Long time comin’
The current state of the US workforce has not only been changed in the last three years, since the beginning of the Great Recession. These changes had been coming for 30 years, beginning with the arrival of the first personal computer in 1981.
When the PC arrived on the scene, the beginning of the shift from repetitive labor to machine labor began in earnest. Remember Steve Jobs’ first line about Apple in 1981? He called his new machine “the computer for the rest of us.” That shift to computing for the rest of us, as it evolved over time, has changed all the ways that we work, communicate and conduct our commerce.
Moving ahead nearly 20 years, from 1981 to 1998, we had a little-remembered experience called Y2K. This was a worldwide alarm that the large computers that ran the business of the world would suffer from a significant glitch, and possibly a breakdown, as we moved into the year 2000. Inside computers, data for dates for the year were at that time set in two digits (xx and not 19xx) and we were moving from 1998 and1999 towards 2000. The Y2K crisis was averted, not because the threat wasn’t real, but because techies the world over were mobilized for the fix.
What was significant about this? This successful fix brought to the world’s attention the existence of a competent talent pool for technology in countries outside of the U.S. and Europe. This was the beginning of outsourcing and offshoring, which today, more than 10 years later, has significant impact on the economies of many countries, particularly the U.S.
The rise of the Internet, the Information Worker, and Free Agency
Around that time (at the turn of the century), we saw the rapid adoption of the Internet and the industries that sprang from that platform, which in fact began in the mid-1990’s and continues to this day, 2011. This ubiquitous adoption of technology has changed our ways of communicating and purchasing and working.
During the same time, we were seeing American industry shift away from Manufacturing (which was more and more produced by machines and offshore workers) to the Information and Services industries. There was much talk about entering the Information Age and needing to become “information workers.”
Also in the mid-1990’s we saw the rise of Free Agency in European sports, which moved quickly to the U.S., and from sports to the American workforce. This notion of workers (particularly Information Workers) functioning as Free Agents eroded America’s long-held ideas about job security. And that eroded any notion of job loyalty. Generational shifts contributed to this movement.
Economic upheavals too
As we moved forward towards 2008, the industrialized world created its Great Recession (after enduring the dot.com bust in 2000 and the post 9/11/01 downturn). These economic upheavals combined with our competing global market to create great pressure on organizations and the workforce to drive increased productivity and lowered costs. This productivity would be found by machine, by offshoring, and by putting pressure on the existing workforce to produce more for less, to work longer hours for the same (or lower) pay, and using fewer workers to support these efforts.
If we look beyond the greed of bankers, the incompetence of politicians, and the other places where we might point our fingers, we can see that the current state of the U.S. workforce has been long in coming.
Tactics to consider for the future
It helps to look the larger picture when assessing the condition of the U.S. labor force, and our own personal positions in our careers.
There are some steps that we can take to meet the demands of the current workforce, and protect ourselves against future changes.
- Educate yourself about the changes that are predicted by economists and labor watchers.
- Adapt your skills and offerings to meet these changes.
- Control your personal finances and avoiding debt.
If just starting out in your career and finding it difficult to get work but easier to train or educate yourself, then train in three separate industries to a basic competence. This will allow you to change fields as the world changes and the markets shift. Look to fields where economics and demographics indicate there will be a demand for your training (e.g., nursing or medicine rather than history, business rather than philosophy, or technology/computer skills rather than the arts, and so on).
If you are a service provider or a consultant, adapt your offerings and your pricing to meet the paying threshold available from your client base in this new economy. Find a way to offer your services in a way they can be consumed with ease. This does not mean lowering your prices, so much as repackaging your services and the way you exchange value.
If you are a product company, determine the surest way to reduce your cost of goods and to expand your markets.
If you are a technology company, build as much technology as possible with products available “off the shelf,” or “off the internet” before you accept any outside capital. Also, use the Internet skillfully to reach your audience (and distribute to them) in the least expensive way possible.
Personally and professionally, live within your means, and avoid debt except for an investment in your new skills training, or in meeting the growth demands of your business. Become savvy in the best ways to manage your finances and lower any debt you consider.
It is important to be sensitive to how the world is changing, and to fit your life experience, talents and work opportunities to the changes that will continue on from today into the future.