Further thoughts on “portfolio” careers

Last week I wrote a critique of Charles Handy’s concept of the Shamrock Organisation and touched on the concept of “portfolio careers”. In The Australian’s Higher Ed section this week there was an article on the casualisation of academic jobs where “portfolio careers” coincidentally came up. The article began with parts of an interview with the CEO of Universities Australia, Belinda Robertson who said, in part:

“casualisation suits a lot of people who take a portfolio approach to their career; they mix and match academic work with work in industry, consulting and so on.”

To which Kate Bowles quipped: “said no casual academic I know”.

Robertson positions portfolio work as a choice, but the empirical work on portfolio employment (that I have found in my very limited and casual searching) instead shows that people adopt portfolio work in a variety of circumstances, only one of which is a free choice.

In a paper describing the secure-to-portfolio career transition of a group of former NHS managers (paywalled), Mary Mallon wrote:

The literature on new career forms, of which portfolio careers is an example, stresses the positive, the potential liberation, the opportunities to grow and develop without dependence on an organisations. A normative view has begun to emerge without empirical evidence to substantiate claims of how people will act and feel.

But (Mallon again):

The findings present a more ambiguous picture of their experience of portfolio work than the normative literature might suggest. Each merit of portfolio working was constructed as a drawback and vice versa. So, while there may be more variety, this leads to a loss of deeper attachment; while there may be a chance to grow and develop, this proves difficult outside the umbrella of organisational employment; while they are more free to pick and choose work, financial matters have to be considered; while they want to believe they have made a positive and successful move, the reputation of portfolio working, as many perceive it, rather taints and undermines them; while they feel they have more freedom, they still constrain their own behaviour by reference to workplace norms.

There’s lots going on here but one thing that I’m seeing in much of the portfolio work literature is an assumption that a portfolio worker and the organisations they work for are in some way equal partners (you can laugh here). Brian O’Reilley, writing for Fortune in 1994, captured this idea:

The era that traded loyalty for job security is virtually dead. The new contract is: There will never be job security. You will be employed by us as long as you add value to the organization, and you are continuously responsible for finding ways to add value. In return, you have the right to demand interesting and important work, the freedom and resources to perform it well, the pay that reflects your contribution, and the experience and training needed to be employable here or elsewhere.

Anyone working as a casual academic is entitled to wonder when they’re going to get the “in return” part that O’Reilley writes about.

In a more theoretical paper (again, paywalled, sorry), Cawsey, Deszca and Mazerolle write:

A prime assumption [of the portfolio career] is that organizations are trustworthy. The individual must first deliver value added, and only then does the organization entertain the idea of training him or her for the next job on the next level up. This has the individual bearing all of the risk. Even if a person performs well but things just don’t work out for reasons not related to performance, the most one could hope for would be a good reference.

What all this means generally, I don’t know. What it means specifically, though, is that talking about the casualisation of higher education work as “something that suits a lot of people” assumes only benefits and glosses over any potential downsides.

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