We have written many times about career paths. But not about vertical versus horizontal careers. That changes with this post, which is part of our COVID-19 series.

To begin, let’s distinguish between the two types of career paths. As Brighter Monday Kenya observes:

“Vertical career growth means focusing on getting a promotion so you can attain your next job title. On the other hand, horizontal career moves center around creating value for you and your company by increasing your knowledge. The latter approach means that you’ll be transferred to other departments, where you’ll learn new skills and adapt your existing ones.  This may mean a new job title, but it doesn’t necessarily position you at a higher status than you were previously. “

In light of COVID-19, an option (at least for the short run) may be a horizontal career path. Yes, that view probably contradicts your career goals. But, you may turn out to be happy with that choice. At least, weigh the alternatives.


A Balanced View of Vertical Versus Horizontal Career Paths

After reading below, YOU decide on which is your preferred option. Remember, we are in the era of COVID-19. And will be for a while. [Hint: The third option rules!]

The Case for a Vertical Career Path


“Vertical growth is the type that will be most familiar to American professionals. It encourages us to leverage our existing skills to climb in a straight line up the corporate ladder. Providing us with additional managerial responsibilities along the way. vertical career growth requires us to master other people. Whereas horizontal career growth requires us to master ourselves.”

Growth Freaks:

“A vertical career growth focuses on climbing the ladder strictly in your department. The end goal is changing job titles and reaching the top. With vertical career growth, you gain a lot of experience in your department. This will make you an expert in time. You will visualize progress. Because you move up the ladder of career growth, change is more concrete. And it usually brings with it financial benefits. You will also feel comfortable when you change positions, because the department is familiar to you.”

American Medical Technologists:

“Vertical stacking can be thought of as climbing a career ladder. How? By earning certifications that may require additional training or education. For example, as illustrated, consider a registered phlebotomy technician (RPT) or laboratory assistant (CMLA) who continues education. Thereby qualifying for medical laboratory technician (MLT) certification. An MLT can advance and take the medical technician (MT) exam with more education. Also, a certified MT who performs molecular diagnostics techniques may take AMT’s newest certification, molecular diagnostics technologist (MDT) to become a more valuable employee.” [And move up the career ladder.]

Vertical Versus Horizontal Career Paths

The Case for a Horizontal Career Path

Hays Recruiting:

“When you start out in your career, you are very much learning your trade. The focus in terms of skills development will therefore be on building your technical skills and expertise. At this stage, you are still in the process of becoming an expert, so your technical skills bucket should be brimming with water. For instance, if you were a project assistant, you would be providing administrative support to the project managers you aspire to become, while getting accustomed with how to effectively coordinate resources, people, and budgets. A horizontal career move is made when a person moves sideways from one job to another, to gain the skills, experience and knowledge required to progress their upwards career path in the future. “.


“What was once considered taboo is now the norm. Professionals who have a broad range of experiences not just within their industry but across multiple industries bring a level of invaluable insight for the right opportunity. A diversity of experiences makes for professionals who can better navigate an increasingly global world of business. A diversity of experiences leads to a variety of positive outcomes. One of those being a wide range of skills. Skill diversity makes job seekers more enticing to employers. And more valuable to companies. Additionally, dedicated workers can expand their knowledge base by pursuing and completing a variety of online courses.”

American Medical Technologists:

“Horizontal stacking involves enhancing your skill set to move along a career pathway. By earning additional professional certifications or taking an assessment-based certificate course. Additional professional certification that you earn based on regular daily duties would be an example of horizontal stacking. For example, as illustrated below, a registered medical assistant (RMA) may also qualify for a registered phlebotomy technician (RPT) certification. Assessment-based certificates are credentials that can supplement your professional certification with a certificate based on a specific skill set. An example of this is the  certificate program which offers both training and assessment, all online. Illustrated below is a career path that includes earning two of these certificates.”

The Case for a Blended Career Path

Lockwood Companies:

“Ideally, you’d like for your career development to be a hybrid of horizontal and vertical development. Imagine vertical development as taking a ladder straight up. While horizontal development is walking forward. The best development would be that of a staircase or an escalator. One in which you move both vertically AND horizontally. You don’t want to be entry-level in many different positions But you also don’t want a career path in which you don’t gain any value. Finding this fine-line is a key part of career development. And it is the challenge many professionals face.”

Forté Connect:

“The lattice approach is useful to anyone considering a career change, needing to increasingly balance work and life demands, returning to the workforce, or seeking to add a few tools to their kit. Career moves can be lateral, vertical, or diagonal, with a focus on building capabilities. Moving across the organization and not just up within a department or functional area will present opportunities to meet and work with a varied set of people. By taking on a new role in a different part of the business, you will broaden your perspective of the overall business and challenge yourself to learn more, faster. Dialing up or dialing down your career may be easier to do.”

Talent Align:

“The Dual Career Path is an extension to the traditional career ladder that allows employees to be promoted along either a supervisory or technical track. Dual Career Pathing is common in industries where valuable employees have particular technical skills but may not be inclined to pursue a management career path – such as IT. When properly managed, a coherent Dual Career Path can help companies retain top talent. By offering extended career opportunities and concomitant remuneration packages. While allowing employees to remain in their chosen technical careers. This approach certainly helps, but still does not solve the problem of Career Ladders with missing rungs!  And is also a problem for effective Leadership Development.”

AIHR Digital:

“Ask any HR professional about their biggest challenges and you’re bound to hear employee engagement and retention at some point. Of course, there’s always more than one answer to a problem but today we zoom in on career pathing as part of the solution. Career pathing involves the process during which an employee maps out their professional career (development) plan within the firm he or she works in. This is usually done using a career pathing tool. Career pathing enables employees to identify internal opportunities based on their own skills, experiences, competencies, interests, and preferences.”

Vertical Versus Horizontal Career Paths

Andreessen Horowitz:

“Clearly, these are not normal times. So we can’t rely on ‘normal’ tools we’ve previously used to help people find work. LinkedIn and Craigslist searches, coffee chats, recruiters, staffing agencies, and so on. Those methods can’t hit the speed, scale, and placement quality needed coming out of this crisis. But verticalized jobs marketplaces—platforms that focus on one industry, role, candidate type, or demographic — can and will. Now is the time build them.” 


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