Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reading the Tea Leaves

When making investment decisions, I frequently remind myself that I can’t predict the future. However, to some degree we all make decisions, every day, based on our understanding of future events. When I look at my fuel gauge, it gives me a pretty good idea as to whether I had better fill up while I am still in Georgia or it informs me that perhaps I can wait until I am on the other side of Jacksonville. When choosing a career path, we are engaging in some form of divination. We are not only thinking about a paycheck today, but opportunities that may present themselves over the course of the next 20 or 30 years.

Everything that you desire, everything you hold dear will change and ultimately pass away. This difficult truth applies to your career aspirations as opportunities in various enterprises rise and fall with changes in the marketplace.

I am quite convinced that if I was born twenty years sooner, I would have had a career in journalism. I wanted to find a job as a writer, but by the time I graduated with a second major in English the daily newspaper was already in a state of serious decline. Even great daily papers like the New York Herald Tribune were folding. First radio, then television, and now the Internet have slowly eroded the soil that supported daily newspapers all over the country. One by one they are falling into the ocean to be forgotten.

Fifty years ago even small city papers were staffed by trained professional journalists. Their articles were reviewed by a senior editor who understood both the art of writing and the newspaper business before the typesetters laid out the pages for publication. Typesetters were the first to lose their jobs. Then the writers and the photographers either lost their jobs as the newspapers folded or they were replaced by stringers who were paid by the story or by the photograph. From looking at grammatical errors and misspellings in the pages of newspapers like USA Today I suspect that they are no longer edited by professionals.

There is no use lamenting a world that no longer exists. The Internet has turned everybody into a journalist. It costs nothing to start a blog. Then just like me, you can write a biweekly column on any subject imaginable, including some I wish I couldn’t image. Unfortunately, as am I sure you have noticed, I don’t enjoy the services of a professional editor.

While I was still working in the American textile industry, somebody told me to look at the employees, particularly the younger employees, in order to predict the future of that business. If the job openings were not attracting smart ambitious young people it was likely a dying industry. I applied this analysis to my factory. The results were not pretty. As I looked for a new job in another city, I tried to remember to look at my future coworkers. I remember interviewing at one factory in particular that I didn’t expect to have much of a future based on my opinion of their management. I was correct.

After nine years experience, I thought American industry didn’t have a very good future so I returned to engineering school hoping to find a job in a Government research and development laboratory. Both the factories where I toiled for those years went out of business, as did the factory where I earned my work study credits as a mechanical engineering undergraduate. The laboratory where I toiled for over 27 years is doing just fine, but I believe their sun is already past noon. The size of their mission is beginning to shrink, just at the time when administrative burden is growing at a rapid pace. They are just beginning to find it harder to attract and keep the best and brightest. I expect the facilities will be there for a long time, but will they be manned by Government employees or by contractors?

Take a look at your coworkers, especially the new hires. Are they the best and the brightest or something less? If energetic younger employees are seeking greener pastures in other businesses; if the most competent old timers are opting for early retirement in order to start a second career, it might be time for you to update your resume and review your rolodex for potential contacts with future employers.

Take a look at disruptive technologies that might threaten your way of life. The typesetters knew about Xerox machines and word processors years before these technologies destroyed their jobs. Their unions tried to pretend that they could put those genies back in the bottle. Let me assure you that once out of the bottle the genie isn’t going back into captivity.

Ask yourself, “Where are the best and the brightest looking for work?” Talent, like money, flows where there are the best opportunities. No one can predict the future, but maybe you can make some shrewd guesses about the future of your present world and perhaps find a better alternative.

Nobody is going to do that job for you. As the song says, “You are going to walk that lonesome mile by yourself.”

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