Get ready for the coming employment roller coaster

glass office tower

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.

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