an important role in business operations.
    While the concept of empowerment is associated with some workplace freedom, this may be difficult to achieve within the rail industry due to safety and security concerns. However, we identified five actions that employers should consider to continue to engage mid-career professionals and to encourage organisational longevity.
  • Training and development: career pathway planning and associated training will help professionals to fulfil their aspirations. Many professionals in our survey had been in their roles for up to 20 years which indicates that they had not been helped to develop and grow. Multiskilling of employees helps backfill positions when people go on leave or move to another position. It also helps people develop a toolkit of skills should they change jobs or organisations.
  • Communication, integrity and sincerity: we found that while organisations document training and development initiatives, many managers and departments did not follow through on this written commitment. Consistent benchmarking of programmes and initiatives to ensure that these initiatives take place can help to achieve written goals and not unintentionally prejudice individual employees.
  • Employee satisfaction and feedback is collected, measured and acted upon: consistently developing and running simple questionnaires helps to regulate employee satisfaction with workplace initiatives. Incorporating ideas and corrective measures motivates employees to give feedback.
  • Employee flexibility and multi-skilling: developing a range of skills promotes organisational innovation and new competencies. Considering that many rail professionals like the idea of consultancy but did not have the courage to make the move, the opportunity to upskill would offer renewed enthusiasm to many mid-career rail professionals.
  • Good work environment: the greatest need identified within the survey is for flexibility in work schedules, the ability to work from home, and to have access to a job-share or part-time workload. Not only does this provide greater opportunity for innovative thinking and ideas, but people are more likely to remain engaged with their work.

Managing the extensive and explicit knowledge held by mid-career professionals is a major undertaking, but taking the time to understand their concerns may reveal some overall technical, workplace, or career issues holding companies back overall.

In particular, with traditional organisational structures not always conducive to creativity, managers need to consider how to allocate time and resources so that staff can generate ideas that will benefit the future of the business.

Research and experience shows that it is advantageous for groups of people with different skills and from different parts of a company to work together on various projects. And as this survey shows, it is essential that companies have an active strategy to recognise how the mid-career professional group can contribute to these groups because they have much to offer.

We identified some strategies to address the needs of mid-career professionals which focus on four areas comprising leadership, people management, knowledge management and creativity management. Senior managers must endorse and embrace these strategies in order to be successful. When organisations do this, they will address the need that mid-career professionals have for talent recognition and career advancement as well as improving their work-life balance by offering greater working flexibility.