You're an expert at something? Hey, congratulations. Now, go become an expert at something else.
Most Americans striving to find or keep a job know the sensation: It's getting harder to get ahead, and the demands keep intensifying. Everybody knows how the recession destroyed wealth and derailed careers, leaving millions in a hole they're trying to dig out of. Now we're beginning to see some of the longer-term changes in the way Americans live and work. Some are distressing, but there's also plenty of hope for people who are industrious and willing to do what's necessary to succeed.
Unemployment is obviously far too high these days, and likely to stay that way for a couple of years at least. A prolonged "jobless recovery" is likely to depress incomes, spending, and living standards. But it's a mistake to assume that there are no good jobs or that Americans must consign themselves to inevitable decline. Despite a damaged economy, good jobs are emerging for people with the right qualifications. And it's an ineluctable fact of capitalism that wealth can be created by those who are shrewd, determined, or just plain lucky. Even now.
The catch is that success these days requires new skills and a degree of toughness that a lot of Americans lack. A recent survey of big companies by consulting firm Accenture, for example, found that the majority plan to hire over the next two years. But not like before. Like many individuals, firms fear that they're failing to keep up with technology and falling behind in a ruthlessly competitive marketplace. Only 15 percent of firms in the survey, for instance, felt that their workers have cutting-edge skills. That means they're interested in hiring talented workers who are able to give them an edge. But few companies plan across-the-board hiring to reverse the mass layoffs of the last three years. Instead, most firms plan targeted hiring to fill their most vital needs—while maintaining a lean payroll in case the economy turns south again.
[See why raises are so scarce.]
Specific needs vary by company and industry, of course, but some key commonalities apply to many firms. Here are some of the attributes that workers will need to thrive in an austere economy:
Agility. When the recession hit, a lot of companies discovered that their workforce was poorly configured for a sharp downturn. Many big firms didn't know enough about their workers' skills to move people where they were needed, for example, so they ended up cutting staff by arbitrary percentages or axing whole departments. Then they realized that they had fired people they needed, along with others they could do without. Now, as companies rebuild, they intend to fix that problem. That means there will be fewer full-time hires and more temporary workers, even among managers and professionals. Companies will hire people for particular projects, for example, and maybe even offer some of the same benefits that full-time staffers get. But they'll also retain the ability to quickly downsize without the trauma and expense of a mass layoff. And they'll move people around more frequently, to best match workers' abilities with the company's needs.
Workers will have to get used to less predictable work, more turnover, and careers that could entail several different jobs and even different disciplines. Those who adjust to project-related work without a single, long-term employer could turn out to be appealing hires—and they might learn to enjoy the breaks between jobs. But those who complain about turbulence and insist on a stable, predictable career path could find that nobody's listening—or offering them a job.
Skill combos. If you're good at one thing—but only one thing—companies might pass you by. In the Accenture survey, for example, companies said that sales, customer service, and finance were their most important functional areas. But lots of people have that kind of experience, and many of them are unemployed. The way to differentiate yourself—and land that job that 150 people applied for—is to develop and highlight two or three different skill sets, such as IT and strategic planning, or sales and logistics. That will make you more valuable to an employer, especially if they need to shuffle workers around. A 2009 study by consulting firm McKinsey found that the highest earners with the best overall prospects have a combination of valuable skills. That's especially true in global companies that need technical experts who are also good at managing the complexities of international supply chains or a dispersed staff. The more things you're good at, the more reasons you give a company to hire you.
Tacit skills. Companies increasingly value intangible qualities that are hard to put on a resume, like informed intuition, judgment under pressure, ease with clients, and problem-solving abilities. These "tacit" or "cognitive" skills tend to come with experience, but they also accrue to people who seek additional responsibility, volunteer for tough assignments, and are willing to take risks. The McKinsey study, for instance, found "an increasing demand for tasks that require human skills complemented by technology." To build these kinds of skills, work with colleagues who seem to have them and volunteer for projects that will force you to learn new things. To highlight these intangibles for a potential employer, line up references from people who can attest to your tacit abilities and find concrete ways to emphasize how you've solved problems or achieved unconventional results.
A broad vision. You might be missing out on a good job simply because you're looking in the wrong field. Most people tend to look for work in the industry they're most familiar with, but with sharp downsizing in industries like construction, real estate, retail, and manufacturing, that can be self-defeating. Cathy Farley of Accenture recommends focusing on your skills—not your job or title—and exploring whether you can apply them in a different field. "If you did supply chain management in manufacturing, maybe look in healthcare," she says. "If you did project management in construction, that could apply in a corporate environment." Companies might even value the perspective of somebody who comes from a different discipline, but it's up to you to suggest the fit and explain why it might work.
Analytics. Whatever your field, chances are there are new data-gathering tools to help assess performance and identify opportunities. The explosion of computer programs and other tools for measuring sales, Web traffic, return on investment, and consumer behavior leaves little in business unexamined—including your own performance. In the past, analytics was often the job of data geeks poring over spreadsheets. But it's becoming everybody's job, and the more you know about your own performance or that of your division, the more likely you'll be able to improve it. Training involves the use of spreadsheets and various computer applications, offered through many companies, community colleges, and training centers. Or teach yourself.
Curiosity. It's not something you'd put on a resume, but an inquisitive mind can help inoculate you against the vicissitudes of a chronically tough job market. "Your greatest defense against what's happening is to be interested in a wide variety of things and be intrigued by things," says business guru Tom Peters, author of The Little Big Things and 14 other books. Curiosity, he says, "will lead you instinctively to talk to people you wouldn't ordinarily talk to, to go farther afield than you might think you should." That's the way to find opportunity, especially when many conventional paths to advancement have narrowed or closed.
Self-reliance. It's becoming apparent that the big institutions that many Americans have relied on for the last 50 years—corporate America, banks, the government—won't be as supportive in the future. Those who adjust and become more entrepreneurial will be the winners. That means developing more technical skills instead of relying on others, making lots of backup plans, and building a big cushion in case something goes wrong. "Don't get too dependent on having total continuous employment," advises Peters. That way, if you end up out of work for a while, it might seem like more of a blessing than a curse. And you'll know what to do next.