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Get ready for the coming employment roller coaster

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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.

93 Responses to “Get ready for the coming employment roller coaster”

  1. For some IT jobs it is not just obsolescence like the proverbial buggy whip makers, but job offshoring aided by overly sweet free trade deals between the US gov’t and gov’ts of sources of virtual slave labor, like India and China. My job, mainframe system development, was such a job that was so offshored. THat is, beyond the dynamic of mere technology sunsetting, if our gov’t wd have been a bit more protectionist of its middle class citizen workers, there ‘d be more middle class jobs instead of walmart level jobs – more people north of the 47 pct and contributing to the US treasury than south of it , not only not contributing to the treasury, but actually sucking money out of it with unemployment , food stamps, section 8 , energy supplements, and welfare. that is, there was , and is, still a whole of work to be done even in the older technology that our gov’t let the cheap overseas labor get at. OUr gov’t was more interested in enriching the middle class of mumbai than the middle class of the USA.

  2. A common problem, is that often those in charge are the gregarious people whose main contribution is self promotion. They are more prepared to spend money delegating, showing off, looking after self, contracting out, absolving their own responsibility, etc than they are on staff training, coalface systems that aid the workers, behind the scenes maintenance, facilitating the work of others or future upgrade costs through depreciation.

  3. Joe Dyck

    That would be fine if employers offered to pay for their technical people’s education needs and allowed employees to be paid while they learn. Nowadays companies expect people to learn on their own time to upgrade their career. Not only that, but they do practice age discrimination, making it hard for older people to find new jobs. My advice is to be sure to save your money, and work on building up some kind of pension funds. Companies are looking to hire the cheapest talent they can get, so don’t expect them to be loyal to you, their favorite line is “what have you done for me lately”

  4. Michael Watkins

    The problem is that the governments and educations systems in the western world are not fit for the 21st century. I live in the UK where we are governed by people who for the most part had a private education and have never worked in a real job. They are the people who are making decisions on how the young people of today should be educated. From having my own children, I can see it is woefully inadequate. Secondary education prepares children to pass exams but doesn’t prepare them for the outside world or give them the tools to survive in that world.

    • Mark Thiele

      There is some truth to your point. However, it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I would argue that there is significantly more employment today than there was 150 years ago. Yet we’ve introduced combines, automated production lines, computing, mass transit, the Internet, etc., etc. So, Employment does come but the risk here is exacerbated by the increased speed of change.

  5. John Vlme

    “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”

    Spoken like a true capitalist, slave driver. This is the world we have now created and seem willing to accept as the only way of living. Where people are in constant fear of losing their jobs, endlessly selling themselves to prospective employers. This is not progress; this is a lifetime of insidious enslavement, masquerading as self empowerment. Enough

    • Mark Thiele

      Really John, I’m thinking that not only do you not understand the issue, but I know for a fact that you don’t know me. I have a 25+ year career in leadership positions with a long demonstrated history of helping to grow and elevate those around me.

      So sir, I’m afraid you couldn’t be farther from the truth.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    There’s a simple solution to the problem: make Africa and China rich, so they can’t sell cheap labour anymore. Manufacturing jobs will return to the industrialized countries.

  7. Matteo Biotti

    It is difficult to disagree with such realistic article. To keep high one’s own employabity is one of the main challenges workers must face today. I work as an HRBP and every day I notice how difficult to learn this way of thinking is for elder workers. Training is the key for sure but also a great dosis of humbleness.

  8. Virginia Morris

    In the “olden” days, French literature majors were hired for IT positions on the grounds that they had demonstrated a capability for learning new things. The hiring company took the responsibility of training these new hires in the skills they needed for their positions, and both company and employees took responsibility for learning new skills. Seems to me that worked fairly well – and didn’t require changing the entire educational system – which is a horse of a different color!

  9. Mark,
    At first I was inclined to disagree with you concerning the 15-30% churn over 8-10 years. I thought it would be closer to a 50% churn over a 5-year period — that is, until I realized my own bias in the field of Engineering. Some occupations *can* last a lifetime like Teaching — specifically in high school Math and Science. Yet too many of us have been starved out of that occupation. Your article needs to be taken seriously, and it will if decisionmakers and taxpayers compensate these math and science teachers for conveying deeper knowledge of their subjects. Currently, teaching to the test is meant to remedy *perceived* problems. The conventional practice is to line up the “bottom performing” teachers and schools in front of the firing squad. Instead, we need to identify teaching practices and relevant content that together produce better than expected outcomes considering the students’ own life situations. A number of techniques in Healthcare Outcomes Measurement can be borrowed and adapted to Educational Outcomes Measurement.
    –John Sloan from LinkedIn

  10. Claudia Fulbright

    Personally, I’ve always felt the emphasis to readily conforn to certain ways of doing things and solving ptoblems within a comapny has stifled not only growth in individuals, but hurt the companies as well.
    That has led to many companies failure to act swiftly enough to trend changes, and thus fail to perform well in the market place.

  11. I am an early Cloud architect and consultant and often speak at Cloud events. I have warned people back in the 2008 that Cloud will create a major storm in the IT industry. Four years on and I still don’t see much evidence that organisations have realised what is happening. Many of the infrastructure and even software related jobs will simply go disappear. How many IT jobs has Amazon AWS alone made redundant? I would rather not know. Ok, it has created new opportunities that were not there in the first place, but the reality is, we are looking into the eye of a major storm. There are two options now – stick your head in the stand or become very active at all levels (senior management, HR, employees themselves) and work on tactical and strategic plans that will mitigate to some degree the impact of this major change.
    Phil, Exception, UK

  12. The problem is recuiters and those who enlist their services. Business seems to be unwilling give anyone a chance to get in the door any more. Recuiters place little or no value on the years of business experience that one may have obtained throughout a career or a Computer Science or Information Systems degree, unless of course the client requests it. It is simply do you have two to five years of technology X. If this trend continues, the only people that businesses are have available are those whose individuals and organizations who are willing to falsify their resumes.

  13. Jim Powell

    Sadly most companies find it easier/faster to hire from outside the company for the particular skill set they need rather than retool them. There’s a reason why employees want those “management” roles. Those are the roles who do the hiring/firing of those with/without the necessary skill sets and have the job security.

    You’re right though that it will bite them. Good contractors who know what they are doing will charge you well for their services and companies will waste a lot of time and money on all the bad ones. Companies also have unrealistic expectations like “5 years experience in Android development” which isn’t possible since it has been out that long.

  14. many companies are scared to losing their best employees, they are reluctant to spend heavily on training and development only for staff to join their competitors to start up by themselves.

  15. I’d like to make a few points…

    First, job obsolescence doesn’t occur by you working yourself out of a job. It comes from forces outside your control.

    Second, retraining good employees, or providing good employees opportunities to retrain themselves, takes advantage of known strengths. Replacing good employees just to get more up-to-date versions of skillsets leaves you with up-to-date employees with whom you have no experience.

    Third, a short skill lifecycle doesn’t fit a model of hiring the young to get new skillsets in the door while retiring the old to make room for the young.

    Fourth, although age has a way of slowing you down, that fact by itself does not mean that anyone above a certain age will be unable to keep up with change. You need to deal with each employee or potential employee as an individual.

    Fifth, allowing for employee retraining doesn’t require the employer to predict the future. It just requires the employer to be alert and flexible enough to keep up with change.

  16. Looks like you`ve never worked in IT, you cannot forsee trends as well as the lack of training before a change.
    Look at Virtualization for example, back in pre 2005 the only Virtualization training was from Citrix and that`s no way near good for today`s industry.

  17. teamlead

    Unfortunately when a company faces some turbulence (meaning profits going down) the first victim is education – in 5 years tenure in a big IT company I had the opportunity to provide only 5 training courses for my 20+ FTE team, i.e. just 5 people benefited in 60 months!

  18. Very good article, but you’re dead wrong with Cobol programmers. You’d be amaze to learn that there are still people new to programming that are learning Cobol on their first job. I expect them to be able to reach retirement as Cobol programmers. The banking and insurance industries still rely heavily on Cobol, and those systems will not die soon.

  19. Ismail Gassiep

    This is a real problem. The company I work for is undergoing a major restructure. Recruiting IT people with “new skills” and the experience, bemoaning the “skills shortage”, but getting rid of techies with “outdated skill”. Watch us repeat this exercise in 4-5 years time.

  20. Chi-Yuen Lam

    So true. My first job was engineer for TACs, AMPS mobile phone system in 1995. Later GSM and 3G mobile sales engineer from 2000. Lately I am a business development manager of IT services of router making giant. I just could not follow how fast the technologies evolve.

  21. David Mitchell

    I would also add; I think the HR field has focused too much with just scanning for ‘hit’ words within resume’s and has lost touch with what really is a skill-set for the new technologies era.

  22. David Mitchell

    “Jobs may last less than a decade before becoming obsolete.” (Mark Thiele, Switch – gigaom.com)

    That realization began to take foothold in the mid 90’s for me. I’d decided to align my career direction with the term; envisionary. Seeking out and collaborating on some of the most challenging projects using new technologies and converged services had always been my style but I’ve made it a core strategy, developed the necessary skills with proven results and the privilege of working with some of the most talented in their field.

    I would call this a ‘cross-platform knowledge-base’, rather than a ‘single-ended system perspective’. Not just the passe ‘out of the box thinker’, but developing the envisionary process of making the future vision a reality. I recall some friendly advice from a former Dir. of Communications; “The moment you stop developing your creativity is the time to which you’ve become obsolete.” I enjoyed the article, thanks.