Differentiating a nontraditional career path

Guest post by Ron Elsdon

Nontraditional careers, tailored to individual needs and based on more than one source of income, are increasingly appealing as I write about in How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Elsdon, 2014). They can be both personally fulfilling and practically rewarding. “I can’t imagine myself ever working for somebody else in a corporate setting like [working for a] boss … [and being a] minion. I think my soul would just die.” (Carmichael, 2014). These words from someone at an early career stage, building her own business, reflect a core shift in how we think about work. For example, a recent Accenture study shows that only fifteen percent of recent college graduates want to work for a large-size company (LaVelle, Silverstone, and Smith, 2015).

Man working with laptop and smartphoneAn alternative with much appeal is a nontraditional career path with more than one career component and more than one source of income. This aligns work with personal preferences, values, interests and skills. Its multiple income streams, built on personal strengths, can lower risk and raise reward compared with conventional employment. It benefits from today’s readily accessible computing and communication tools. Moreover, the Affordable Care Act eliminated barriers to obtaining healthcare insurance for many people. Not surprisingly, studies show satisfaction levels much higher for those in a nontraditional career path compared with conventional employment.

Success in a nontraditional career is aided by creating a differentiated approach with specialized, distinctive products or services. This is central both to an effective initial career launch and for ongoing sustainability. It is a major reason why a customer will make a purchase and it is the basis for a viable financial position. Moreover, sustainable differentiation means that a customer would incur significant switching costs moving away from your product or service.

When components in a nontraditional career are linked by a common thread, we can seek differentiation through this core connecting thread, for example, in my case the relationship of individuals, organizations and community. In addition, differentiation is accessible through the specific attributes of individual career components. We can identify various approaches to differentiation such as the following ten sources we examine in How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path:

  • Distinct product or service offering
  • Operational excellence
  • Focused, passionate engagement and commitment
  • Team capability
  • Nature, depth, and longevity of customer relationships
  • Ability to tailor to customer needs
  • Flexibility
  • Speed
  • Cost
  • Component linkages

How can we protect and sustain such differentiation?

Let me suggest the following:

  • Establish and integrate more than one source of differentiation.
  • The more sources of differentiation, and the more complex their interaction, the more difficult it will be for others to imitate. Combining distinctive product or service offerings with cost advantages, speed of response, and deep customer relationships will be stronger and longer lasting than any one of these separately.
  • Emphasize continuous development and innovation as a means of revitalizing sources of differentiation.
  • Invest time and resources into continuously identifying new areas of client interest and into creating new content with offerings tailored accordingly.
  • Use measurement to inform and refine service or product delivery.
  • Gather and aggregate regular feedback from clients receiving services or products about their experiences and their resulting actions.  This provides ongoing learning and a basis for strengthening and refining service or product delivery.
  • Emphasize frequent communication of value contribution to customers to underline the nature, extent, and attributes of differentiated products or services.
  • Create a reporting framework for customers purchasing services or products that offers insights into the reception of delivered services or products and their value contribution.

Taking such steps helps ensure that differentiation isn’t a fleeting concept, rather that it becomes embedded in a nontraditional career path, constantly revitalizing both the career path and the client and customer relationships that sustain its vitality.

Parts of this article are drawn from How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption, by Ron Elsdon (Praeger, 2014).


Carmichael, Chris. 2014. Etsy Artisans Reach Retailers.  New York Times Video, April 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/video/business/100000002824797/etsy-goes-wholesale.html?emc=edit_th_20140415&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=45569923.

Elsdon, Ron. 2014. How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption.  Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

LaVelle, Katherine, Yaarit Silverstone, and David Smith. 2015. Are you the Weakest Link? Strengthening Your Talent Supply Chain. Accenture Strategy.

Ron Elsdon, a member of CareerOneStop’s national Advisory Group, is a founder of organizations in the career and workforce development fields. His published works include: How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Praeger, 2014); editor of Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing (Potomac Books, Inc., 2013); editor of Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development (Praeger, 2010); and author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003). He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, a master’s in career development from John F. Kennedy University, and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached at renewal@elsdon.com, or visit his website: www.elsdon.com.

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2 comments on “Differentiating a nontraditional career path
  1. Ian Boreham says:

    The non traditional career path that you talk about is based on highly specialized skills as you point out. These in demand skills enable the work style choice. Interesting to see how this pans out for graduates with little work experience?

  2. Ron Elsdon says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment Ian. A nontraditional career path can work well for people with a wide range of backgrounds, at different work/life stages, including early stages, as shown by the examples in the book “How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path.” The success of founders of technology start-ups, who have limited work experience, also speaks to this. Differentiation remains an important concept throughout.

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