One job for life hasn’t been true for a while, but in the tech space even expecting to have one skill-set for life may be asking too much. Jobs may last less than a decade before becoming obsolete. So how do we cope?

We have a serious problem, a very, very serious problem and its related to how we recruit, hire, train, and retain employees for many modern and critical roles. Based on anecdotal evidence I believe we are rapidly approaching a point where 15-30 percent of our work force could be “worked” out of a job in any given eight to ten-year period.

That would mean up to 45 million Americans looking for replacement roles in any ten-year span. Yes, my numbers were developed anecdotally from previous experience in combination with information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As an example in 2002 there were roughly 15 million manufacturing roles. When you combine that with operations oriented IT or service oriented roles you can quickly come up to 45 million affected positions.

It gets worse, not better.

The first world has been lucky. We had the last 100 years to help folks through a changing job market in the manufacturing sector, yet we still often failed. Many of the employees during this 100-year stretch felt they could make a good-enough living without a college degree or seeking a path into alternate roles in their company. This “good-enough” mentality is now causing the first world real issues as they try to transition these folks effectively either into early retirement or new jobs.

It’s not just manufacturing. Even computer programming has experienced this cycle of job obsolescence. Consider all the assembler and Cobol programmers whose careers in the 60s and 70s seemed as if they would last forever.

Today’s job market is very obviously different from a century or even three decades ago. Many of today’s positions have a lifespan of less than 10 years. Almost any manufacturing role or traditional IT infrastructure role would fit into this category. This sub-10-year job lifespan already affects millions of positions in the U.S. alone. Interestingly five years from now we’ll look back longingly at the good old days when a job (role) might last 10 years. The accelerating change associated with advancements in technology has increased the speed at which many jobs become obsolete.

Why now is different

Think of the trauma caused in a single-industry town (logging, manufacturing, fishing, etc) when the winds of change (regulations, technology, climate) eliminate that industry in that location. This trauma occurs even though we often see the change coming for a decade and the jobs have been largely the same for 30 or more years already.

Today, that same trauma would be magnified by the fact that most of the jobs would be less than 10 years old and the town will likely have two years or less to react to what the future holds. That assumes, of course, that the town or people in that town are actively paying attention to the future. In order to continue to grow our companies and our economy we must get away from the reactive response to role changes or compensation changes and think more strategically about how we protect our employees.

The role of HR, business and you

If you agree with the risks implied in the above, then there would seem to be no alternative but to rethink how most modern companies recruit, hire, train and retain employees. The employer and employee are going to need to work together to effect this change. HR isn’t always going to understand whether a specific role or function is becoming outdated, so they will have to work with employees and leaders.

The knowledge of “what’s coming” should be translated into your training/retraining programs. Basically you should be training your team to take jobs that don’t exist so they are ready when they do. It also means that reward systems need to be reworked significantly. Current systems tend to emphasize excellence at a particular skill. Instead you should be putting emphasis on how well employees work themselves out of their job. In effect the employee should be creating their own obsolescence.

There are several areas of opportunity in the corporation to help reduce the trauma of this shift:

  • When recruiting places new or additional emphasis on skill development capability in the potential recruit
  • During hiring, include discussion and planning around the growth of the employee beyond just “I’d like to be a manager someday” or “senior system admin.”
  • Training should focus as much on how effectively employees can change as it does on a specific skill set. However, training will also need to include “retraining” of staff as an ongoing part of the employer/employee responsibility.

Governments can also play a role since, it seems logical that they would be interested in helping companies that are working effectively to support employment in the U.S. Some simple suggestions include:

  • Labor areas where the traditional rules of benefits are softened, but the rules for training and retraining are increased.
  • Tax incentives could be applied in order to push companies and workers to develop better retention and training programs. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we incent companies or employees to keep doing jobs we can get rid of, just the opposite.

And of course, employees also have a role to play. Instead of whining about how hard it is to find another system admin job or a manufacturing line operator position, take responsibility for developing your career and working with your leadership to be prepared for what’s coming. Keep up your education current through any processes available, from night classes to cross training, industry participation and reading. As employers we need to take more interest in how well our employees are being developed so that they are a greater enabler to our success.

At the end of the day, if we have higher employment our companies sell more, which means more opportunity for all.

Building photo courtesy of Shutterstock user  Vladitto

Mark Thiele is executive VP of Data Center Tech at Switch, the operator of the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. Thiele blogs at SwitchScribe and at Data Center Pulse, where is also president and founder. He can be found on Twitter at @mthiele10.

  1. I think this trend points to a critical need for education reform starting with primary school. We need to start teaching students how to learn, grow, change, adapt, and create, not just how to do, respond, and conform.

    1. Jeff, great points that I most certainly would have included in my piece, but I couldn’t keep it short enough. This is a topic area I would love to explore with others.

      1. What Jeff alludes to is not rooted by environment, but by the nature of the person. It is ultimately our choice in who we want to become. If we learn to accept what we can control, then it’s possible that our decisions will be made for the better.

    2. Right on Jeff. It’s time to lose the industrial revolution education system. Unfortunately the only education reform is see happening is only making things worse, no child left behind more, standardized tests etc.

    3. So right Jeff. Only being our of the education system for a short period of time (graduated from a Big Ten university this past spring) I can tell you I was completely unprepared for college after coming out of high school. We also can’t forget about students who don’t want to go to higher education, basic labor jobs are becoming much more technical and require training. Not everyone is cut out for education, but we really need to rethink our eduction system to adapt to ever changing needs and trends in our society.

  2. David Mumford Friday, October 26, 2012

    Great article!
    IMHO there are (atleast) 2 types of companies, ones that create the future and others that follow.

    For companies actually creating the future this article is spot on. For the others though, their jobs can last decades and they create friction in adapting to change.

    I think being an autodidact is the best education :)

  3. Brian Gracely Friday, October 26, 2012

    Excellent article. Especially in technology, I’m not sure it realistic anymore to see roles lasting more than 3-4 years, and some other factors are causing challenges of aligning the right people with the right roles.

    1 – Technology and the associated companies are changing faster than ever before. There are no longer sustained periods of stability.
    2 – Technology allows people to work anywhere, but many roles are now asking people to “be in the physical office” (Silicon Valley, Boston, NYC, Austin). Tons of smart people don’t want to move their families for what coud be 3-4yr opportunities.
    3 – Social tools are making technologists very visible and many of them want to incorporate that into their work life. Too many companies try to restrict (or censor) this, creating frustrations and limiting knowledge sharing with the market.

    I tell most people not to expect their company to plan a “career path” for them (it’s their responsibility) and not to expect the company to pay for them to learn new skills, as so much is available for free online. It means putting in the hours outside of work (usually for $0 compensation).

    I do agree with your guidance to have a plan that you can bring to an employer about where you want to go next. There are lots of ways to gain valuable experience and skills within an existing job that will give someone an advantage at getting another role to advance their career. But they should own that plan.

    1. This. Moving for a job is absolutely nonsensical in this day and age. Are we all to become gypsies in order to survive? It makes no sense and society cannot support it. We need roots, community, etc… Companies need to adapt to a mobile, telecommute workforce.

    2. The reality is that companies would be smart to identify and train those staffers who are capable and interested in keeping current with corporate needs. Aside from an interview, my first job included two IQ tests and a logic test. These provide the basis for capability. Interest level is developed over time and can in fact be guided by the company.

  4. Venkata Acharya Friday, October 26, 2012

    The points made are really true. The pace of innovation is increasing, thus the pace of change. What this also means is that fortunes are being made faster. Earlier, when change was slow, everyone had the opportunity to adapt and thus participate in the fortune building. But now, the percentage of who can adapt is shrinking, and will continue to shrink as pace becomes more rapid. All this just means that fortunes will be made by fewer and fewer people – not a good thing for society. I can only hope that we somehow get into a reverse spiral of slowing down and enjoying this life on earth!

    1. Thats TRUE!!! We need to slow down and be natural!!!

    2. Not exactly our life on earth, but our active life I would say. We will be less and less able to add value to the economy and so we will have to find ways to help the communities and create scope for our lives. At least for this spiral, that seems to go in this direction now, but don’t forget that all social trends are cyclical. There will be a moment when this profit seeking economy will create so much social frustration that the trend will eventually reverse.

      1. I would hope so…However, based on the frantic pace at which we are going, I don’t see us slowing down anytime soon…

  5. “I can only hope that we somehow get into a reverse spiral of slowing down and enjoying this life on earth!”

    Best point so far, but it will never happen. The trend is toward cookie cutter perfect. And the rest of us….Drop Dead!

  6. Matthew Loxton (MKM) Friday, October 26, 2012

    This is a problem that my fellow Knowledge Management practitioners and I see only too well as turbulence causes eddies and swirl in knowledge requirements – what was critical knowledge for executing a business plan last year suddenly is not just obsolete but irellevant to today’s problem, and likewise what knowledge holdings next year’s business problem needs is at this time simply inscrutable.

    Some knowledge remains critical over time but un-mapped and may leave when the people go, other knowledge is missing and often where to get it is unclear, and business managers often don’t know which is the case.

    1. Melinda Augustina Friday, October 26, 2012

      Very true. A company cannot be without it’s Knowledge practitioners. Kai-Zen, baby!!

  7. Andrew Murray Friday, October 26, 2012

    The statistics and predictions of this article sound scary, but I agree with the need to hire for potential. I’ve recently joined Driscoll’s where our recruiting model is to hire for: 1. our company values 2. Potential 3. skill set….and in that order of priority. Hiring persons that fit the companies values and have the potential to grow and learn helps build long term, loyal, valuable employees.

  8. Fascinating critical analysis of employment, industry and commerce. And I agree with Jeff below – for the most part, current educational paradigms teach about what is known, not where things are going. There’s a best-selling book in here.

  9. Coming from a software engineering background, one of the biggest issues that I see is how companies want to hire very specific skills, not talented engineers. Many of the specific skills can be learned quickly by a talented engineer, but if the skills are necessary to walk in the door then (a) companies will focus on hiring flash over substance, and (b) it puts undo burden upon the engineer to constantly be learning in their free time, since few companies are providing the downtime or financial support/incentive to take additional courses. This is an unhealthy cycle that has led most of the engineers I know, to consider moving out of technology and into management or otherwise after about a decade, because once they have a family, they aren’t interested in spending all of their freetime learning to stay relevant … and this just to stay in the same place, wthout advancing their career.

    1. I totally agree. I have been in the software and technology industry for 20 years. I have kept my skills relevant in many new technologies.

      But I find it pretty rediculous when employers look for very specific skills, version numbers even! They find it irrelevant when I have 5 – 10 years experience in the last version or have used 3 competing products in the same space. Even when I have written commercial software to serve the same goal.

      I keep hearing about how there are not enough skilled technical resources in the US, but I firmly believe employers are looking for the wrong skills and missing out on true technical experts that can make a huge difference.

      I have always believed that my job is to make my job function obsolete – automate, empower, and train others to fill my role. Then I get to reinvent myself and stay ahead of the business and technology curve :)

      1. Where I worked, there is a tendency for higher management to “make their mark” by purchasing expensive business software launching large projects. Then they ride a “6 month” project for 3 years until something finally gets implemented.

        Then they have a celebration, declare success, get promoted / or get a new position elswhere and move on. The real work comes where the system tries to synergize with the rest of the business processes and become really useful. About two years after that a new manager decides to “make their mark” and spends millions to buy a new system. But they have no clue how difficult it is to switch over and it takes 6 times longer than they expect so you end up with multiple systems that you have to integrate with. And the cycle continues…

        Unfortunately for us tech workers, the latest trend is to purchase systems that are “in the cloud” but developed by a third party, which basically takes all the local control of it away. Any customization has to be purchased and developed off site at ten times the expense and ten times the turnaround time (if you can even get it).

      2. Michael Taylor Monday, October 29, 2012

        That is the kind of company you should probably avoid since their mindset is to harvest whatever skills you have and then move on to the next person at lowest cost. The smart money companies look at the bigger picture of how to develop their best workers and champion them into projects where their skill sets can expand.

      3. This is a very insightful comment. Also, it is the same sentiment that I have shared for almost a decade. As a Gen X’er, I infused my time and career with technology. We’re possibly the first generation to do this. The track record I share with those like me is the ability to sustain. And, that has taken a great deal of commitment to immerse oneself into something by it’s very nature both rapidly changing and short lived. The message goes out to all the HR pros and recruiters out there. Your industry hasn’t changed, get more warm bodies. However, I.T. has, so please reinvent yourself, because it hasn’t been working for this nation and it certainly won’t work for years to come. The data indicated this very fact. Try to truly find out what is required instead of researching buzzwords and tech jargon. This trite repackaging is plain to see and obvious to the truly qualified professionals and has been a real put-off. So, take the criticism, and reverse all those years of practicing an antiquated formula for filling (so called) positions. There’s real work to be done, and there is an army of extremely qualified personell that are prepared to deliver. The next generation of tech service is sure to come. Adapt and surmount to this new challenge.

      4. Wilbert Lancaster Wednesday, October 31, 2012

        Fanastic observation, making yourself obsolete as far as the process is concerned
        then re-inventing, learning and pushing the curve on new challenges.
        Training others and empowering them, is exactly what I’ve been trying to add
        to companies and industries in which I’ve worked. This article points out some very relevant truths and exactly what most of the commentors are experiencing.

    2. I’m not sure if it’s enough to spend freetime, most of these companies are demanding work experience. In most cases they look at solely what you are doing now, and if it’s not a match for what they are looking for they reject the resume.

      As an employee, if I am looking for a new job, it’s usually not because I want to do the same thing I’m doing now.

      1. This statement sound like a contradiction, and this is mainly the reason why you end up doing things you don’t like. The solution is “hire the attitude and train the skills”, but of course the hiring side has to agree with this idea. I believe that if someone has the right attitude, he can do almost any job, and on the contrary if he has the wrong one, he will never be happy with his job and the employer will feel the same way.

      2. Zsolt, a truly a valiant effort on your part in attempting bring some type of order in explaining to a process that is devoid of those characteristics. The attitude of most technologists shines through in the following way. They spend countless hours on very complex problems, just like most professions. Problems that most people would rather delegate than deal with. A certain pervasiveness exists in their attitude bordering on obsession, even, to find solutions, or to find a better way, altogether. Then, once discovered, trotting through endless red tape and archaic managerial preferences. Contemplating byte-code, boot-loaders, and big data doesn’t require you to ‘put on a happy face’, it’s a science with a measure of artistic craft. That being said, although having a positive attitude is important, I believe having a neutral or negative attitude is not catastrophic. Great concept, by the way, it just needs to be walked over to the sales department, as it has no real place in I.T.

    3. Exactly!

    4. Bon, I completely agree! I’m in Canada and things are no better here. I’ve been in my current position (well, company) for 7 years and our entire office is being closed in 3 months. I’ve known for 3 months officially, and have suspected it for 6, which is when I started looking for work.

      I have a huge skill set as well as 19 years of experience, but for every position I’m missing one thing they want (the newest version of a software, for example) and that’s enough to screen me out as a candidate. It’s very frustrating because it’s always something I could easily learn, but they all seem to want the experience with that skill/program/whatever.

      My entire career I’ve spent all my free time learning, as everyone around me gets older. I can barely keep a relationship, have skipped having children and I’ve realized that when my parents die I’ll have regrets of not spending time with them. As it is I’ve moved to a city several hours away from them to be employed. Is this what a healthy employee is supposed to be?

      I’m seriously considering leaving the field, but I truely enjoy what I do.

  10. I have been employeed with the same company for 16 years + , I am 56 yrs old and am working on a B.S. degree in Consumer Science . I will finish next semester and plan to study for a M.S. in Studies of Future Technology. I realized how fast the job market is changing some time ago but just recently realized how it could affect me in my long term role with my company. At 56 I still have another 9 to 10 years that I need to work. It is not impossible (and I have not found it tremendously difficult) for older employees to learn an entirely new career.

    1. Melinda Augustina Friday, October 26, 2012

      You are correct, Joyce!!


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