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the new business normal

Andrea Gilbrook’s career has taken a twist: The former BlackBerry employee now works for a company, Communitech, that helps other victims of the tech giant’s restructuring find work.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Andrea Gilbrook didn't miss a stride when her job as a recruiter for BlackBerry Ltd. ended in the fall of 2013. She'd had a great run (four years), knew the Waterloo, Ont.-based tech giant was restructuring and was already in the process of being interviewed for "an amazing gig" with another employer when the layoff notice came.

In a deft turnabout, Ms. Gilbrook quickly adapted her skills upon landing at Communitech Inc., an organization that supports tech growth and innovation in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Instead of recruiting star employees for corporations such as BlackBerry, she now recruits corporations to hire the people who were cut loose by BlackBerry. Communitech brought her in to help stem the exodus of talent from the region.

"I just felt it was kind of full circle for me … and we have had a lot of success. A lot of the people whom I hired at BlackBerry and who, unfortunately, were laid off during the restructuring have found new opportunities, and that is definitely a good feeling," said Ms. Gilbrook, whose career has sprung through a series of progressively challenging human resources positions since graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2004.

Resilient, flexible, strategic and unafraid of change, Ms. Gilbrook is, in many respects, the face of the new employee in today's economy.

"Attitude, I think, is a huge piece of it," she said in an interview. "Knowing what you are good at and maybe not so good at is really important, and really focusing on your networks and what you want to do next. I stayed very connected when I went to BlackBerry and that helped me land [when BlackBerry shed thousands of employees], quite frankly."

No one can count on a lifelong career at the same organization any more, Communitech chief executive officer Iain Klugman says.

"I think, by and large, people are just much more aware of the need to manage their own careers," he said. "But it's always easy to get lulled into a sense of being overly confident when a company is growing at the rate at which BlackBerry grew for years and years. It is easy just to think it is never going to stop.

"But I think it is also important that people recognize the fact that either your company is going to reinvent itself and not need your talent any longer, or your company is going to be disrupted, and you are all going to be faced with the prospect of looking for a new career," Mr. Klugman said.

In Kitchener-Waterloo, more than 1,800 former BlackBerry employees have cycled through Communitech's Tech Jobs Connex centre since August of 2012, with funding support from the Ontario government. Of those, 1,500 have landed new work.

For most, it was a matter of repurposing their skills rather than totally reinventing themselves.

Some have gone back to school for training programs, some have signed on with tech startups and some have decided "maybe I should make my own job" and are starting their own companies, Mr. Klugman said.

"We have reached out not just to tech companies, but to a bunch of other companies to see if they are in need of talent, and that included insurance companies and banks and manufacturers," he said. "The laid-off had been engaged in a range of corporate functions within BlackBerry . . . and they were as at home in going to Manulife [Financial] as they were in going to IBM. Their skill set was such that they could add significant value."

This sort of morphing has been driven by technology.

"As the world – and especially technology – continues to move business forward at a faster pace than ever before, the needs of individuals also change," Toronto-based Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions and the United States-based Human Capital Institute said in a recently-released joint research report. "The concept of a single career trajectory, housed within a single company or an industry, continues to evolve. In its place is the growing trend of people embarking on a series of positions, spanning functions and businesses.

"In fact, some research estimates that millennials, who will account for nearly half of the work force by 2020 and will be in the work force longer on average than those in previous generations, will switch jobs frequently during their careers," the report said.

Kelly McDougald, managing director of career solutions and learning practices at Knightsbridge, advises employees to seek out opportunities where they can continuously develop and build transferable skills.

"The ideal situation is that they can continue to build those skills and transfer them within an organization in an evolving manner and they can build a career within an organization. But that's not always the case, so we say to them; "Focus on the skills and the outcomes and not the job itself, because the job might be perishable,'" Ms. McDougald said.

The Knightsbridge-HCI report on career management trends said "research indicates that the practice of 'job-hopping' and working for organizations in one– to two-year stints is not only on the rise, but it is associated with increased job fulfilment because it allows experimentation with a variety of roles, industries and professions."

This is the "new career normal," the report said. And employers that want to keep their talent are having to work a lot harder at providing opportunities for career development and skills mastery at a time when "the changing nature of work has all but eliminated traditional career paths. … "Even during the interview phase and early in their careers, they [young employees] want to clearly understand what opportunities an organization can offer them during their tenure, and what moves or skill development are available," Knightsbridge and HCI found.

"Simultaneously, companies and leaders must manage the external pressures and changes that affect the availability of those career opportunities: flattening organizational structures, downsizing, buyouts and mergers and outsourcing."

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