by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Is it the career of the future or a passing fad? Will workers and employers in the U.S. embrace the concept as strongly as in Europe? Is it right for you?
The "it" is a portfolio career, in which instead of working a traditional full-time job, you work multiple part-time jobs (including part-time employment, temporary jobs, freelancing, and self-employment) with different employers that when combined are the equivalent of a full-time position. Portfolio careers offer more flexibility, variety, and freedom, but also require organizational skills as well as risk tolerance.
Portfolio careers are usually built around a collection of skills and interests, though the only consistent theme is one of career self-management. With a portfolio career you no longer have one job, one employer, but multiple jobs and employers within one or more professions.
Most experts attribute the concept of portfolio careers to management guru Charles Handy, who in the early 1990s predicted that workers will be more actively in control of their careers by working lots of small jobs instead of one big one.
And in his book, Job Shift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, William Bridges states that the lack of job security in today's workplace means that we are all temporary workers and that "all jobs in today's economy are temporary." And most other experts agree that the time is right for a rapid increase in portfolio careers -- especially among baby boomers searching for more challenges at the end of traditional careers.
An example of a person with a portfolio career is an accountant who works two days a week with one employer, teaches part-time at a local college, and has a consulting or tax practice on the side. But the jobs don't all have to use the same skills. For example, the accountant might also be an avid collector who spends two days a week selling his wares at the flea market. Or perhaps he/she serves on one or two corporate or advisory boards.
The reasons for considering a portfolio career are many. Some do it seeking a better work/life balance. Some do it for the variety and use of multiple skill sets. Some do it for the autonomy so that they -- rather than some corporate employer -- control their fate. Some do it to gain freedom form corporate agendas and politics. Some do it to follow multiple passions or for personal growth and fulfillment. Some do it for the pace and constant change. And some do it as a second career after retiring early from full-time employment, seeking new challenges and greater fulfillment.
But establishing and managing a portfolio career is not easy for many. Deciding on the types of jobs to seek, finding employers willing to hire, balancing competing demands for time, and managing the effort are key drawbacks mentioned. There's also the loss of benefits, possible drop in earnings, higher levels of uncertainty, lack of a regular routine, and feelings of isolation.
In one study of portfolio careerists (conducted by exec-appointments.com) -- executives who had left employers and gone into early retirement -- the majority, about two-thirds, reported they were very satisfied or satisfied with their success in establishing a portfolio career. The most rewarding aspects of a portfolio career were the ability to control own activities (27 percent), variety and unpredictability (21 percent), and freedom from corporate politics (19 percent). The biggest drawbacks include: difficulty in finding suitable roles (32 percent), uncertainty (25 percent), and constant need to network (21 percent). And not surprisingly, the two most important elements to their success were networking (57 percent) and self-marketing (20 percent).
Final Thoughts on Portfolio Careers
Is a portfolio career right for you? Whatever you decide, take the time to weigh all the pros and cons, and make your decision after considerable thought. (Note: The big issue that stops many potential portfolio career folks in the U.S. is the horrible state of our healthcare system -- and the cost for individuals to get decent coverage.)
Other resources that may help you with your decision:
And tools to help you once you decide on a portfolio career:
- Jobs for Consultants, Freelancers, Gurus
- Temporary Employment Jobs
- Telecommuting, Job Flexibility, and Work-at-Home Jobs
- Art of Career and Job-Search Networking: Networking Resources
Learn more in our Resources for Portfolio Careers, Patchworking, Moonlighting, Side-Gigs, Second Jobs, Freelancing.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.