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The Darwinian World of Job Volatility


9/7/2006 6:26:40 PM

By Peter Weddle -- A year or two ago, my son was laid off. As a father, I ached for him when it happened and desperately wanted to help in any way that I could. It was a visceral reaction, I admit, an emotional counterpoint to the logic with which I do my job as a career columnist. In that latter role, I know that his situation was, unfortunately, increasingly the norm. Indeed, the nature of the employment environment in the 21st Century is such that many of us will find ourselves without work at one and probably several points in our careers. It doesn’t diminish the hurt to recognize that fact, but it does help us prepare for this new Darwinian world of job volatility.

In previous years, our economy produced a broad array of relatively stable jobs. Oh, sure, there was always the occasional company that found itself out-of-step with its market and had to reduce staff, but those situations were the exception to the rule. Even during recessions, most of us continued to labor on; our raises may have been reduced or eliminated and our opportunity for upward mobility may have diminished, but at least we were still able to bring home a pay check. At least, we could count on that.

In today’s jungle of job volatility, however, that certainty has been replaced by uncertainty, that assurance of continuity has been overcome by daily discontinuity, and that expectation of stability has been quashed by the shock of instability. These are not the temporary challenges of an economic downturn; they are the permanent conditions of a new and dangerous world of work. And, that evolutionary shift leaves all of us with a stark choice. We can either adapt or we can be overwhelmed. We can adjust to job volatility—we can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to survive and prosper in this environment—or we can be its victims.

All of us, of course, would instinctively choose the course of survival and prosperity. But, I must warn you: To do so isn’t easy; it involves the one thing most of us most hate to do—change. We must accept a new imperative in employment; in essence, we must now work two jobs all of the time. The first involves our profession, craft or trade; the second entails the management of our career. Now, I know that career columnists have been preaching personal career management for years. The mantra has had many different expressions—from self actualization to You, Inc.—but, basically, the message has always been the same. We must take care of our own careers because employers won’t do it for us. It’s been good advice, but flawed. You see, there was this one little problem: It was impractical for almost everyone. Even if a person wanted to take control of their work-life they couldn’t. Why? Because the information and tools required to do so simply weren’t available.

Happily, that situation no longer exists. The Internet has made career self-management possible for everyone. Regardless of our profession, craft or trade, our industry or location, our years of experience or seniority, we can now go online and acquire the resources necessary to guide our careers successfully. To make best use of this capability, however, we must become expert at planning, implementing, evaluating and adjusting our careers. This competency involves the development of range of new skills, but I suggest that you begin with the following three:

  • Stay ever vigilant. How? By putting job agents to work for you. A job agent is a free feature that is available at many job boards. In essence, it works as a personal shopper for your dream job. You specify the kind of job for which you’re looking, and the job agent checks all of the job postings at that site for a match. It does so every day and all day long. Even better, when it finds one (or more) jobs that match your criteria, it sends you a private e-mail notifying you of the opportunity. That makes a job agent the perfect way to stay on top of the job market—and the search for jobs that are right for you—whether you’re employed or suddenly laid off, whether you’re just testing the waters or in the midst of a lengthy job search campaign. You stay vigilant, and it does all of the work. The technology behind job agents isn’t perfect—it may send you an sushi chef opening when you’re looking for an opportunity in sales—but it’s the best tool we have at the moment for making sure you never miss out on your dream job.

  • Stay ever connected. How? By networking electronically everyday. Many of the best jobs are never advertised. They are a part of the so-called “hidden job market” and often, they are filled by candidates whom employers identify by networking. While traditional face-to-face networking remains important, the Internet provides a way for you to expand your range of contacts exponentially from the comfort of your home computer. Simply stop by the discussion forums and bulletin boards available on sites operated by your professional association, trade organization and/or college or university alumni group. These e-mail conversations are a great place to connect with others who share your background and, therefore, have the potential to be helpful in your career advancement. Remember, however, that the key to effective networking online is the same as it is in the real world: You have to give as good as you get. Participate regularly in the discussions you join and be generous with your knowledge and experience.

  • Stay ever prepared. How? By always being interview ready. Employers today look for candidates who have state-of-the-art skills in their career field and are up-to-date in their industry and the business world, in general. In addition, they expect you to demonstrate that professional knowledge and business awareness from the very first minute of their very first contact with you and continuously thereafter. As the “information superhighway,” the Internet offers a myriad of ways to accomplish such preparation conveniently. You can take college courses and training programs online, read journal articles archived on your professional association’s site, look over news feeds at business and other media sites and check the press releases posted on the sites of major employers in your industry. You have only one chance to make a first impression, and the Internet can help ensure that it’s a good one.

    Charles Darwin once wrote that “It’s not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, that survive; it’s the one most responsive to change.” The skills described above position you to adapt to the new world of job volatility. They won’t insulate you from its disruption, but they will enable you to manage your career successfully in the midst of it.

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