Soper's Focus Career Security

April 11, 2005
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DUTTON — When the consolidation of two Ford Motor Co. engineering divisions eliminated his father’s position in 1956, Soper Taber Group Principal Ken Soper had his first exposure to downsizing.

Then 7 years old, his whole life revolved around the automobile industry, specifically Ford. He could hear the Ford test track from his bedroom; a neighbor three doors down drove the first T-Bird off the assembly line.

He had already decided that when he grew up, he would be a mechanical engineer.

After a full year of looking for a new job, his father found work as an engineer at another Ford facility — in Brazil.

“Job security has really become an aberration,” Soper said. “No employer can guarantee job security for you. If you depend on things always being the way they are, that’s risky business. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

After college, Soper drew the number four as his draft lottery number and enlisted in the Air Force as a chaplain’s assistant.

“That was when I first began trying to help people grow and develop, to find out who they are,” he said.

He enrolled in seminary, but later left to accept a position as the assistant dean of students at Spring Arbor College.

One day, the school’s career services officer handed him a copy of Dick Bolles’ book, “What Color Is Your Parachute?”

“I read it and immediately called and registered for the training,” Soper said. “I’ve been doing career counseling ever since.”

With the 1980s came marriage and an opportunity to launch a career services department at Indiana Wesleyan University. A personal computer, specifically a Radio Shack TRS80, began to find a place in his field.

In 1989, after five years of managing career services for Wheaton College just outside of Chicago, he had his own career crisis.

“The job wasn’t a match for my talents,” Soper said. “It was more administration than counseling. The cost of living was high, so it was also financially hard to live there. And then the big event for us came: Our second child was born with Down syndrome, and the nature of his needs really made it impossible for us to stay there.”

The couple moved to Grand Rapids where his wife found a job in two days and Soper began to develop his consultancy firm.

“When I came to Grand Rapids 16 years ago, I asked if there had been any downsizing here,” Soper recalled. “They said, ‘What’s that? That’ll never happen in West Michigan.’”

Sure enough, his wife was laid off a year later.

“This is a different kind of culture,” Soper said. “Companies care about the community, so I think they wanted to hold off as long as they could, and that’s why the downsizing process arrived late.”

Now, displaced workers are faced with translating their skills into new roles, either in manufacturing or the service industry. Many people will need to be retrained, but more importantly, Soper said, people will have to make some hard decisions about what it is they want to do.

At Indiana Wesleyan, he had set up a PC-based career guidance system, using a modem to link to an Indianapolis database. Since then, the evolving technology has produced innovative new assessment tools. But as those tools and tests have gotten better, Soper has begun to rely on them less and less.

“Sometimes the assessment process — especially for a younger person — seems like a black box,” Soper said. “Information goes in and something comes out, and they don’t know how that happened. Over the years I’ve learned that is a problem. Whether younger or older, you need to help people understand how they came up with this assessment.

“Now I find myself serving more as the assessment tool than I did before,” Soper said. “And I don’t really like the word assessment. I don’t like to think of it as testing as much as helping people find out who they are.”

People often try jobs, Soper said, then decide if they like it or not through that exploration. He feels it is better to articulate a career path first. While few ever follow the plan as a map, a worker will find that by identifying what will make him or her happy in advance, he or she will be better prepared to make career decisions.

Workers should then look back on their personal assessment every year or so.

“People aren’t thinking ahead, they’re not doing enough planning,” Soper said. “They lose a job, then go look someplace else.”

While a contractor for the Area Agency on Aging, Soper saw the effects of poor career planning firsthand, counseling displaced and underemployed individuals age 55 or older.

“They hadn’t adjusted to the new reality of how you find work,” Soper said. “The traditional approach to finding work doesn’t work anymore. You have to be proactive.”

Many of his clients were being turned down for work because they were “overqualified.”

“If someone tells you that you are overqualified, they are actually telling you that you could do the job,” Soper said. “You have to be prepared to address that type of thing. You have to find out what their needs are and how you fill them.”

Twelve years ago, Soper formed a partnership with outsourcing consultant Ken Taber to create the Soper Taber Group. Whereas Soper’s experience had been primarily with individuals and in higher education, Taber specialized in crisis management and corporate placement and outplacement. Before coming to Grand Rapids, Taber had provided career counseling to Fortune 500 executives.

Together, the two developed a service to provide individual career management, coaching and counseling services, as well as placement and career development offerings for employers.

Last month, the group launched a local ExecuNet chapter, designed as a low pressure networking resource for cross-functional professionals. More than 50 people attended the first meeting. The next meeting will be held on April 19, at Noto’s restaurant on 28th Street SE.   

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