A Few Words About Jobs And The Economy

Fundamental Changes in the Job Market

Computers and the Internet are reshaping the entire economy, and jobs that were once plentiful have now either disappeared, or have become unrecognizable.  At the same time, what we once thought of as time tested truths no longer apply in the job market of the 21st century.

For example, the service manager of the biggest auto dealership in Salem says that that his biggest headache is finding mechanics.  This sounds strange to those who remember the old world of ten or fifteen years ago when it was easy for garages and dealerships to find mechanics.  Back then, lots of kids were so fascinated by turning wrenches that they trained themselves to be auto mechanics by working on friends cars for little or nothing.  There was a bottomless reservoir of mechanics anytime one was needed.

Today, though, cars run on software and silicone as much as they do on gasoline and rubber.  Modern autos are loaded with computers that control so many aspects of the vehicle that diagnostic computers are consulted before a wrench is ever pulled from a toolbox.   

What we used to think of an as a mechanic no longer exists. 

Anyone attempting repairs on a modern vehicle needs a formal technical education in order to perform anything more complex than an oil change.  In the mechanics place is a highly trained technician who understands the sophisticated interplay of computer chips, circuit boards, and hot moving parts.  Young people with the basic skills and talents for this type of job are becoming more and more rare. 

That's because it takes far more than a mechanical aptitude and a desire to work on cars to become a mechanic these days.  Candidates must be able to read and write well, have knowledge of basic science, (especially physics and chemistry), be computer and Internet literate, and accept the fact that constant improvements in automotive technology will demand constant ongoing education.  With these basic qualifications a young person might get accepted into a training program at a community college and pay thousands for a two-year course that will be relevant only for vehicles produced three to five years after graduation. 

Not surprisingly, there are few people willing to take this road.  Young people possessing the degree of talent, intelligence and academic commitment needed to be an automotive technician tend to be attracted to more glamorous and better paying careers. 

How could this crazy situation have arisen?  Because businesses must constantly adopt new technologies in order to remain competitive with other companies who are doing the same thing.  Competition has become so fierce that huge, well-known companies with familiar names that were once pillars of the economy are frequently going out of business.  Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Rubbermaid have all either gone bankrupt or been forced to reorganize under Court supervision. 

The increasingly rapid spiral of competition and technological sophistication means that workers are expected to become competent in constantly narrowing and arcane specialties.  The sad irony is that while companies complain about a shortage of qualified workers, there are plenty of well-educated workers looking for jobs. 

Sometimes even the most menial of jobs requires sophisticated technical skills.

The sales manager of one of the largest manufacturers of wood chipping equipment in the Northwest illustrates this problem nicely.  He frequently complains about how difficult it is to find laborers to work on the plant floor.  Although the sales manager blames the wonderful economy for the shortage of workers, he seems to be missing some important facts. 

First, why is a sales manager concerned with hiring laborers to work on the plant floor? The answer to that question is summed up in one word: Reorganization.  The economy is so competitive that businesses of all sizes and types are constantly reexamining the way they manage tasks.  The era of mid level managers putting their feet on a desktop and reading the newspaper are long gone.  Everyone one in an organization, from the president to the guy who empties the wastebaskets, must constantly prove their worth to the company.  Failure to do so results in cutting hours or eliminating positions, and distributing tasks to others in the organization.

This sales manager has to remind himself that the Personnel Department was almost completely eliminated two years ago and replaced with a temp agency.  In addition to managing sales, he also serves as the liaison for the temp agency. 

In an economic environment so competitive that salesmen are involved with personnel matters it's no surprise that laborers must be able to do more than sweep floors and clean windows.  In a company that survives on its ability to fabricate metal into wood chippers even the laborers at the bottom of the organizational chart must have technical metallurgical skills. 

That's why laborers at this company, working for just above minimum wage, are required to have at least one year of experience in a metal fabrications plant, and be able to recognize all metals used in the plant on sight, as well as have knowledge of the properties of the metals used.  This way the company does not have to train newly hired laborers in skills needed to sort and stack the valuable and reusable scrap metal produced in the course of manufacturing wood chippers.

At the other end of the wage spectrum is a man we'll call Dave.  Although Dave is bright, educated, and works hard, there is nothing particularly unusual about him.  There is one thing setting him apart from the rest of us, however.  He is paid between $200 and $300 dollars for every hour he works at his chosen profession.

Dave writes and maintains the software that medical offices use to organize patient affairs.  Everything from X-rays to billing, appointments to insurance claims is instantly accessible to anyone in a medical office using the software he maintains.  The software makes managing a medical office so efficient and economical that medical professionals are willing to pay premium prices to lease it and keep it running.

Although Dave is a good programmer, there is nothing exceptional about his education, background, or skills.  He graduated with a degree in Computer Programming in 1985, and had the good fortune to go to work for a small company just starting to market medical software.  Unlike most of the others who stared with the company, Dave remained in Oregon rather than move to Silicone Valley, and now is one of two programmers in the Northwest who are familiar with this software.  Because his skills are so rare, and result in such economy for the medical sector, he is paid an unusually large amount of money for his services.

Job Hunting Realities

So, what do these examples tell us about jobs in the Information Age? 

What they show is that in order to be competitive in the job market people need to possess very narrow, specialized skills that are directly relevant to the company and position they are applying to.  It is no longer enough to have a degree, or training or even experience.  Employers are looking for people who can be effective and economical from the first hour they walk into their new position.

Here's an example form the Classified Section of the Statesman Journal:

Drug and Alcohol
Program Manager
$2,969-$3,775/mo

Provide clinical supervision for an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program.  Qualifications: Bachelor's Degree in a relevant field and four years of paid, full time Human Services experience with a minimum of four years direct D & A experience, one year of which must have been in a supervisory and/or administrative capacity.  Call 541-396-3173 x232 for a Coos County application packet.  EOE

Statesman Journal Subclassification: Professional

There are some interesting things about this very typical advertisement.  First, notice that the standard advise touting volunteer or part time positions as a way to building skills and abilities means nothing as far as this position is concerned.  The ad specifies that only paid, full time experience counts towards the minimum experience requirement.   

Does this mean that the experience needed to do this job can only be learned in paid increments of 7.5 hours each?  Of course not.  This requirement is arbitrary -- it has nothing to do with the skills or abilities needed to perform the job; it was chosen only to eliminate "non-professionals" from the pool of applicants.

The trend among employers today is to marginalize volunteer and part time experience by interpreting it as an indication that the applicant is not dedicated to the field or lacks professional expertise.  The inference of working without pay is that the value of the worker is very low -- skills given away for free have no value.  As one employer puts it, "Why would I consider paying [an applicant with a history of part time volunteer work] when he's happy working for nothing?"

The same thing is true for the education requirement.  Notice that there is no specific field of education specified for this position.  As long as a Bachelors Degree is "relevant", it meets the education requirements.  Why would an employer be so vague about education requirements?  

Because the academic details don't matter. 

Non technical Bachelor degrees, (like those in Liberal Arts, Humanities and Business), no longer imply that particular skills and abilities have been learned.  Non-specific Bachelors Degree requirements are included in job announcements only to exclude applicants without an academic history in a particular interest such as Psychology or Sociology, and to ensure basic literacy and general knowledge ability.  

Academic degrees, like part time volunteer experience, are being marginalized by employers who view them as a tool to exclude applicants, rather than as an objective measure of skills, knowledge or expertise.  

(Indeed, this trend has been present for some time and is continuing to expand.  An admissions director for Phoenix University recently said that the trend on the East Coast for liberal arts and business undergraduates is to forgo job-hunting until they get a Masters or MBA degree.  Think about that for a moment -- earning a graduate degree just to compete for entry-level positions!)         

In addition to this, the employer also requires four years of specific drug and alcohol experience and a year of supervisory experience.  This job announcement can be summarized very quickly -- the employer wants an individual who has been doing pretty much the same thing at another agency.

This is a common requirement among local social service agencies. 

In a moment of rare candor the personnel director for one of the biggest social service agencies in Salem explained that local agencies tend to trade employees back and forth rather than hire people from "outside the loop".  It seems that most of the social service employers in the Marion/Polk County area hire off the street only to fill the most entry of entry-level positions, and look to each other to share the burden of training for positions beyond that.

In other words, there are so many applicants that social service agencies only hire people who hold similar jobs for other local social service agencies.  This ensures that new hires will have the basic skills, knowledge, and training needed by these agencies.  People who might have experience from other states or vocational fields are routinely rejected for employment, even when they are highly qualified, because there are so many others who are familiar with local rules, regulations, and methods of client care.

What to Do?

That is fodder for another essay.  The first step, though, is to reassess our assumptions about jobs and the economy.  Things are changing so fast that what might be true now wont be in a few months or years.  Of course, the corollary is that what was true a few years ago may not be true now. 

Anyone who wants to survive in our increasingly turbulent and unpredictable economy has got to make being well informed a priority.  Read books about employment and the economy.  Talk to people who hire.  Call the people who place job announcements and ask them about why they ask for particular skills or word their advertisements as they do.

The best tool we have to make the job market more comprehensible is knowledge.  Knowledge is out there; we might not like what we find, and what we find may not agree with the way we think things ought to be, but its the only reality we have. 

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