Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Irrational Expectations Vs. Resources for Renewal

If the current downturn in the employment market is part of a usual cyclical downturn of the economy, then we could just wait it out and everything will eventually resolve itself like a happy ending of a classic Hollywood movie. This would exclude the possibility of civil unrest brought on by structural unemployment and underemployment engendered by globalization and related ageism and other forms of employment related discrimination. Moreover, far from the futuristic office parks and glittering commercial skyscapes, many of formerly optimistic citizens are settling for a life of quiet desperation and sharply reduced expectations. Unfortunately, this time it really may be different.

Nevertheless, most Americans, even the unemployed and underemployed, still believe in the “happily ever after myth.” Why not? The citizenry can’t, or won’t, let go, of the notion of American Exceptionalism (i. e.; we are the best in the world in everything we see as important), which may have been the case for a good part of the post WW II period. However, cultural pluralism, market meltdowns and fundamentalism, techno-mania, terrorism and the resulting individual and socio economic fragmentation is making it harder to maintain our delusions of global grandeur and omnipotence

What can we do to stop this slide? Do we have to hit a total socio economic bottom before we start an authentic process of renewal? Catatrophising and all-or-nothing thinking will get us nowhere. And there is too much politically and culturally manufactured fear, particularly in the mass media, to envision quick fixes in the current milieu.

Translated to the area of employment we have to realize that the age of the free lunch has passed us by. Sustained recovery only begins by radically altering the way we view ourselves and our realistic possibilities for our careers and our lives. Strategic, rational, and even critical thinking need to once again begin to guide our actions. In the job arena this might require significant sacrifice to acquire marketable skills and core competencies.

This is particularly the case for unskilled high school graduates and dropouts who experience the highest rates of chronic unemployment and underemployment, which currently approaches fifteen percent plus. It’s not that those resources of renewal aren’t out there for them or all of us; rather we need to develop the motivation and “chutzpah” to go out and get them.

If we are job hunting in IT, or in almost any other field, then we need to focus on the mechanics of what will lead to a successful outcome: Do we have an appropriate skill set for the job we are seeking? Can we write a powerful resume? Do we possess strong interviewing skills? Do we know where and how to find, and research, realistic opportunities? The keys here are flexibility, tenacity, and creativity.

In this unforgiving market we often have to offer value that far exceeds a written job posting, because the competition is so formidable. The employers know that, and in this buyers market for their offerings, they can, and do, often wait for the perfect match. But this perfectionism is often a matter of semi-arbitrary perception. Bottom line; they won’t hire you unless they think you can do the job very well, and you are someone that they would very much like to work with. Given strong skills, attitude, for all intents and purposes, is almost everything if you want a successful job search.

Every day I talk to people, whose skills and/or experience are not compatible with what they want to do. One recent example involves an environmental engineer, with a private sector experience, who has been out of work for nearly a year. He wants a local government job, which he perceives as offering less stress and more job security for himself and his family He has been tenacious in his job search, coming in second in the interviewing process on a few occasions, and having had several interviews in a very tight market. At times he has been quite creative in finding potential positions. His problem is flexibility. Right now local government jobs are relatively scarce and highly political; the few mid to senior level jobs available are going to individuals with substantial experience in that specific sector.

I spent four hours speaking with him about options, but I gave up coaching and advising him because all he wanted was to be a town engineer. His lack of flexibility was crippling his job search. For now he can continue to dream of his ideal job, and there is a miniscule chance he may be successful. His chances would be much greater in a private sector job, but after a few half hearted efforts he exited from that avenue altogether. With his wife’s salary and his extended unemployment benefits he doesn’t see any necessity to change his strategy. I do wish him well, but his unemployment benefits and his wife’s patience, at least for his ideal job search, may soon expire. Still he clings to his own version of the self defined happy ending.

I could offer you several more examples of generally intelligent and rational people, who are conducting ill advised and irrational job searches. Other questionable actions like quitting a secure job in the middle of a near depression with zero prospects, or paying “big bucks” to career advisers and then doing the opposite of what they recommend, just reinforce this troubling trend.

The new world order of easy job searches and unlimited job creation has been moving away from us for nearly a decade in IT, and for more than a quarter century in manufacturing…. Our safety nets are being stretched to the shredding point. The fear that has characterized this tumultuous decade has now set its sights squarely on the diminishing job prospects of the unemployed, underemployed, and the many others who may lose their livelihoods in the months and years to come

However, if we wish to regain our optimism and cherished possibility of upward mobility, then tenacity, flexibility, and creativity, balanced by competency and rationality, is essential. Maybe our days of dream jobs and storybook endings to low stress job searches have passed. Concurrently, the vision of America of what Ronald Regan called “the shining city on the hill’ that the rest of the world sought to emulate has been tarnished as well. But, if we try very hard, we still can have rich and rewarding careers, and will find that our hopes and dreams sometimes can come true. As the cultural Icon Mick Jager once sang: “We can’t always get what we want, but if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need.”

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