Changing Workforce, Changing Job Hunting Skills

By Elaine Orr

Few studies about labor force growth and change have captured the nation’s attention as did the Hudson Institute’s1987 report, Workforce 2000.  Part of it was the fascination of a new millennium and our need to examine where we were and where we are going — witness books such as Megatrends and its sequel– and part was the style of Workforce 2000.  There was no need for a degree in labor economics to understand it.

But the media’s misinterpretation (or at least mis-presentation) of parts of the report also catapulted it to prominence.  Headlines blared that by 2000, white men would make up only fifteen percent of the American workforce.  In fact, the report said that the number of white men in the workforce would grow more slowly than women or nonwhite men, and white men would comprise approximately fifteen percent of new entrants to the workforce by 2000.  This was a big change from the 1950s-1970s, but not unexpected given that society had become less biased about women and African Americans or Hispanics going to college, and baby-boomers were not going to inhabit the one wage-earner world of their parents.

Government and private companies sought a more diverse workforce, and while some complained that there was reverse discrimination, over time the workplace ultimately did what it has always done — employers tried to get the talent needed for the best price.  Lately, employers have had quite the pickings.

In 2004, the RAND Corporation (for the U.S. Department of Labor) examined what it saw as three major factors that were “expected to shape the world of work in the coming decades: shifting demographic patterns, the pace of technological change, and the path of economic globalization.”  It concluded, among other things, that technological advances would continue to increase demand for a highly skilled workforce.  The report saw this as one factor that would support higher productivity growth and change the organization of business and the nature of employment relationships.”

The Hudson Institute’s Workforce 2020 addressed how companies needed to adapt to an aging workforce and change jobs to accommodate technology changes, and how trends such as telecommuting, temporary staffing, and employee leasing affect the workplace.  Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work issued Engaging the 21st Century Multi-generational Workforce (prepared for Met Life), which examined levels of “employee engagement” and how it might vary by age.

The themes of technological change and age were everywhere.  College students looked at those studies (or at least articles about them) and considered them as they picked majors.  While technology and aging baby boomers continue to resonate in reports about the workforce and potential careers, what no one could have predicted even five years ago was that the Great Recession would make many reports outmoded before they had time to accumulate dust on a library shelf.  (A shelf?  Don’t you mean the digital files would be corrupted?)

Baby boomers, who were expected to retire in such droves that there would be excruciating talent shortages, have watched retirement nest eggs shrink and many remained at work — at least those who have kept pace with newer workplace technologies.  However, those same boomers paid for the education of their children and grandchildren and now must open their doors to let them back in when the economy did not seem to want the skills of recent graduates — or the jobs just plain end.  Grandparents and parents don’t like that anymore than the unemployed graduates.

Those who find work relatively quickly are graduates of specialized programs whose curricula relate directly to specific skills employers need.  Many nursing and laser manufacturing programs at community colleges turn away students by the bushel.

The Great Recession may have done us one favor.  We appreciate our jobs more, and more people consider two-year degrees that lead to profitable careers.  This hardly makes a master’s degree in public administration obsolete, but the skills used after graduation may be those that deal with budgeting more than public policy.  The economy seems to have enough thinkers, it’s looking to doers to set the pace for the next decade.

There is not truly a dichotomy between graduates who are thinkers or doers, of course, and not everyone needs to be a database manager, pharmacist, or physical therapist (gotta love those aging baby boomers).  If graduates with a public sector management perspective cannot find a job quickly there are some strategies that may help.

  • Take a tip from young actors.  No one will think less of you for doing part-time or volunteer work in your field while you make a living doing something outside of your hoped-for career field.  And yes, it can be typing, table waiting, or sales.
  • Acquire more skills.  Can you build a web page or maintain a small network?  As web design or management moves beyond a discipline to a skill, if you can spend five hours a week updating a web page you will be a more attractive candidate than the job-seeker who still sees web work as a separate field.  Community college courses are reasonably priced, and your Internet provider may provide free hosting, so practice is free.
  • Learn the ins and outs of public sector budgeting.  Emphasis now is on making cuts, but even as tax revenues increase again, states and municipalities will continue to confront rising costs to maintain infrastructure or pay for employee pensions.  See if you can be an intern for a local city or county as it prepares its budget.  There is a major crunch (and no more staff) to draft the annual budget for a city council or county board of supervisors to approve, and even in a small town the city manager or budget director could appreciate your time.  Even if you don’t go into public budgeting, what you learn will be useful throughout a career.
  • Ask currently employed workers in your hoped-for field to give you a fifteen-minute interview to describe what they do and the skills needed.  You will learn something and it gives a potential employer a chance to know you without having to tell you there is no job.
  • Start a blog that deals with the area in which you want to work.  You can write some, but you can also ask others in the field to write guest posts.  You learn more and you are known as committed to your field.
  • Keep reading.  Who would have thought Workforce 2020 would be read on a Kindle?
  • If all else fails, ask your parents or grandparents to stop postponing retirement.  You may not get their job, but a friend might.  Let the older generation stay home and start a blog.

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