Millions of people are finding themselves not only without a job, but without a career. As whole industries downsize at once the necessary restructuring in our economy means that many professions are going to be reduced to the point where they appear to have gone away. If their profession is a big part of their identity, many workers will feel that they have been disposed of. Dealing with this issue will, eventually, move from being a personal trauma to a social tragedy – and perhaps a new openness in the job market for the professional middle class.
I found myself in a similar situation. Six years ago, I lost a highly specialized job as a research engineer in a field that continues to contract. Many people who find themselves in this situation simply move to a different city after a nationwide search for where their skills are needed, but I couldn’t do that. I was recently divorced and moving meant I would never see my kids. I had to set priorities. As long as the kids were young I would pick them up at school every day, and that my odd gigs here and there would have to suffice as a living.
Since that time, I’ve done a wide variety of things to make money, including: bartending, consulting to nonprofits, consulting as an engineer, reporting, selling my own novel, selling other people’s novels, selling Amish made furniture, designing furniture, carpentry, masonry, and professional driving. None of these adds up to a “career”, but together they all helped me survive. I’ve helped start three businesses, two of which were viable, and I may be looking at a fourth one.
The most important business I started was my own consultancy in grant writing and management of nonprofits. By taking on smaller organizations that frankly couldn’t pay top dollar, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in a very real way.
This wears after a while, and I would like a single, reliable gig. Yet I’ve been wary of the coming Depression for two years, as regular readers know, so I wanted to see how this all starts to shake out as the economy restructures. Who has money? Who is hiring? What, if any, of these diverse skills are useful to someone? I’ve been asking questions of people who seem to know these kinds of things, hoping to get a straight and simple answer.
The answer is: these aren’t the questions normally asked.
The world of the professional middle class is one where people are expected to choose a career based on what they like to do and are good at. Their profession is a big part of their identity. Jobs are rarely posted, but are found through recruiters and networking in a kind of “matchmaking”. Flexible survival skills, like the ones that I have learned, aren’t part of the equation. The more someone can specialize the more they add specific value to the overall whole; they should arrange things so that they are happy with that.
It was once put to me that I should find a need and fill it. That’s a sentiment I agree with completely, but it has problems. First of all, a look at the world around me shows a nation entering a Depression, which is to say that there are needs all over the place that I routinely identify; only some of them come with an ability to make enough money to live. I asked, “Who has money?” for a very good reason.
The other problem is that the needs I can identify are not always known or understood by other people. My failed business, allsaintpaul, was an online directory of everything that is happening in Saint Paul done in drupal. It failed because very few people understood the need to use new media to promote Saint Paul. Two years on, people are beginning to see the wisdom and need for what I was doing.
It’s not about my situation, however. I have great skills as a Development Director and I can explain to anyone with an open position why I’m great at raising money from a wide variety of sources and innovating new ways to approach nonprofit funding. I’ll get something. What I’m concerned about is how this story is about to be re-played millions of times over as the economy restructures.
Career counseling and recruiting will, more and more, involve people who need to find a different career because theirs have gone away. I’ve heard it said that in our lifetimes people will go through 4-5 different careers, and that seems reasonable to me – but the professional middle class as we know it isn’t really set up to do that. Education and re-training isn’t the easy fix when we can’t predict what the new jobs will be at the end of a four-year program. At some point, the idea of a “career” might seem like an affectation when a large hunk of our nation is scrambling to meet their obligations while navigating the changes in the economy.
My story is only an example. Repeat it over and over and that’s how this economy is likely to go. We’ll probably avoid breadlines, but we’re unlikely to avoid great stacks of resumes carefully manipulated to make a daily scramble to survive look like a path to a new career. The best way we can help this along is, like all of the problems in difficult times, blunt honesty. Information will help people make the right choices as they switch from being car salespeople to quality control inspectors, or whatever is in demand.
In a job market that relies on recruiters and networking, which is the case in the professional middle class, we don’t get direct information such as the number of job listings in a way that transmits the information people need to develop the skills for a transforming economy. That will have to change.