Go back to blog overview

Roosmarij Clercx

September 27, 2021

Roosmarij Clercx


Ans De Vos and Lorenzo Andolfi

Wanted: (more) flexible career paths

Human Resources

Because of the unpredictable and rapidly changing context, a flexible labor market is more important than ever. The coronavirus crisis, for instance, demonstrated that flexibility was much needed to keep workers employed and to keep organizations up and running. Our employer surveys show that in about 1 in 5 organizations workers had to be redeployed.

Moreover, transitions that had been underway for some time, such as digitalization, have accelerated. Even before the pandemic, adaptability and flexibility were at the top of the list of competencies for the future. An HRD survey by SD Worx in June 2021 in 14 European countries shows that sustainable employability, talent development and internal mobility are in the top 5 of the biggest challenges of the coming years.


Discourse versus reality?

This contrasts with what we observed in our first survey in 2012. Then, too, it was emphasized that "the right person in the right place" and talent development are key. At the same time, the vast majority (over 90 percent) of the employers surveyed stated that retaining employees and ensuring continuity were two of their career policy’s main objectives. Career policies thus largely coincided with employee retention policies–which could (unintentionally) result in stability rather than flexibility.

Even today, despite the call for more flexible career paths, our labor market is primarily characterized by stability. Statistics from Steunpunt Werk show that the average job seniority of workers in Belgium between the ages of 15 and 64 is about 11 years. This figure has remained virtually unchanged for the past 10 years. Employees thus still tend to stay with one company. This is confirmed by a longitudinal study by SD Worx, based on payroll data of 176,768 white-collar workers with 18,823 employers between 2009 and 2019: during this period, 60 percent remained with the same employer. Moreover, this stability increases with age–while, in view of longer careers, it is important to create mobility throughout careers.

This is also reflected in how employees look upon their career. Although most feel that they are in the driver’s seat of their career, many tend to consider only their current employer as the playing field for their career. The good news is that employees do look within their own organization for opportunities to further develop themselves or for internal career moves.

‘Career-breaking research’ - employees:

2012: 44% “I aim at staying with the same employer throughout my career.”

2020: 55% “I would rather stay with the same employer throughout my career.”

Promoting internal mobility

At the same time, employers are still missing out on numerous opportunities here. For example, in 2016, more than 7 in 10 employers surveyed confirmed that their employees usually do the same job for years.

To achieve more flexible career paths, promoting a higher mobility within jobs and organizations is a critical first step. Thus, you not only prevent long-term employment at the expense of flexibility, but it also offers opportunities to realize continuity as an organization.

In this, it comes down to facilitating dynamic career paths rather than managing them. This means promoting and supporting employees throughout their career to leave the comfort zone of their current job and gain new experiences. This does not necessarily imply changing jobs–you can also create mobility by temporary projects, internal internship programs, new assignments within the current job, or by stimulating teams to regularly reassign tasks.

"The organization's mission to support employees in this internal mobility is key, but it is at the same time a difficult role that is not given to everyone. Technologies such as intelligent marketplace tools that suggest projects or jobs that are a perfect fit for the talents and preferences of employees can no doubt support managers in that role, but they will never fully replace them." 

Lorenzo Andolfi, SD Worx

3 steps toward more flexible career paths

  1. Focus on mobility both inside and outside the current job: career mobility is also about gaining new experiences within the job itself, participating in temporary projects, or internal internships.
  2. Identify the internal barriers that prevent mobility–both in HR practices (e.g., how does the pay policy prevent mobility?) and mentally (How do employees and managers look upon careers? What uncertainties or concerns are there?).
  3. Look beyond borders: collaborating with other employers allows employees to gain new career experiences–which may improve their long-term employability.

10 blog posts for 10 years of Next Generation Work

This blog post is the seventh in a series of 10. In each blog post we will offer solutions from different perspectives, as a count down to November 2021, the moment when we bring everything together in the celebration of 10 years of Next Generation Work. We already look forward to welcoming you there. More information will follow in the next few months.

Follow our activities on '10 years sustainable careers'