commentary (2007-14)

On education, preparation and luck

Getting By in the Future

by Barry Henderson

The decision announced last week by the electronics retailer Circuit City to cut 5,000 jobs from its sales staffs in stores around the country and to replace them with younger, lower paid employees resounded through America's labor marketplace.

People all around the country set about recalling their own unpleasant experiences, or those of their friends and family members, with lay-offs or firings in the name of cost containment.

The reaction was especially derisive toward bosses or corporate CEOs with high salaries who've gone untouched by company cutbacks or have been rewarded for coming up with the idea and carrying it through.

Such examples of the brutalization of the American workforce aren't new. Whole industries have been closed down or shipped overseas, and not just in recent history. Knoxville has lost its textile employment base over the years, and even the number of jobs in such a seemingly stable agency as TVA has dwindled here. But shifts in employment opportunity are happening more often now, as change in the public demand for products and services occurs more rapidly. Those shifts will continue. You can bet on it, and you'd better.

Everything seems to happen more rapidly in this century than in the last. That is the underlying theme of globalization, with its inexorable acceleration in the movement of the market economy toward a worldwide base, with influences converging from everywhere.

When I was about 18, I got a piece of memorable counseling from my dad. He gave me advice to the following effect. I must paraphrase it now; he said that I should do whatever I can to educate and prepare myself for future success. But no matter what I do to set myself up, the outcome of my career and my life will depend on two factors. Those are, he said clearly, "blind luck and circumstance."

That fatalistic statement shattered some illusions, but I came to understand that it does apply, in some measure, to almost all situations. To him, it was nearly a credo, because he came up through the Great Depression, and missed serving in the military in WWII because he was already past 30, had a family, and drew a high draft number. He held a series of unsteady jobs in the insurance business, mostly traveling jobs, for about 30 years, then retired early. He made much more in the last 15 years of "retirement" as a consultant than he had in total for his career, and he died just short of his 80th birthday in the midst of a consultant contract, believing firmly that the whole experience had been a crapshoot.

I grew into a more stable career environment, though I did enlist in the Army and served between wars in a stroke of pure luck and circumstance. I've managed to make a career out of communications--reporting and writing and editing for news organizations, interrupted only briefly by a foray into public relations, that's gone on from my early 20s to my mid-60s.

I can't imagine many people being able to achieve that sort of career continuity in today's world.

The education and preparation that my dad thought were important, if secondary, are so much more obviously essential nowadays than they were only a few years ago. Education has to take at least two tracks to be effective. It must be generally applicable across a wide range of job opportunities, and it should have a specialty component that directs you toward a line of work that truly appeals to you. Preparation must be pursued with an eye to adaptability. A person joining today's workforce should expect to change not only jobs but entire fields of work several times before reaching retirement age.

The market never did stand still, but now it's being propelled at MTV pace by advancing technology, by the style of services sought by consumers, and by the material expectations of people in other parts of the world, including the developing nations, as well as at home.

Believe that you, or Tennesseans, or the American people, individually or collectively, can do anything to slow that change? Come on. A couple of weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, construction began on an immense research facility to study alternative energy sources and applications. Hydrogen, solar and wind energy will be studied there, right in the heart of the world's largest oil-producing region.

Those people who are harboring oil reserves and profiting from the petroleum-based economy that the countries of the developed world find themselves embroiled in are looking to the future and the changes it will inevitably bring.

My advice to my children and their children is simple: Prepare for change at every turn. Study mathematics and the sciences, as many of the latter as you can absorb. Learn languages, as many of those as possible. Embrace technology. Husband scarce resources. Preserve your corner of the earth's fragile environment as best you can and encourage others to do the same.

If you do all those things, you'll probably be OK... depending on two other factors of course. And you know what those are.