Saturday, July 25, 2009

Creating Career Paths

The New York Times suggests,
President Obama talks a lot about a bright future with high-paying green technology jobs. It is imperative to plan and work for that future. But a concerted effort must also be made to improve the opportunities for workers in the types of low-wage jobs that are going to be most plentiful for years to come.

That means working with unions, professional associations, community colleges and employers to build so-called career ladders so workers can attain the skills they need to advance, say, from a very-low-paid home care aide, to a low-paid nurse’s aide, to a higher-paid licensed vocational nurse. Partnerships between unions and employers in hospitals, casinos and factories have pioneered such skill-building efforts, combining on-the-job training with classroom instruction.
A mish-mash of ideas but, I think, missing the point. In my experience there is a natural "career ladder" for minimum wage workers. Those who have the capacity to supervise others can, in relatively short order, become supervisors. Those who do reasonably well as supervisors can become shift managers, and can work their way up to general managers. When there's not a career path with one employer, they can find jobs with other employers where there's opportunity for advancement.

I'm not going to argue that this career path is fun or easy - it can involve doing unpleasant work, having an unpleasant shift schedule, and even management jobs in the service industry can return mediocre wages. But as a society we need to accept that there are some people who languish in low-wage jobs with no chance of advancement not because of the nature of the job, but because of their own issues - low intelligence, drug or alcohol addiction interfering with their reliability or performance, mental illness, etc.

The notion of unions helping minimum wage workers is interesting, but it's not their job. Does the Times imagine that they'll raise union dues to fund these activities? Also, I don't imagine that many of the employers of low wage workers, such as Walmart, would be overjoyed at the prospect of having union representatives enter their workplace to coach their employees on how to obtain promotions or get higher wages. What role does the Times envision?

Community colleges are already supposed to be offering opportunity, short of a four year college degree, to learn a trade or earn a certification. When employers are short of employees in needed areas, they often do select employees for training programs or even help them with two or four year college degree programs. But when employees with the appropriate skill set are plentiful, unless it helps with retention or productivity, it makes little sense to offer such opportunities - you're training people to have entry level skills for jobs where there are already adequate numbers of more experienced applicants.

Further, even in the face of a shortage of qualified employees, it can be difficult to project tomorrow's employment needs based upon what's happening today. By the time the need is identified and the time you complete your program, you can find that the job market is glutted by people who graduated a bit sooner than you, with people returning to that job market from other fields or even from retirement, or that the "dream job of the future" didn't pan out - it wasn't so long ago that people were suggesting that anybody could become a web designer earning $40K+. Now basic web design is commoditized.

It's tough to try to formulate a career path - and odds are, your actual career path is going to look (or already looks) quite a bit different from what you imagined back in high school or when you took your first "real job". I do think employers should be encouraged to help employees advance from within, and to support employee training programs that help their employees serve their present and future needs - that seems like a win-win. But I think it's better, on the whole, to help people with the interest and aptitude get into a college program of their own choice, feel their way around a bit (perhaps even changing programs) and graduating with a degree or certification that's a good fit, rather than one picked based upon a job market that probably hasn't existed since they enrolled.

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