What if Your Employer Won’t Support Your Career?

stairs-195924_1920I’ve had a lot of luck in my career, especially as it pertains to my work environment. Although I can’t say every technical job I’ve had was all unicorns and bacon, I’ve been very fortunate to have been treated fairly and professionally through most of my employment history. Not only was I treated respectfully, but the last three employers I had were accommodating when I asked for modest amounts of company time and money for training and other professional development needs.

However, this is not always the case. When I talk to fellow technologists at user group meetings or conferences, I’m frequently surprised at how many people work for companies that don’t offer any provision for the career development of their employees. A few folks even shared with me that they had paid their own way to the PASS Summit, which is a huge out-of-pocket expense to absorb even for a high earner. Even more shockingly is the number of professionals I’ve talked to who report that their employers won’t purchase business cards for them, or won’t even help buy them job-relevant books for fear that the employee will learn something new and leave. I’d like to say that these examples are rare, but sadly there are far more stories like this than there should be in a professional community.

I’ve got a few thoughts on what to do when presented with such a dilemma, but perspective is import – and there’s no better way to gain perspective than to seek out others with different experiences. I reached out to a few others in our community to get some input on this topic, and I’ve included some of their comments below.

What if Your Employer Won’t Support Your Career?

I forwarded this question to Jes Borland (b|t), and she shared some helpful information from her own career. (Edit: Jes had much more to say on this topic, and published a full post on her blog as well.)

Jes Borland Make time for learning, and put a priority on it. I used to wake up early and spend 30 minutes reading from one of my SQL books while I drink my morning coffee. You could read at lunch time, or in the evening before bed.

Start saving money to send yourself to training. … When my request to go to PASS Summit was I denied, I figured out how much I would need to save per month to be able to register in time for the early-bird discount the following year, and I started saving. Yes, this meant that money didn’t go to other things. But it was a sacrifice I made to improve my career. The money I invested in myself all those years ago has paid dividends many times over.

Bring training to the company. … Start a regular brown-bag-lunch-and-learn series. Give a talk. Ask your coworkers to give a talk. Watch a free webinar. Watch a recording. Let people ask questions and talk among themselves after. Ask how you can apply it to your company. Then, start applying those lessons. Don’t do this once and hope it works – do it regularly. Once a month, or once a week – whatever your schedule allows. After your leadership sees the effort you are putting in, and the positive effect it has on the company, they may be more willing to invest in outside resources.


I asked Kenneth Fisher (b|t), a frequent blogger and fellow Dallas-area guy, about his thoughts on this topic:

Kenneth Fisher To start with you need to remember: no matter how much an employer benefits from you improving your skills, It’s your career, not theirs.  This means that regardless of how much your employer supports you or not, it’s your job to build your career.

Learning new skills can be as cheap or expensive as you’d like.  You could spend fifty dollars on a book, thousands to go to a convention or make use of some of the vast amount of free resources available (SQL Saturdays, free e-books, user groups, blogs, etc). 

Networking can also cost as much as you’d like to put into it. Twitter is free and a great place to get started networking.  Likewise local user groups and SQL Saturdays.  On the other hand traveling to remote SQL Saturdays, going to conventions, or even going on a SQL Cruise can cost big money.  But while nice they aren’t really required.

In the end if your company refuses to even buy you a $50 book you might consider investing your own time and maybe some money to improve your skills, do some networking and find yourself some place better.  But again, at the end of the day, it’s still all about you.


My good friend Brian Moran (b|t) offered a great unique perspective on this as well:

Brian Moran My favorite answer to many questions is “It depends.” and this question is no different. Ultimately, you need to be responsible for your own career development whether or not your employer is assisting. Sometimes, being responsible for your own career development in a case like this might mean looking for a new job and sometimes it might mean being more proactive with carving out more personal time to invest in taking your career where you want it to be.

But let’s get back to the ‘it depends’ part of my answer.

Why is your employer not supporting your career development? I can think of a bunch of reasons why this might be the case. Here’s a partial list:

  • Maybe your employer simply doesn’t have the funds?
  • Maybe your employer is investing in the careers of others at the company and is excluding you for some reason?
  • Maybe your employer doesn’t think there is an ROI in investing in your career if that investment means you might leave?
  • Maybe your employer is just being a bit clueless and the thought hasn’t occurred to them? Have you presented a plan with an ROI justification from the businesses perspective to support your career growth plans?
  • Maybe your employer thinks you’re happy as a clam and there is nothing they need to do to make you even happier?

I can think of other reasons but I’d argue that the right way to deal with any reason boils down to this. You need to understood the root cause of why your employer isn’t supporting your career development and attack the problem from that perspective. Here’s one more tip. Good employers will recognize that investing in their employees is actually good for the business so making the case for ROI is pretty easy. But even at those good employers they are investing in your career because ultimately they think it’s good for the business first and good for you secondarily. So, never lose sight of the reality that your arguments need to be rooted in helping the business understand why investing in you is actually an investment in the business and help them understand what those dividends might yield.


I chatted with Chris Yates (b|t) to get his take, and he had a great deal of input:

Many data professionals find themselves in this spot. At every turn, they feel as though the cards are always stacked against them. That fight alone to better themselves both from the standpoint of acquiring knowledge and professional development.

You may be asking yourself “How the heck does this guy know anything about what I’m going through?” … I’ve been there. Yep, that’s right – I’ve been exactly in your shoes. But I’m here today to tell you that, in fact, you CAN take control of your career. Will it be easy? Nope. Will there be trials along the way? You bet. Will it be worth it in the end? Absolutely!

A few things that stick out beyond technical growth are:

  • Character – talent will take you so far; then character steps in and you become remarkable.
  • Attitude – one thing that you can control in any given situation.
  • Build your network – you have to start somewhere; get plugged in.
  • Put an action plan together – pick a fab five that you know are industry leaders in your area of expertise. What are they doing right?
  • Take charge of your career

This reaches beyond whether you are in a technical role or not. A professional has to make a conscious decision to care about their career growth. With that said, some things to avoid regarding your career growth:

  • Blaming others. – Never point the finger. Taking control means taking ownership, even of your mistakes.
  • Expecting there to be no problems along the way. – This is life. There will ALWAYS be problems arise. Use them to grow. This is a prime example of where attitude come into play.
  • Doing enough to get by. – Anyone can do “just enough”. Set yourself apart by reaching out and looking for opportunities to grow.

Motivation from within will take you out of your comfort zone. That is okay. You will find that many people claim to have it, but very few understand it. Rise and grind daily. Let the past be the past… the Future is a gift.

If you do find yourself in a technical environment what are some things you can do to help further your career growth?

  • Find a local user group in the area of your expertise.
  • Get plugged in to what is going on in your industry through social media, blogs, forums.
  • Visit training sites – there are some great free ones out there.
  • Tap into those in your company that are proven leaders. Learn from them.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to make the decision that you are not going to stay where you are. Figure out where you are, and then reach out to where you want to be. And in time you will surprised that you career has begun to grow.


Final Thoughts

With the excellent input from the folks above, I’ve got very little to add to this. The one theme in all of their comments that I will reinforce is that your career is yours to own. You might find yourself in a situation like I was with my last employer, where they took an active interest in my career, or like my first tech job where it was mostly on me to find time and money for career development. In either scenario, you should remain in the driver’s seat. No one will look out for your career as well as you do. Whether that means buying your own books, paying for your own business cards, or even funding your own trip to conferences, it’s ultimately up to you.

About the Author

Tim Mitchell
Tim Mitchell is a data architect and consultant who specializes in getting rid of data pain points. Need help with data warehousing, ETL, reporting, or training? If so, contact Tim for a no-obligation 30-minute chat.

2 Comments on "What if Your Employer Won’t Support Your Career?"

  1. Great post Tim. I run into this frequently with attendees of SQL Cruise. Most attendees pay for these events in part or in full knowing at some level they need to take responsibility for their growth because many less dynamic thinking employers or managers see professional growth as a threat to your engagement with the company. Not understanding completely that professional growth is just as important to fulfillment in your current role as it is in preparing for things to come.

    • Thanks Tim. I had a similar conversation on Twitter this morning. While I’m disappointed that some employers don’t look out for their employees, I’m also encouraged that some folks finding themselves in such a situation opt to take charge rather than just accepting it.

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