Wednesday, November 07, 2012

An Object Lesson in the Problem with Most Career Advice

Several different people in my twitter feed posted a link to this recent C&E News article about the difficulties some laid off chemists are having finding new jobs. It is indeed sobering reading, and provides a good example of why I have a problem both with Cal Newport's advice to focus on getting really good at something and the "traditional" career advice to find something you love to do: sometimes the market for that something collapses.

I had an up close view of the wave of offshoring that occurred in software development, and then watched that wave crest and retreat as companies realized how tricky offshoring really is and started to bring more software development jobs back in house, or at least to local contractors with whom they could have frequent face-to-face meetings. And then, of course, mobile apps happened, and now suddenly software development- a career path that 10 years ago people were pronouncing dead in the US- is one of the hottest careers going, at least as evidenced by how hard it is to find good software developers to hire.

So perhaps something similar will happen to chemistry. Right now, companies are offshoring chemistry like crazy, and people are pronouncing chemistry to be a career that will disappear from the US. But maybe in 10 years, the wave will have reversed, and something will have happened to bring more chemistry jobs back to the US. For software, I think the tide turned due to a lot of big project failures as people tried to offshore projects using the same loose project management techniques that work for collocated projects and had them fail. I don't know what might turn the tide for the chemistry jobs. I have some friends who are convinced it will be the first big case of lost intellectual property, since in the small molecule drug discovery business the structures of lead compounds are closely guarded secrets. It could equally well be some other costly problem, such as an impurity that scuttles an expensive study. Or it could be the same communication and remote management problems that have led to a rethinking of the "offshore everything!" philosophy in software development. Or maybe I'm wrong, and the wave will never recede.

None of this offers much comfort to someone whose job is gone now, though, since even in my best cause scenario, it is close to a decade before the tide turns. It is easy to try to second guess the decisions of the people in the C&E News article, but that is ultimately pointless. The fact is that even chemists who have done everything "right" can find themselves struggling to find a chemistry job these days.

Instead of trying to convince ourselves that we'd never be in their shoes, we would be smart to read their stories and think about different strategies for dealing with industry-wide changes like they faced. This is why I think carefully about how best to build my career capital. I know that not all career capital is of equal value. This is also why retraining isn't as easy at is sounds- something Nicoleandmaggie referenced in the comments on my last post. For retraining to be successful it has to produce career capital that is recognized as having value in the target career, and all too often it fails to do that, or it fails to give the trainee enough capital to go out and find a job in their new field.

I think a better approach would be to explicitly acknowledge that the days of the secure job, or even of the secure career in a given field, are gone. For better or for worse, we all have to take a more active role in managing our career paths these days. We have to craft strategies, and we will live with the consequences if those strategies fail. My primary personal strategy is one of diversification. I like to grow skills and build capital in multiple areas, thinking that I can perhaps use the skills in the more general areas (i.e., technology and management) to find employment if the jobs in my more specialized area (i.e., the science) become too hard to find. But this approach is no guarantee, and it also has risks- for instance, perhaps if I specialized more I would be more competitive for a dwindling supply of jobs in my particular area.

This need to actively manage your career definitely has downsides- it is tiring, and frustrating, and scary, for instance. But there can be upsides, too. I find it energizing to think of the many possible things I could do next, and as a scanner/renaissance soul, I like the idea that I will do many different things over the course of my career, and I like that it is becoming more common to view that as a good thing. But then, I've been pretty lucky so far. I might not be so sanguine about this all if my luck takes a turn for the worse. Let's hope I don't find out.

What do you think? Have you witnessed any large industry-wide changes? How do you manage your career?

15 comments:

  1. My field (law) has definitely changed. Used to be that you (along with dozens of your classmates) got a job at a BigLaw firm as an articling student. Worked crazy hours to rack up billables for 7 - 10 years. Hoped you were made partner....golden ticket was yours.

    The entire face of law is changing. Non-lawyer low-cost service providers (like LegalZoom) are undercutting rates and essentially commoditizing legal services. People are being smarter about where their dollars are going and are looking for fixed fee guarantees from law firms. In order to meet these demands, firms can't keep on hand the overhead of junior associates to throw on files. Also, work that junior associates used to perform can now be frequently be completed with technology and improved computer systems. There are lots of lawyers out there who are out of work, or are lacking in job training because their work is now being done by software programs.

    The good news, for entrepreneurial lawyers (and I modestly include myself in this), the technology allows me, as an independent legal practitioner, to keep my overhead really low and yet turn out quality of work on part with the work I did at BigLaw. I think this is a new and exciting legal market and it rewards those who offer excellent client service (there is no reason lawyers should be exempt from this) because LegalZoom can't turn out a decent contract but can't listen to your particular situation and then tell you if that is the right contract for your situation or if something else might be better.

    I'll never know if I would have received the BigLaw golden ticket or not. But I'm doing very well, and I'm happy I saw the train coming down the track, took charge and made the leap while it was still my decision on where to go. I think the time to make adjustments to your career is before you HAVE to. Everyone should have a viable plan B, even if plan A is still on track.

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    1. Thanks for this comment. It is interesting to see how these changes are playing out in the supposedly "safe" professions.

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  2. *** Edit: LegalZoom CAN turn out a decent contract....

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  3. So true about job security these days. I think, in general, it is hard to be well and truly secure when ones has little to no equity ownership and is purely working for someone else's enterprise - of course, the opposite of that can also often be equally true (I know a lot of financially insecure entrepreneurs.) The working folks I know with the most job security are partners in big firms (law, finance, accounting, consulting, etc), academics with tenure, surgeons and orthodontists who own their own lucrative practices, and people who own commercial real estate with a small business on the side (like a title company or a bunch of dry cleaners.) It's hard to predict or pin down.

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    1. The real estate angle is interesting. Some of the people we know who have managed to build themselves the most financial security (starting literally from nothing in one case- as in this person defected from an unfriendly country back in the 80s) have made use of real estate. Mr. Snarky and I talk about that, but do nothing about it, mostly because we aren't comfortable with the level of debt we'd have to take on to buy a second property of any sort.

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    2. Yes, I'm a REIT person myself. I don't want to form a bunch of LLCs to avoid defending slip and fall suits. And I have enough trouble managing my own personal residence, let alone buying up a bunch of other properties to have to worry about.

      The other issue is liquidity - the folks I'm thinking of are asset rich but don't have a lot of cash to put to use because it's tied up in the properties.

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  4. I have also worked to diversify myself. And I didn't buy into advice I got early in my career that said I should focus on one area to become an expert in. No thanks, I enjoy being a jack-of-all-trades, and I think it provided me with a very well-rounded foundation to become a project manager, which was always my goal.

    Now, not only do I have a lot of IT knowledge (in general and in a certain type of software) and am gaining project management knowledge, but I am also learning about a growing field in my market (health market), which will help keep me marketable if I need to (or want to) go to a Plan B.

    Plan C is to become independently wealthy! I'm hoping to not need Plan C, cause I don't quite know how to accomplish it outside of marrying for money, and I married for love.

    hush: Your comment made me think, "well, not even partners are safe these days." There is a large consulting firm that does a lot of business around my parts who let a whole bunch of partners go recently. Trimming the fat, so to speak. This market is tough on just about everybody.

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    1. I often complain to my husband about the fact that I failed to marry for money...

      Depending on when you start counting plans, I'm already on plan C or so. And I've got at least two more I could go to!

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    2. Oh, and- great to "see" you again! I've missed seeing you around the internets.

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    3. @Caramama - I've missed you, too! Glad you're back. You're right about some firm partners not being secure. Nowadays there are tiers of partnership with varying amounts of equity, and only the ones at the top are truly secure (those who have P&L responsibility, real equity, and client relationships they can take anywhere with them).

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  5. I have witnessed several publications I've written for go belly-up. I have also seen my contacts at multiple publications disappear -- meaning the place may as well be dead to me when that person leaves. The good news is that there always seems to be something new around the corner. At first it was nerve-wracking, but after a decade, you learn to see that there's some stability in not being tied to the fortunes of one place.

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    1. Yes! Writing/publishing is undergoing HUGE changes. I think about that anytime I see someone on your blog implying that you have it easy. Easier than some, maybe, but making a living as a writer these days cannot be considered "easy" in my book.

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  6. I was an unemployed architect for 14 months. As my husband makes more than I do, it was not advisable to move to a bigger city with more jobs (if that even existed in 2010). A few local firms have started hiring again, but not many. I was lucky to find a job working for a developer.

    The silver lining to my 14 months of stress was that I had time to consider what I am good at and what work makes me happy. Marketing myself and noticing what I missed when I had no work was educational.

    I don't really have time for it, but I started to build a small freelance business that I could expand if I were laid off again. Not hugely profitable, but since husband has family medical insurance we would be okay without my income once the boy is in kindergarten (2years).

    And I have also considered other fields where my design and management skills could be applied. I just hope my next job change is my choice and not someone else's.

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    1. Oh, ouch! 14 months is tough. I'm glad you found something. I'm personally drawn to the idea of having a freelance business in my current field, but not doing it fulltime so that I could have time to try out some other ideas. That is my current plan if I find myself suddenly out of work. But like you, I hope that I can make the choice for myself rather than having it foisted on my by a lay off!

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  7. I'm not ready to say which industry I'm in (a few bloggers I know personally do know) but it's safe to say that the overarching industry has been undergoing sea changes for fifteen years or more, and the niche that I'm in has been fighting against a major movement for change that you may have heard of for the past seven or so years, in the name of survival.

    I got in the business more than seven years ago, and didn't know about the "revolution" but I knew that the industry as a whole was unstable, so I chose the more staid "stable" section in hopes of keeping my feet on the ground long enough to get my bearings, and figured I'd grow myself, my skills and my horizons as I went.

    I lucked into the more revolutionary side of things when I was laid off and had enough experience to shoot for a high enough management role with a younger company. Spent a few years there, building my mgmt and Running All The Things chops.

    It's a little weird actually, as I go, I keep taking more risks, not less. I'm now with a start up. My career transitions are completely backward IMO, started in a completely trad, completely "safe" enviro and went toward a totally "unstable" enviro as I got older and "wiser". In some ways, this makes sense in that I'm actively managing for the whole picture risk: if it's true that the whole industry is not sustainable in its present condition, than I need to get out in front of the problem: learn the newest and latest business models, test them, figure out what will work, and master the skills necessary to run them. Be one of the few experts in the regenerating part of the industry, because the other choice is stagnant with the majority in the dying part and wait to get laid off and scrabble for another job, get laid off, and scrabble again.

    It's a bit scary of course, if this doesn't work out then I have no clear next step. But it's certainly the most interesting and the most active strategy, and the last version of it worked out. I didn't know what I'd do "next" from my last job either! :)

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