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?