Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Jobs Aren't Coming Back
At least, not like they used to be.
The job market has evolved considerably over the past half-century. We've moved away from the concept of a career as something that happens with a single employer to something that happens over a series of employers. We've moved away from manufacturing jobs in favor of service and information-based employment. We've moved away from pensions to self-funded retirement accounts. We've moved away from unions in favor of at-will employment. We've moved away from any sense of "sharing the wealth" in favor of compensation schemes that overwhelmingly favor top management, with wage stagnation for workers even when profits and productivity soar. And yet, to hear people talking about "jobs bills" or "jobs creation", you would think that none of that had occurred - that we were back in the heady, post-WWII period where anybody with a good head on her shoulders could get a "great job" and a "career".
Through that time we've gone from the possibility of a blue collar job as often the primary or only source of income for a family, into an era where absent specialized job skills a blue collar worker is much less likely to earn a middle class wage and even less likely to expect long-term job stability. In recent decades, thanks largely to outsourcing and automation, that phenomenon has crept into the clerical and technical fields, and increasingly affects professionals. Companies that once might have hired recent college graduates into entry level research, editing or technical jobs are able to either hire adequately qualified professionals overseas, or are able to find experienced freelancers who will do the work as needed. A lot of jobs that have disappeared with the current recession aren't coming back - the employers have found alternatives that come at a lower cost, are more flexible, and which may be superior to recruiting, hiring and training new employees, perhaps all three.
Thirty years ago a college graduate might have been told that he would have three, four, five employers over his career. Twenty years ago a college graduate might have heard that if he stayed on a job for five years, that would be a long time. Today college graduates are being advised that they may have three, four, five different careers over the course of their lifetimes - that to maintain employment they'll have to constantly keep an eye on the future and take advantages of opportunities to expand their skills or retrain, as the job they have today may not even exist in five years. Moreover, many will find themselves in the position of consultants or freelancers, competing for contracts that carry neither job security nor benefits. Often working for employers who care less about their résumé than what they'll charge per hour or per contract. No, I'm not arguing that all jobs will disappear, but many will - including a lot of what were once entry-level jobs for college graduates.
Meanwhile, better paying domestic manufacturing jobs will continue to trend toward a skilled, educated workforce. For those fields requiring skilled manual labor, I see a trend toward the manufacture of higher-end products (with fewer domestic jobs) as has occurred in the domestic furniture industry. New technologies will continue to affect every major field of employment, including the skilled trades, increasing efficiency and perhaps quality while reducing man-hours. Computers are already decent at taking dictation; that will only improve. Electronic file transfers will continue to reduce the need for copy services and express mail, office supplies, book, music and video stores, traditional newspapers... and a lot of service and retail jobs.
So workers looking for jobs, many of whom have been unemployed for a year or more, are demanding to know what President Obama is going to do to create jobs. That is, when they're not at "tea parties" demanding that the government cut spending. Sorry, but the only way the President can "create jobs" for the masses is through government spending - and most of those jobs last only as long as the funding lasts. Pick your poison - smaller government, reduced spending, and waiting for the economy to generate more jobs, or massive government stimulus bills that may (or may not) kick-start the economy, and will create some (but not enough) jobs while we're waiting for the economy to recover. But don't be surprised if, whichever poison you pick, things don't turn out the way you expect.