Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Will You Be Employable in Five Years?

I've spent my entire career thinking about what I would do if I lost my job.  This is because I had a great one right out of school--as a policy writer for the police force my dad worked for--and it went away because it was a contract position that got eliminated with a change of government.  I spent the next three months believing I was destined to be an unmitigated failure. 

Self-pity doesn't pay very well, though, and eventually I got another job, and have landed a several more in the intervening two decades.  But the early habit has proved a productive one, since it leads to another important question:  how can I make sure my skills are in demand in the marketplace so I can have a paycheck for the next thirty years?  Instead of getting blindsided by a layoff, I want to stay ahead of the curve.  Here are a few of my guiding principles to keep bringing home the bacon:

Never think your years of experience mean you can stop learning.  Yes, wisdom and experience are important.  But we are in a era where technological is accelerating faster than ever, and the skills that matter are not just simple technical things that can be learned:  social media is a mindset that is in great demand by companies, most of which are run by Boomers or Gen-X people who know for a fact that the way people communicate is in continual flux. If you say "I'm too old for Twitter" or "I don't understand blogs," you will go the way of the print newspaper.  On that note..

Look carefully at what's happening in your industry.  I got into journalism school, but decided a liberal arts degree from the best school I could get into was a better bet.  I could always be a reporter if I wanted to.  It was a good decision. All those people who thought the fourth estate was permanent, at least in its twentieth century incarnation, were dead wrong, and there aren't many jobs for those who've lost them. While politicians and their handlers seems to think Sunday talk shows and daily newspapers matter, they are now only relevant to well-educated people over the age of 50.  Most everyone else, meaning future voters, gets their political news on the blogsphere.  If you're in the telecom, pharmaceutical, or media industries, make sure you're looking at where the growth is, or think about another line of work.  Beware of your sentimentality about your chosen profession: as many unemployed print reporters can tell you, it's a liability.

Stay awhile.  But not forever.  I did a stint of recruiting for the first law firm I worked for, and I learned something about how resumes are evaluated, even in the staid professions:  jump around too much, and it's suspect that people don't like you or you can't stick to things.  But stay in the same position for more than five years, and it looks like you're unmotivated or scared of change. Moving within an organization is a good sign, especially if you've taken on diverse positions. This shows a willingness to learn and get out of your comfort zone. 

Ask yourself where you want to be in five years.  I know I sound like a high school guidance counselor, but this can focus your efforts. Find out about people who have jobs you think you'd like, and find a way to meet them.  Read industry blogs and learn who the players are.  Find out how they got where they are. Read the stuff they write, and learn about the companies where they've worked and their career trajectories so you can get a sense of how they've built a marketable skill set. 

Network.  It feels a bit awkward, and it is a bit like dating.  But it's critical to get to know people who work in your field but who aren't at your company.  Don't wait until you need a job.  Have lunch or coffee with people in the space where you want to play, now or in a couple of years. Find out what you need to know how to do to get there.

I've switched industries and reinvented myself a couple of times, and these days I am gainfully and happily employed in an industry that seems to have a place for people with my particular talents.  Experience in getting--and, more importantly, leaving--jobs has, I hope, taught me how to make sure I spend the rest of my working days at a really good gig.  I hope the nuggets I've collected help you in your quest for full employment.

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