CAREER?

These days having a career seems almost vital. Simply
having job just doesn't cut it. On the urging of adults to think
carefully about "what they want to be", young people begin
early to plan for a carrier, consult career counselors, attend
career fairs and workshops, and more. If you don't have a
career, well, you're just out of the loop.

Even old people are affected by this notion of career.
When a retiree is asked "What kind of work did you do?", the
real question is, "What career pidgon hole should I put you in?"
In the case of both the younger and the older person, the
assumption is that one plans to follow, or has followed, a
particular vocational path during his or her entire working life.
I have problems with this notion of career for two reasons.
First, because so many people, by choice or necessity, have
switched to a different kinds of employment, often several
times. Think of the thousands of people who have had to find
new kinds of work because their job has been outsourced or
made obsolete by technological change.

The second reason I disagree with this career idea is that it
hasn't applied at all in my life. As a child, I knew that I wanted
to be a farmer. During high school I raised chickens; while in the
Army I took correspondence courses in animal husbandry; and I
graduated from college with a degree in agricultural economics.
It was clear that I was headed for a career in agriculture.

So what happened? I have never been employed a day in
agriculture. The first job I got after graduating from college, in
1950, was working with the World's YMCAlYWCA in Germany. I
organized English language classes, recreation activities, and
resettlement orientation for World War II refugees preparing to
emigrate to the USA, Canada, and Australia. During two years in
Germany, the closest I got to agriculture was when I rode my bike
to nearby farming villages on Sunday afternoons.

By the time I returned to the States, my interest in farming
had waned, but I knew I didn't want to live in a big city. The
problem was finding a way of earning a living in a small town. In
my search for an answer, I learned about the emerging field of
city management. To qualify as a town or city manager, one
needed a master's degree in pubic administration, which I got.
Now I was headed for a new career. Over four years, I
apprenticed in two cities and was in the process of applying for
city manager positions when I learned that the Agency for International
Development was recruiting people to work as advisors
in local government in developing countries. The opportunity
sounded enticing to both me and my new wife, so I applied and
was employed to work as a municipal advisor in Iran.
Working in a foreign country was so gratifying that my
career goals shifted to the Foreign Service. After two years in
Iran, my next assignment was to have been to the Government of
Liberia, helping organize local government among rural villages.
Amazingly, my background in agriculture and local government
were about to merge.

Unfortunately as I was preparing to move to Africa fate
stepped in to upset my career plans yet one more time. It
happened that our year old son, who was born in Tehran, had a
heart murmur and the State Department would not permit us to
take him overseas. I could have worked in Washington, but
neither my wife nor I wanted to live there, so we returned to
California.

With no job and now a family of four, I was giving serious
thought to weather I wanted to return to city management when
I learned about a new kind of human development training that
was being offered by UCLA at a summer institute at Lake
Arrowhead. I attended, was profoundly affected by the
experience, and decided to seek employment in the area of
human relations. Obviously, this meant another new career.
With all of three weeks of human development training
under my belt, I looked for a job in that field and learned that
North American Aviation was recruiting trainers for management
development courses in their Apollo aerospace program. I
applied, was hired, and spent the next two years conducting
leadership training for supervisors and managers in the Space
Division of North American Aviation.

Building on that experience, my next move was joining a
new management consulting firm, Leadership Resources, Inc., as
their west coast regional director.

This business did not go well, so after two years I was
looking for something more promising when I was approached by
University of California Extension to direct a new program
funded by President Johnson's War on Poverty. Once again a
new vocation, this one as head of the Western Center for
Community Development.

The War on Poverty might have gone on for a long time if
President Johnson had run for a second term, but when he did
not, Richard Nixon became President and promptly abolished the
anti-poverty program. With federal funds cut, the University's
community development activities, and my job, were
terminated.

The next turn in my occupational path was the bumpy one of
self-employment as a management consultant. Clients in
business and government, including the National Park Service,
the Social Security Administration, the Department of Housing
and Urban Development (HUD), state and local government, kept
me going for the next twenty years or more. The most unusual
of these jobs took me to India as advisor to their Ministry of
Health and Family Planning.

With a work history such as mine, the question is -- did I
have a real career or only a string of jobs? Clearly, a bunch of
various work experiences does not make a career in the usual
sense. But looked at in a different way, I think I did have a
career.

My "career" was being involved in important, often cutting
edge, events that were going on in the world. Somehow, my
work had to serve a larger purpose than just earning a living.
Every job I had fit this pattern.

Post World War II refugee work in Germany, city
management, urban development in Iran, the Africa program of
the Agency for International Development, the Human Potential
Movement, the Apollo space program, human relations training in
industry, The War on Poverty, family planning in India, all of
these fulfilled my need for challenge, adventure, and to be part
of the significant developments of the time.

Sometimes I feel as though I missed something by not
having been part of a recognized profession. And I've never
found a short answer to the question, "What kind of work did
you do?" But how can I complain when I got just what I asked
for?

Ren Renshaw, Nov. 29, 2006