Thursday, 21 June 2012

Interviewed in the Globe and Mail - June 2012

Summertime: Rest and recharge, or learn career skills?

Last summer, Carolyn Poole, an associate with Calgary-based Cenera, a human resource consulting firm, decided to buff up her skills. She acquired a new certification in career management coaching by taking a 12-week daytime course given online.
“At first, I felt like a child who says, ‘I don’t want to go to school in the summer.’ But in my world, business does slow down during the summer. My big corporate clients often put things off until the fall. So in many ways this is an ideal time to do some learning.”
It’s so ideal that when the Academies, the course provider, offered a summer bonus – free courses on social media to enhance marketability – Ms. Poole signed up for those, too.
“I did them while I was on holiday, and didn’t lose any billable hours,” she says. “I was able to sit on my patio in mid-afternoon and do the courses in a relaxed environment. I’d rather that than wait until the fall and try to squeeze in courses in the evening when I’m tired.”
As Ms. Poole notes, it’s a matter of personal preference whether employees should make summer a season of learning, a season of revivifying vacation – or perhaps a combination of both.
Professional development in the summer doesn’t have to mean acquiring more formal education, says Sari Friedman, a Toronto human resources consultant. In fact, upgrading your certification in the summer may be more difficult because a smaller selection of courses is offered by post-secondary institutions.
“Instead,” she says, “it’s a good time to catch up on the more informal ways of upgrading skills, like following the groups on LinkedIn more closely and participating more, as well as reading more articles and business-related books that you didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.” These methods have the advantage of low cost, too.
The summer is a good season for employers to offer their staff in-house training, says Ms. Friedman. “Not everyone slows down in the summer, obviously. It depends on the industry, the company and what sort of business cycle they have. But [to the extent that the pace of work is slower,] people are more likely to be focused, less distracted by tight deadlines, so it’s a good time to be learning.”
The only downside, she says, is that by offering the training in, say, early July, the employer “might be worried the employees wouldn’t have a chance to apply the learning until the fall. Optimally, you want people to apply what they’ve learned right away.”
Gregg Taylor, senior workplace consultant with Family Services Employee Assistance Program in Vancouver, says it’s important for employees to take vacations in order to re-energize themselves.
“I’m an advocate of making the holiday truly that – a time away. You’ll be more creative and productive by having the split from the work. So leave it at the office,” Mr. Taylor says. “Don’t feel like you’re going to miss out on opportunities if you’re not on your smartphone 24/7.”
That said, he believes summer may be the right time for employees to upgrade their skills by doing special projects for which there isn’t time during the rest of the year, or by filling in for colleagues who are off on vacation. Rather than “lifelong learning,” he says the goal should be “right time, right type training,” in which employees step on and off the training treadmill as their career path dictates.
For example, says Mr. Taylor, “when the head of sales tells you that, to move into the sales division, you would need more sales skills, does that mean you need an MBA, a six-month business diploma, or that you just need to learn the contact management software in a two-day workshop? It’s a matter of better assessing the skill-build that you need to do.”
Lawyers, doctors and accountants, among others, have the opportunity to combine professional development with a vacation by attending the annual conferences run by their associations.
Alexander De Zordo, a commercial litigation partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Montreal, makes a point of arriving a few days before and staying a few days after the conferences that he attends. “It gives me more quality downtime,” he says. “The conferences usually have suggestions for what to do in the city, and by the time the conference is over, I’m already acclimatized.”
This August, Mr. De Zordo plans to bring his wife and children with him when he attends the Canadian Bar Association’s annual gathering in Vancouver. They will spend two weeks in total on the Pacific Coast. “I want to see more than just the hotel room, the conference room and the airport lounge,” he says.
While Mr. De Zordo looks forward to the family time, he also expects to benefit from the CBA’s panel discussions. “I find the learning is most rewarding when I go outside my comfort zone,” he says. He finds it useful to learn how issues are handled in other jurisdictions, and what in-house lawyers expect of their external law firms. “You don’t always have the chance to get that insight elsewhere,” he says.
HR consultants and career c oaches offer no absolutes on the best summer dispensation.
“It depends on who you are and what makes you tick,” says Ms. Poole. “Personally, I would rather structure my life so that I have a steady flow of work and learning and play than peaks where I’m firing on 120 per cent and then I’m doing nothing.”