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How Many Years on the Same Job Is Too Much?

written by: Ada Stoy•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 9/7/2010

Spending many years on the same job might save you the stress of a new work environment but it can also be detrimental to your professional skills. Learn why and how to avoid it.

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    Years on the Same Job Many people in their 30s and 40s, not to mention in their 50s, complain they can't find a new job or a job at all. They attribute this to their age. Well, for somebody in their 50s or even in their 40s, age discrimination could be a factor, but usually a more prosaic reason is the lack of skills. You might have 20, 30 or more years of work experience and your skills for a particular position are below the entry level requirements for this position.

    This is easy to explain – by gaining experience (formally), you have lost qualification. This might sound inexplicable but actually the answer is very prosaic – spending many years on the same job has hurt your skills and has made it more difficult for you to market yourself.

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    Why Many Years on the Same Job Can Hurt Your Skills

    Spending many years on the same job leads to loss of skills because when you are doing routine tasks, this makes you forget all the other things you once knew. Even jobs that require diverse skills, can't put all your skills to use. For instance, if you are a Java developer and you write only enterprise applications, you will hardly follow the recent developments in mobile Java, for example.

    After a couple of years as a Java enterprise developer, Java enterprise development will be the only area you will know because you will have missed all the developments in other areas. Of course, you can keep an eye on them but it is very different when you just read the news about a new technology from when you write real-world applications.

    At some point, when you decide to wave goodbye to your co-workers in Java enterprise development and try to switch to another area, even if it is still a Java development variety, you discover that things have changed so much that you actually need to start from scratch. When you are 40 or 50, have a family to support and a mortgage to pay, starting from scratch is barely your dream career movement.

    Basically, these are the risks of narrow specialization and they are present in any profession. Sure, you can't change jobs twice a month just to keep your skills sharp, but when you spend many years on the same job, this leads to loss of skills and you become less competitive on the market.

    This is why it is considered that 3 to 4 years on the same job is optimal because you don't lose your skills and the employer doesn't have an employee who is light years behind the current state of things.

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    Do You Really Need to Change Your Jobs to Stay Fit Professionally?

    Don't get the wrong idea that you need to change your jobs frequently in order to stay fit professionally. Changing your jobs frequently (provided that you do manage to get new jobs at all) can only label you as unreliable and disloyal and this isn't better. Instead, try to acquire as many skills as possible in your current job and if you have the time, consider taking a second job where a different skill set is required.

    Many companies are aware that when employees spend many years on the same job, this hurts their skills. On-the-job training surely helps but it only softens the effect and doesn't eliminate it.

    Internal rotation is another alternative and many organizations use it. For instance, there are companies, where sales and marketing departments change their roles every other year. This way a marketing pro can see how things in the trenches are and why their genius product doesn't sell (because it is poorly positioned, for example) and a sales pro can see that planning a product isn't as easy as it seems when you are on the sales side of things.

    On-the-job training and internal rotation are just some of the alternatives. Don't expect that your employer will invest in your skills just because he or she is a good-doer. Your employer knows that the more skills you have, the better your chances to find a new job are. Some employers don't invest much in their people because they are afraid to lose them. If you are stuck with such an employer, don't allow them to cripple you professionally – invest in your skills and look for greener pastures.

    Image Credit: graur razvan ionut /