Monday, November 11, 2013

An Old Man Meditates on The Jobs of a New Millennium

I was born into a world where a high school graduate could reasonably expect to support his family with a somewhat unpleasantly mindless job in a factory. If he was even half way reliable, he could expect near lifetime job security minus a layoff or two here and there along the way. The same job would provide the employee and his family with health insurance. After thirty years of faithful service, he could expect to receive a gold watch and a guaranteed pension. A little further up the socioeconomic ladder a college degree, any college degree guaranteed a white collar job in some factory back office, a bank, or some Governmental sinecure. A degree in a technical or medical specialty guaranteed a good paying job for life.

That world is gone. Globalization, automation, and regulations (particularly environmental regulations) have eliminated something on the order of 20,000,000 industrial jobs in this country. American industry, once the wonder of the world, generated the surplus wealth that allowed an unprecedented quality of life for even average men and women.

If your job can be outsourced to a lower cost subcontractor in this country or a low wage worker in some third world country, your job will be outsourced. If the task you perform on the assembly line or even if you practice a skilled trade, if you can be replaced by an intelligent automated machine tool or a programmable robot, you will be replaced. This applies equally to white collar jobs that are disappearing into the cloud. If regulations make an industrial operation unprofitable in this country, those jobs will migrate to a less regulated region of the world. The Chinese in particular are intent in building their country into a first class superpower. A few million dead from industrial pollution is considered acceptable collateral damage.

Today we are maintaining the illusion of wealth through two income families and borrowed money. There will be a future. Some will become successful, but that future will demand new assumptions and new skill sets.

First, do not assume that you will be able to support yourself throughout your lifetime with one skill. Even technical and medical skills can grow stale. Certification in some computer specialty that is in high demand today will be worthless tomorrow. The ability to operate a hard chrome plating bath is of no value when regulations limiting exposure to hexavalent chromic acid fumes shuts down your plating operation.

Think like an employer. Ask yourself, what am I worth? If you want to earn $40,000 a year, understand that you are costing your employer somewhere between $60,000 a year and $80,000 a year depending on the overhead associated with your industry. Would you pay yourself $75,000 a year for what ever it is that you do? If you want that job you will need to provide at least that much value to your boss or he will go out of business.

The best way to increase your value to your organization is to increase your own personal value. How can you make yourself a more valuable human being? What skills can you add to your toolbox that will make you a more desirable employee? What are the problems and questions that keep your boss awake at night? How can you answer those questions?

Of all the skill sets that will be required in this brave new world, I believe entrepreneurship will be the number one, most important skill. When I was in school we were not even taught how to spell entrepreneur let alone how to become one. We were taught how to sit in rows and obey orders. Those were valuable skills on an assembly line in the industrial age. They are no longer of much use.

An entrepreneur needs:

The ability to spot opportunity
The ability to properly evaluate risk
The ability to sell a product

Psychological and social skills including:

The ability to engage others, generally (networking)
The ability to negotiate with other organizations
The ability to organize and inspire employees

Oh, let me mention sales skills a second time.

English is still the worldwide language of science, technology, and business. This is gradually changing as globalization continues to develop. As the newly industrialized states of the developing world begin to generate surplus wealth, they will develop their own technological and financial infrastructures. The ability to speak a second language, now a luxury, will become a necessity. A second language by itself isn’t worth much, but a second language combined with a valuable technical or business skill set will make you an extremely valuable employee in this country or in another country. Your children or grandchildren may become immigrants even as your grandparents or great grandparents were immigrants in this country.

Because one skill is no longer enough, dedicate yourself to becoming a lifetime learner. The world is constantly changing. There is no guarantee that what you are doing today will be of value to anyone tomorrow. Look for opportunities to study new subjects or keep your current specialties current. I think this is particularly true in the scientific and medical communities, but even more humble trades like the automobile mechanic have become technical professions requiring advanced computer diagnostic tools as well as specific certifications for particular types or brands of vehicles.

Do not believe that another degree or certification in another computer language will guarantee your future any more than that first degree that didn’t get you a job. Once you have that new skill, find a way to practice that new skill, even if you need to start your own business.

Teach others even as you learn. Knowledge and wisdom are the only things that you still possess once you have given them away. If you are able to successfully teach a skill to another you will find that you have deepened your own understanding. You have also made the world a better place. That will not go unrewarded.

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