In the 21st century economy, if you want to stay employed, seek out a field that is ascending rather than declining.
It’s become a Labor Day tradition here at oftwominds.com to publish a jobs/employment-related essay by longtime correspondent Bob Z. This year Bob reviews the state of the U.S. economy and then sketches out what it takes to get and keep a job in an economy with many declining sectors and few rising ones.
Last year’s Labor Day essay suggested that technology had progressed to the point that it now destroyed more jobs than it created. Simply by reviewing technological advances that have been reported over the past year, many people might justifiably conclude that the process of automation is accelerating. Here are just a few of these new robotic inventions:
1. Robotic bartenders
2. Robotic burger-flipping machines (360 burgers per hour)
3. Robots that pick fruits and vegetables
These inventions threaten to destroy millions upon millions of low and medium-wage jobs at a time when American workers are generally desperate to find any kind of job that pays middle class wages. One of the “bright spots” for wage earners appeared to be the Tesla factory in Fremont, CA. After all, the facility does employ some 3,000 workers at good wages in a high-tech environment.
But upon closer examination, one finds that this facility fabricates most of the parts used for its automobile production in-house. Gone are the thousands and thousands of jobs that used to exist at parts suppliers. Since new and improved robotic processes are routinely introduced at the facility, the likely outcome is slow but ongoing attrition of jobs at the facility as robotic technology continues to improve.
Most people understand that technology is fundamentally changing the nature of work and employment. These changes are also having a profound effect on the state of the US economy. So on Labor Day 2013, let’s start by taking a look at the state of the US economy.
Most advanced industrial countries such as the United States are experiencing one or more of these three major economic headwinds. First, debt levels are too high. In many countries, the cost of debt service puts a damper on economic growth, as a growing proportion of current income is diverted to paying off past debts. Second, aging populations consume less of virtually everything except medical care. That crimps a country’s growth prospects. Finally, persistently high unemployment eventually forces consumers to reduce their spending, which creates a drag on economic growth.
In July 2013, President Obama began campaigning for “a better bargain for the middle class.” Notwithstanding the irony of watching a lame duck President hitting the campaign trail, a dispassionate observer might ask this embarrassing question: “Exactly where have you been for the past 4-1/2 years, Mr. President?” Compounding the irony, one of the first stops on Mr. Obama’s campaign tour was a visit to an Amazon fulfillment center in Chattanooga, TN, where as many as two-thirds of the jobs at peak periods are temporary jobs without benefits. Left unsaid at the Amazon campaign stop was the unpleasant prospect that, even as Amazon prospers and hires new employees, an even greater number of jobs are disappearing at traditional brick and mortar stores.
Many believe that, despite the US stock market’s massive run-up in the first half of 2013, the state of the US economy is precarious at best. Interest rates on longer-term government bonds began a massive run-up at the beginning of May, and there has been little resistance as rates have spiked upward. As of mid-August, both 10-year and 30-year rates have risen by well over a full percentage point.
In terms of corporate earnings, major retailers such as Walmart, Kohl’s and Macy’s reported 2nd quarter earnings results that were characterized as lackluster to disappointing. In fact, excluding financial companies, 2nd quarter earnings appear to have declined by about 1% on a year-over-year basis, while earnings estimates for the 3rd quarter have been quietly reduced. This combination of lackluster earnings and rising interest rates is putting significant pressure on share prices.
Is it possible that despite trillions of dollars of stimulus spending and borrowing by government and trillions more in bailouts, loan guarantees and money-printing (AKA “quantitative easing”) by the Federal Reserve, the current mediocre state of the US economy is as good as it is going to get?
Has the bond market finally decided to shut down Ben Bernanke’s printing press? Won’t rising interest rates put a huge damper on the so-called “housing recovery”? July’s new home sales report showed a sharp falloff in sales and June new home sales numbers were revised downward as well. As of mid-August, mortgage applications had declined for 13 of the 15 preceding weeks. Don’t rising food and energy prices hurt all consumers, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder? The answers to such questions are important, because they play a part in developing an answer to the really important question on most peoples’ minds: What are my prospects for finding a decent-paying job?
Most people know that Wal-Mart is the largest corporate employer in the world. Far fewer people know that the second-largest corporate employer in the world is Kelly Services, a temp agency. While Wal-Mart and Kelly Services do provide several million jobs, these jobs are generally not the kind of high-paying jobs with full benefits that people need in order to live out the American Dream. In the past, such low-wage jobs were viewed as stepping stones to better jobs. In the “New Economy,” it appears that these low-wages jobs are becoming a way of life for millions of workers who cannot find better-paying jobs.
How do you go about finding that “great” job? Let’s work backwards as we examine the job search process. Obviously, if you are looking to land a good job, you’ll need to learn how to navigate through a typical human resources (HR) department – this includes preparing a first-rate resume with no typographical errors, presenting your skills on the resume so that they “fit” the job opening you are interested in, and developing an outgoing interview technique. An interview technique is like a sales pitch, and you are trying to sell yourself to a company or enterprise. Far too many applicants fail an interviewer’s first big test – they don’t have a good 1 to 2 minute response to the ominous statement: “Tell me about yourself.”
You really don’t want to be written off three minutes into your interview.
But before you even think about trying to navigate through HR, you should first ask yourself whether or not you really want to work in a particular field or for a particular company. Interviewers always seem know whether or not you really have any interest in a particular field, be it accounting, law, medicine, construction or plumbing. And they instinctively sense whether or not you are “compatible” with their company. You need to enjoy the work that you want do, and you have to develop enough “people skills” to get along with your co-workers.
So you have some ideas about the field of work you are interested in. Do some thorough research. First and foremost, in this new 21st century economy, if you want to stay employed you have to seek out a field that is ascending, rather than declining. Here’s just one example out of hundreds: tax preparers. There are numerous tax preparation services, some with offices in large retail stores and others with offices in strip malls. But tax preparation services have a problem. With the ascendancy of the internet, web-based tax preparation software is ascending, while traditional tax preparation services are declining. The point is that you don’t want to be automated out of your job and you don’t want your field of interest to quickly become obsolete.
For those who are searching for that dream job, good luck!
About the author: Bob Z., of Vancouver, Washington, is a Corporate Finance executive who retired in 2007 from an upper management position with a Fortune 500 corporation.
Thank you, Bob. There are at least three other ways to work your way into a great job:
(1) Start a company in an ascending field with one employee (yourself).
(2) Seek out small/micro-companies without human resources departments and figure out how you can make an enormous difference in the success and viability of that small business, and then pitch the owner directly for an opportunity to do so.
(3) Assemble a patchwork career (what I call hybrid work) of several income streams, perhaps mixing self-employment with multiple sources of paid work.
I address these topics in my next book, The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy.
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