Ah one of the interview classics; maybe even your least favourite question to answer in an interview. Why do people seem to hate it so?
In the past, it was likely that when someone took a job, they worked at it for many years. When they did change jobs, it was unusual, as most people did the same thing or stayed with the same employer moving up the corporate ladder.
Fast-forward to 2015 however, and people are changing jobs more frequently than ever, and not always because they choose to. Layoffs, company relocations, downsizing, changing employer needs, new product development have all created an economy where job security in many situations just isn’t there. With all of this impacting on workers like never before, looking into the future isn’t entirely in a persons control.
Interviewers however, still ask this question. From their point of view, the reason for asking it has to do with checking to see if you have some longer term goal and how that goal will impact your performance should you be hired. If you are planning on staying with the company, they may indeed want and expect you to be hungry for advancement once you learn the job you are applying for now. As you master the job requirements, they may want to groom you for additional responsibilities and have you progress into positions of training others, while you advance.
If you are just floating along in life with no clear master plan for your career, they may interpret this as a problem, for you could then be easily swayed to leave them quicker than 5 years, and they’ll be going through this hiring process sooner than they’d like. In addition, they may not find you entirely willing when they would expect you to advance in the organization.
Entry-level positions you see, are the easiest to fill in most organizations, requiring the least amount of skill. After all, look at how many applications most companies get when they do advertise an opening externally. With such a large pool of applicants, at this point in history there is an abundance of people from which to choose. It’s the next position up the organizational chart that draws fewer applicants.
Yes organizations in many cases like to hire from within. After all, they will know you pretty well over the next 5 years; your punctuality, dependability, personality, attitude, aptitude for learning, willingness to put in extra effort or not etc. You could say your first 5 years with a company is actually just a very long interview for a future opportunity.
In a really progressive organization, succession planning occurs across the organization. Employees who identify themselves as wanting to advance are given increasingly more responsibility, chances to attend training events that others who don’t want to advance are denied, and the Supervisor’s work with them to prepare them to one day take over their own jobs as they too move up.
Now should you tell an interviewer that in 5 years you expect to be back in school taking some course which will send you off in another direction entirely, this could either work in your favour or backfire. The positive would be if they are looking for a shorter-term employee and there will be no real opportunity for long-term employment. So taking a 2 year contract if that’s what’s being offered is the perfect marriage between employer and employee. But then why would they ask about your 5 year plan?
If you are planning a return to school in the next 5 years, the downside could be you get passed over completely if the employer is seeking long-term employees committing to the company. “Thanks for your honesty but no job. Next!”
You can often find this question or some version of it when it’s time for your yearly review too. Your boss might want to find out what’s rolling around between your ears so they can both plan to help you along, and plan for your replacement so they don’t get surprised with your departure and have to scramble.
The question itself may garner predictable answers based on one’s age. A person in their 50’s is more likely to be thinking of riding off into the sunset in their present job, not entirely motivated to put in the required mental and physical energy to learn an entirely new job. Someone in their 20’s might be openly questioned if they said they were just comfortable in their existing job with no plans for advancement. Well maybe, but there are many exceptions.
So what were you doing 5 years ago? 5 years ago would you have predicted you’d be where you are right now? Had you said then that you’d be in your existing space (maybe you’ve advanced or joined the unemployed or retired) would you have been believed or believe it yourself? For some 5 years is forever. Some of us let’s face it can’t even do the food shopping and buy the required items for the weeks meals. “How can I know on Saturday what I’ll want to eat next Wednesday?” Unless you shop every day, some future planning is necessary.
Future-gaze a little. So what if your crystal ball is murky and sometimes unreliable. Give yourself permission to change your plans, reassess your goals and move in new directions. At the same time however, a general outline for your working life is a very good idea worth thinking about.