Monday, January 18, 2010

The Effects of Job Insecurity

Female Science Professor has a couple of posts up about the perception that academics don't live in the "real world". One of the special things abut academia that many commenters on these posts (myself included) mention is the job security in academia. This is usually taken to refer to the extreme security of tenured professors, but I think this applies even to the less secure untenured professors and postdocs- although they don't have a guarantee of a job forever and ever like tenured professors do, they at least know when they next risk being unemployed. I, on the other hand, could walk in to work tomorrow and find myself laid off.

In fact, I once walked in to work on what I thought was a work day like any other and found that literally half of my colleagues were laid off. That day was a wake up call to me. I work in a very unstable industry- biotechnology companies are mostly young start ups. They grow and shrink and merge and get acquired and sometimes (OK, a lot of times) go out of business as they attempt to commercialize their founding technology. There are some spectacular winners, but far more spectacular losers. I knew all of this from the start, but it wasn't until that awful day when I watched so many of of my newly unemployed friends walk out of the building that I really understood what this meant.

The biotech industry is unusually unstable, but the days of permanent employment are over in all parts of the private sector. I think (or hope) that as people begin to realize what this really means, we'll see some changes in people's behavior, particularly since the American welfare system is not all that generous. I thought it might be useful, or at least interesting, to discuss what the insecurity of my job means in terms of how I live my life- to provide a worked example of the effects of job insecurity.

There are two main ways in which job insecurity effects me and Hubby: (1) in terms of our financial planning and decisions and (2) in terms of how I manage my career.

Job insecurity and financial planning

My income accounts for slightly more than half of our family income. Until we bought our house, either Hubby or I alone could have paid all of our bills and bought all of our essential items. When we decided to buy a house, we had to decide whether to try to keep that arrangement, or whether to undertake a mortgage that would essentially require us both to be working. We had to balance the risk of one of us losing a job against our desire to live close to work and to stay in the coastal climate zone (two things that minimize our environmental footprint). We decided to buy a house that requires both of our incomes, but not to take as much money as the lenders were offering us, thereby increasing the number of months that we could live off of one salary plus our reserves. One of the results of this decision is that we have a smaller house than many of our peers.

Speaking of reserves... we keep a large amount of money in reserve. This means that we live well beneath our means. We aim to have enough reserves to cover six months' worth of expenses- this would allow one of us to be unemployed for over a year without risking defaulting on any committments. Our reserves are currently a bit depleted, because we are coming out of our maternity/paternity leave period. Although we live in California, which provides some paid family leave via a state-sponsored insurance scheme, we have lost significant income during this period. I received something close to full pay for my eight week disability period (eight weeks instead of six because I had a Cesearan delivery). Hubby and I both received partial pay for up to six weeks of family leave via California paid family leave. Hubby and I both are also working part time for the month of January, and are therefore receiving partial pay from our employers during this month. Despite all of this, we have spent down almost two months worth of our reserves during this four month maternity/paternity leave period. Some of this will be recouped when more of the paid family leave money comes in, but I expect to end at least one month down from where we started.

As you can tell from the previous paragraph, we had to think about money when we were deciding whether or not to have another baby. I don't think this is unusual- babies are expensive, even if you don't take any unpaid leave. However, I also had to think about the timing of when to have a baby. I wanted to be sure of a job for at least a few months, and preferably a full year, after the new baby was born. I also wanted to be reasonably confident that I would not be laid off while pregnant (yes, this is legal as long as it is part of a larger reduction in force). If I had been laid off while pregnant, I would not have received any disability pay and would not have been eligible for any paid family leave. I could not even claim unemployment unless I was actively looking for work. I would essentially have been on unpaid leave, with no idea of when I'd have a paycheck again.

These are just a few examples of how job insecurity figures into our planning. In reality, it figures in to any decision that involves more than a few hundred dollars. And if Hubby and I, who are both pretty well paid, have to plan this carefully to acheive financial security, imagine what people with less well paying jobs have to do. I suspect a lot of them just live with financial insecurity as well as job insecurity.

Job Insecurity and Career Management

I have gotten better at reading the corporate tea leaves since that day when I was surprised to find half of my company laid off. However, I am nowhere near senior enough to be confident that I would know when a round of lay offs is coming. Since I never really know when I'll next need to find a new job, I have to actively manage my career at all times. I should always be thinking about what my next job might be, even if I have no intention of looking for a new job anytime soon. I never know when the decision that it is time to move on will be made for me.

In my industry, most positions are filled via networking. I think this is because of the tight timelines most companies work under- if you only have a couple of years' worth of cash, you don't have time for many hiring mistakes, so you place extra weight on finding candidates for whom someone you trust can vouch. Before Pumpkin was born, I was very active in a couple of local networking groups. I have found it next to impossible to keep that up now that I have children. I hope to be able to become active in these groups again once Petunia is about two years old. Right now, I simply try to keep up with my current network as best I can, mainly via email and occasional lunches during the work week.

I should also be going to conferences and taking courses from time to time, in order to expand my skills and keep my resume looking impressive. My current company would actually pay for one conference or course per year. It is practically criminal that I am not taking advantage of this, but I am not. As long as I have a nursing baby at home, it is hard to arrange for a trip away for a conference, or the extra time away from home for a class.

While my children are so young, I am essentially gambling- hoping that my current job will stay secure or that I'll be able to land a new position using my current network. I am hoping that I will have time to get another professional development activity on my resume before I need it to impress anyone again. For me, this is actually one of the hardest things about being a working mom. I have the time to do my current job well, but not to make sure I am positioned for the next job that I know I'll eventually need.

I hope that I don't sound bitter in this post- I am not. I knew the rules when I decided to work in biotech. Because most people in my industry are fairly well paid, we can handle the insecurity (or at least, we should be able to handle the insecurity). However, as the rest of the work force starts to face the same level of insecurity, our society may need to change the rules a bit. We're off to a good start with health care reform- one of the most unnerving aspects of being laid off is the fear that you'll eventually lose your health insurance. COBRA doesn't run forever, afterall. I think we also need to either increase our welfare safety net or put programs in place to encourage people to build their own financial buffers so that job insecurity doesn't necessarily mean financial insecurity.


  1. Anonymous6:13 AM

    Found you through Mom101. Love your stuff! You are very informative, and I will be coming back...this was just like sitting across a cup of tea, listening to an intelligent friend.

    You have a very giving, wanting to help way about you...really enjoyed reading the previous posts, too.

    Thank you for taking the time to help others, you are busy working and with little children, and you still do this blog to help.

    Thank you. Alexandra in WI

  2. This is a really interesting perspective. I hadn't realized how tentative the job market in biotech is. It totally doesn't surprise me that you have planned/continue to plan for the insecurity of the jobs in your market. I'll bet you made lists at some point to help in that!

    I have a pretty different perspective in my job market/companies I work for. Being in IT, I pretty much know there will be work that exists in most places (at least place where I'm interested in living). And around the DC area, working for the government (either as a govvie or a consultant) is pretty common and secure. Though I would prefer to work for a software company, that market is less secure, so I stay with my current job. Perhaps if I was ready to plan for a more insecure job market I would make the switch...

  3. found you through Caramama.
    And I do feel your pain. I work in a highly unstable field and have been on a stay of execution since October. Funding runs out at the end of the month and we have gotten some nice promises, but who knows? Meanwhile I make the bulk of our income.

    This is why we keep Hubby's benefits. He's in academia and, while he doesn't make much, I know we'll at least have health, dental, etc. Otherwise I'd be putting in for COBRA every few months.

  4. You have a very smart plan in place. I think it's wise and not bitter at all to always be prepared for the worst.

    You had a great point about being a working mom - the day-to-day work is manageable, but it's all the "overtime" necessary to accumulate the right kind of projects, conferences, courses etc.. to give your skills and resume that needed edge.

    My husband finally has job security after 12 years of subbing. We now know we will never starve if I lost my job, but we would be forced to go live back in his small village (nice) and I wouldn't be able to look for work in the city until the kids were big because of the really long commute. It'd be cheaper for me to stay home than to pay a sitter...

    When I was younger I always had family to lean on when my job situations went south. But now that I have had a decent payng job for the past few years and have a family, I am so happy our savings are built up and we have my husband's job security to lean on. It's sad my career would come to a screeching halt, but I prefer not think about it. :)-

  5. Cloud: I was struck by this statement: "For me, this is actually one of the hardest things about being a working mom. I have the time to do my current job well, but not to make sure I am positioned for the next job that I know I'll eventually need." I think this is one of the key challenges -- to do the "inefficient" stuff that leads to career growth and advancement. I worry sometimes that while I never ever miss a deadline, I may not be pondering how to bring additional deadlines into my life.

  6. I just love this phrase "reading the corporate tea leaves"!

    My industry is currently quite volatile with mergers and acquisitions happening all over the place. There are still tons of jobs available but as I say to people, not at MY level. Eg. 240 jobs in industry, about 20 at my level and up. And most of those IT which I'm not...

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