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Are You Ready for the 21st Century Job Market?

February 2011

I credit my colleague, Carleen McKay, with banging some of us over the head in her 2006 book, Boom of Bust.  It’s about the changes that are coming at us in the 21st century workplace and how they will affect the baby boomers.  Carleen jarred us with the realization that not only do we need to keep up with the technological advances that are washing over us – in every area of our lives – but that our failure to do so would render us obsolete in our respective fields of work…no matter the field.  Gulp!

I came to the conclusion that Carleen was right in 2006 and the ensuing five years have proved her even more right, especially with the layoffs of the last 3 years.  To those of you who were laid off, I sincerely hope you have found work.  To those of you who have not yet found your next source of income, you are probably only too keenly aware of the areas in which you have not kept pace with technology. 

However, the changes we have witnessed are not all about technology.  The very concept of a “job” has already changed dramatically and is still in motion.  For most of the 20th century, the world of work revolved around an employer – usually a large corporation – and a large cadre of full-time staff.  There may have been a few temps and possibly some part-timers, but those were a small minority.  In the last 20 years that picture has morphed into something almost unrecognizable by 20th century eyes.  In many organizations today, when the checks are cut at the end of the pay period, a good 50% of them will be going off-shore and/or to temporary workers, contractors, consultants, and employee leasing companies.  That is leaving ever-shrinking numbers of seats for what feels like the game of in-house musical chairs. 

So what can you do?  First, if you are not already convinced that what I am saying is true or affects you, please read some of Carleen’s work.  It is not a fairy tale.  It is full of the kind of evidence most of us need to become believers in new concepts: diligent research and convincing statistics as well as excellent anecdotes and stories.  Second, stop being angry about it and start embracing it. 

The third thing you can do is come to grips with becoming a “free agent.”  More and more “jobs” will be (or already have been) thrust into the realm of free agency.  In other words the tasks associated with those jobs will be awarded to people on the outside who can fulfill the requirements without needing a cubicle or a W-2.  Figure out what you already know and the skills you possess and the market for those skills.  Unless your last job was writing Cobol programs or pasting copy into company newspapers, whatever you did inside your last organization is probably saleable on the open market.  To fill in the gaps, go to school.  You will find that more than half the seats in community college classrooms are now filled by mid-life workers enhancing their technological skills. 

If you don’t believe that people are already successfully selling their skills independently, you have only to look at the Services section on Craigs List.  It is filled with people offering to apply their skills to projects.  Then check out the Gigs section (also a good place to check out the skills in demand in your locale).  These are employers looking for contractors.  And if you still find you prefer a W-2 to the world of free agency, when full-time openings come up, where do you think managers look first for the skills they need to fill?  The contractors who are already demonstrating their proficiency at the task and their “fit” with the company! 

You need a plan.  If you are currently floundering in the job market with little or no results, get some help.  Inexpensive sources of job counseling and short-term coaching can be found at most community colleges and at the state and local government websites.  Remember, you get what you pay for, so if you can afford it, get professional coaching from someone who really understand the recent shifts in the labor market and who can help you create a plan to refine, enhance, and market your skills – not just find a job.