Learning Work

Who Will Do The Actual Work When The Economy Recovers?

I had an interesting conversation today with a few friends about the exodus of young people from the workplace back to school during this recession. It seems as though people in Generation Y are bailing left and right on current jobs and diving back under the safe covers of academia. And who can blame them? You get to work on interesting research (hopefully), you get a stipend (maybe) and you have better prospects when you’re all done (eh, doubtful). But that leads me to ask, “Who’s going to do all the work when the economy is in full swing again?” Let’s survey the current demographics, starting from the top:

  • The bosses — Not to sound deriding, but they aren’t doing the type of work I’m talking about here. The never have and never will…mostly because they actually have better things to do. For real. They have to meet with other big wigs and figure out where to steer the company and where the market is going and hopefully how to react in time. The work I talk about is more a “down-in-the-trenches” kind of work and I never really expected them to do that kind of work, just thought it was necessary to actually start at the top.
  • The elders — The elders are those who aren’t necessarily in charge but those that have been around for a long time and really understand how a company or industry works. They won’t be doing the work when the economy recovers…because they’ll be retiring. Think about it. How many people were likely planning on retiring in 2008 onwards who suddenly saw their investments vaporize? No, they decided they better stick it out. And though they won’t see a huge return to the days where their portfolios were bulging, I would venture a guess that if the conditions are good enough and they feel that they can squeak by on portfolio growth after they retire, a lot will take the out. If you’re pushing into your 70s, I’m guessing you’re ready for a break. Even if they stay on part time, they won’t be doing the grunt work.
  • The smart ones — The smart ones are those that drive ideas and new products. Even though they may have been around and producing good work for a while, they aren’t allowed to go anywhere. They are the geese with the golden eggs. Where would they go anyway? The people in charge of promoting them would have to replace themselves. Not likely. So they will have to do some work still, but you can probably watch for this group eying the social security line on their weekly pay stub longingly and starting to stick a pinky toe out the door. If you’re looking for a technical mentor, get ’em before they’re gone.
  • The middle — The middle is all those people that were doing the grunt work 20 years ago and did a good job. They may have run out of salary headroom and jumped over to management or maybe they needed a new challenge (I can only imagine dealing with engineers or other similar underlings from a management perspective every day). Either way, there’s little likelihood they’re planning on stepping back into lesser roles. No, they have their eyes on the upper management jobs of the elders and the other aging boomers.
  • The lazy ones — They were the ones on the team that did work every once in a while but in general only contributed when the workload really picked up. They were the auxiliary fuel tank of your company as an airplane–useful when you need it but really just weighing things down when not in use. And although we know it’s not really true, we have an inkling some of them got the ax when it fell last year. Even if you were deluded enough to believe that all the dead weight in your company was gone, the ones in this category that aren’t gone are really good at two things: not doing work and looking like they are. Count them out.
  • The young upstarts — This group has a shot at doing some of the beefy work. In fact, this group has the highest likelihood of doing the majority of the work. I should mention I also feel as though I am a part of this group and therefore have a lot of interest in studying it. “What’s that?? Jim, Allison and Mark are all going back to school? Why? Trudy is going too? What the heck? Who’s going to do their work?!?”, you say (the answer: whoever is asking that question). This newfound love of the classroom is the other reason I am interested in my own demographic. We’re all jumping ship hoping to leapfrog into the next part of our career! There doesn’t seem to be any paying of dues, does there? Welp, that’s because there isn’t. But you can’t do anything about it because everyone in this demographic is back in classes learning about managerial accounting or tort law and not actually doing any work. Now the real question: when everyone pops out of school at the end of the recession, who will be better prepared? MBA Marty or Experienced Eddy? I’d be inclined to say the second, but again, I’m biased here. If you’re in this group and not going back to school, expect more work coming your way. Lawyer Larry is busy studying.
  • The new grads — Quick! We’re running out of people that have any interest in engineering and menial tasks! Get me some workers! “Waaaaaait a second,” says Bob the manager. “All we’ve got is the new grads. There’s no way I’m hiring them without any experience.” Well Bob, too bad, you’re running out of options. Just hire these new kids and try and push them to learn faster and work harder. And do this even though those new grads have higher expectations of what employers will give them and the hours they are asked to work. You’ll probably end up giving it to them too, because what other options do you have?
  • The overseas workers — Well, there’s your answer. It’s really been more of a circular process, figuring out who will be doing all the work. Think about what’s been said and how people have reacted. “Foreign labor is taking all of our jobs!”, the workers said at the beginning. Then they thought, “Oh! I better go back to school and learn how to manage people overseas and the remaining labor in the US!”. Then they get out of school three years later, lobby for a shiny new management position and ask “Ok, where are my underlings? Hunh? No underlings?!? Well crap, hire more foreign workers, we need to get this project out the door!”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t disagree with going back to school. I plan on doing it myself some day, in some capacity. I just disagree with the timing. I liken going back now to pulling all your investments out of the market at the lowest point back in March (maybe to pay for school?). You remove yourself from the market at a time when the most growth can occur. You remove yourself from situations that include working long hours on hard work but it’s with a team that affords you more responsibilities. I feel that the next few years will provide some great opportunities for innovation and growth in certain positions and companies. Second, I realize that some people are going back to revamp skills, especially when they feel that they cannot find employment. This is understandable and expected based on enrollment numbers from past recessions. I would only remind these people to remember to keep up their real-world skills so they can be hired right out of school. Academia doesn’t have room to hold onto you and they have a similar hierarchy as above except for one catch: those tenured professors don’t plan on giving up their cushy position until they are forced to or decide to leave on their own. If you do choose the academic track, get a comfy couch to wait/sleep/eat/live on. Finally, I’d like to speak to my targeting of MBA and Law degrees. It’s not that I think they aren’t important, because I feel that a lot of really important concepts are taught in both management and law classes. I mostly take offense to the idea of you being my boss in 5 years because of a piece of paper. I respect the people around me who are working hard and have better vision than I do to tell me what to do. If you plan on “managing” me without first working by my side or in a similar position, expect to work extra hard to gain my respect.

I believe the solution here is what a lot of people are actually doing: sitting tight and getting some work done. You need to continue to show your company you are a valuable and contributing member while maintaining boundaries on how many peoples’ work you are willing to do. It sometimes seems bleak when you see others stagnating in their career progression right in front of or next to you. However, I believe hard work and tangible results will be the true indicator or advancement and success whenever the economy rebounds. If you think your hard work should go towards a more noble cause, strike out on your own. If companies end up short on talent when the economy comes back, a savvy consultant could be flexible and fluid enough to be exactly the solution customers and companies are looking for.

What about you? What category do you feel like you fall into? Take the poll below or leave a note in the comments!

[poll id=”3″]

Engineering Learning Life Work

Yes, I’m still here

It’s 2009.

More importantly I’m still employed. I actually had a blog post planned out for early January in the event that I lost my job. Hey, if you’re not going to promote yourself, who will?

I was reviewing my new years resolutions from last year and I realized the only one I really followed through on was finding new employment. And since finding my new employment and starting a blog and all of those details, I have come to some important realizations, mostly about work:

  1. If you’re doing it right, there are 3 sections to your life: sleep, work, other.
    • Sleep is unavoidable. At least for now. If there are ever advances in sleep technology that allow people to sleep less per night (besides coffee), I will be the first in line. Plus, I have come to the realization that without the sleep component in your life, you enjoy the other 2/3 much less.
    • Other is everything you’re not doing when sleeping or working. The most important thing you should be doing (in my opinion) is building relationships in your life and enjoying those relationships. Sure, there are hobbies and time for relaxing and whatnot, but really it’s the connections in your life that will enrich your “other” time. And in this economy, you shouldn’t be planning for too much “other” time, so savor what you get. Heck, I consider this blog to be under this time category and in the event sleep and work  and my family and friends get in the way, the blog will fall behind.
    • So work takes up that last 1/3 of your life…probably more. What I’m trying to get across is, it’s important, much more so than I was ever told when I was deciding what to do with my life. It’s important to enjoy what you do, who you work with, how fulfilled you are by the things you accomplish and having an employer that respects your non-work time. For me, I continue to tell myself that on mornings when I’m walking the dog in the snow or when I glance at the forecasts for my old hometown. I think about how I enjoy my job now and how I let that trump some other things when deciding whether or not I wanted to change my life around and move up t0 the blustery north. And given the choice, I would do it all again and have advised others to do the same (pick up and move across the country for a job they might like).
  2. A job that pays you to learn is probably one of the best jobs in the world–I’m not talking about being a grad student (although that’s not bad either). I know those jobs and assistantships pay you (sorta) to learn and do research and such, but my experience has been in the private sector; jobs where the real expectation is that I produce an item that can be sold for the company. However, the important thing is that you learn in the process.  My job is particularly well suited to learning, mostly because I am handed problems and then told to start fixing them. Jobs that require thinking on your feet and quickly adapt to your situation will give you the steepest learning curve and you should relish the opportunity to be challenged like that.
  3. If you learn new skills, you’re not a commodity anymore–Let’s face it, we’re all afraid of losing our jobs at one point or another. I’d say a higher percentage have that fear now that we’re in a recession. I was talking recently with a friend that just lost her job and she mentioned a similar thought: to stay employed, you have to be valuable to your employer. A simple but powerful concept. In the end if you’re not learning and are not contributing (or not showing off what you do contribute), you are expendable. So in the event that you are in a job that does not allow for learning (either mentored or self-learning), push your employer to let you start new projects that will allow you to do so. If they say your workload is too high, offer to work overtime on your learning project. I think it’s that important and it might just help you save your job.

The recession will deepen. But even in the Great Depression, with 25% unemployment, that meant three out of four people were working. I plan on being one of those 3 by continually increasing my skillset in my work projects or in my “other” time (reading new books, working on my piano and blogging). What are you doing to make yourself more valuable to your employer or to any future employer?

Picture by _neona_

Economics Engineering Learning Life Work

On Job Losses and Stem Cell Engineers

Like any good mortgage-fearing first-time home buyer, I worry about my income sources and my job. I don’t have any fears based on performance, but just general fears. It seems that the possibility of recession I wrote about back in September is here and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for a while. So what can I tell you to try and put your mind at ease (“you” of course being an engineer or someone interested in the fate of engineers…I have no authority on other job types). I can tell you what I was told when I was nervous today:

You’re going to be fine. (Helpful, right?)

The great thing about being an engineer, and specifically a relatively inexperienced engineer, is that you’re desirable because you’re flexible (mentally, of course, unless you’re one of those weird gymnast/engineers). You can easily come into a new role that you may know very little about and quickly learn the task. This is not to say that others are not capable of doing the same; many individuals are very good at this concept and are known as “polymaths” (people who excel at many different disciplines, a great example being Leonardo DaVinci). No, I speak of engineers as being mentally malleable because that is the main skill they are taught in school. If an engineer learns nothing more in school, they should learn to teach themselves.  This is why I think of new engineers like stem cells; they naturally adapt to those around them to perform a similar task. However, the longer they stay in a position or field, the harder it gets to leave that field.

So in an effort to calm me down (he did), my friend pointed me to a piece of advice he received from a former colleague, who I also knew. This person was and is a great all around engineer (mechanical by title, but knew his way around electronics) and had the following to say (paraphrased):

As long as you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be OK in the end. At times, you might not like every aspect of your work you’re doing and at other times, you won’t get paid what you deserve. But come good and bad, if you work hard and are open to learn whatever is required to get the job done, you’ll be OK.

My friend told me that this talk he had with the experienced engineer has stuck with him and it’s easy to see why. A veteran engineer who had re-invented himself many times over was living proof that when times get tough, the tough get learning. I guess in the end this is kind of stating the obvious; if you are willing to do anything to get by, you will get by. But I think it is interesting in the context of this blog because when engineers lose a job or are stuck working only contract work, they think there are no other options. Instead, they could be looking at non-traditional roles for engineers, explaining how they can apply their past experiences and hope that the hiring manager recognizes the flexibility most engineers have and puts them to work. I think of a situation where a power engineer cannot find work and ends up in a power line technician position. Not only would the engineer be temporarily employed, they would be able t experience many of the problems that their customers or end-users experience every day. In the best case scenario, the engineer would be able to take that knowledge back and design a better product.

So what do you do if you are an engineer and out of a job currently? Perhaps try a related field that can be used as leverage at your next job. I think of my time working in a semiconductor fabrication facility this way; I was not working on the design of the product, but I got some hard skills (mostly statistics), some soft skills (working in a high pressure environment independently) and some undefinable skills (a sense of where the semiconductor business is heading and how it could affect the market). If you happen to work in a field that is so niche that you cannot find anything remotely similar to what you prefer to work on, maybe try taking a traditionally lower level job in your field and try working on more hands-on type activities (similar to the power line example above). You can work to hone your existing skills and hopefully rise quickly as you show how proficient you can be. However, if there are not any engineering positions available, it is likely there will not be these lower level jobs available either. So in the most dire of straights, try for something completely different. Since starting my blog I have become increasingly interested in marketing and how to create a brand. If there came a time that I could not find engineering work, I would try and target marketing as a near choice–not because I have any relevant experience (I don’t)–but because I think that the skills I would pick up would be helpful at unknown points later in life.

As for non-engineers out there, I can only speak good things about engineering and the job prospects throughout a recession. As I always do with younger people asking about engineering, I can quickly lay out some reasons to become an engineer (and would be willing to do so more if you have more questions by email). You have the flexibility to do a wide variety of tasks and have the opportunity to positively impact the world. You can choose among a wide variety of professional fields or stay in school and teach others engineering skills or do research in a university setting. There are many naysayers who claim that you will not be in charge on projects, but you could always choose management if you want to run the show. Others will say that you will not get paid what you deserve; but I think that remembering engineering is about helping people is important. Not only does it discourage those who are only in engineering for the money, it also helps remind you that your goal should be to help others.

So I know this post spanned many aspects of engineering but I think the main idea is that as an engineer, you can survive a lot of what the economy throws at you. Hard work and mental flexibility will let engineers re-invent themselves if necessary and prosper in the most volatile of economies. If you have experienced job safety or, conversely, have been pushed off an employment cliff thanks to your engineering degree and you’d like to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments.