Monday, December 29, 2008

No middle ground

Not to belabor the Buschmann ground again (read here and here if you don't know what I'm talking about), but there is another issue that I've neglected before. In any of the stories that have been swirling around this blog on this issue, whether it be an international businessman who is now selling suits and carrying boxes, or the erstwhile pizza delivery guy who is now a professional tech doc specialist but has no problem returning to pizzas if that's how it goes, or the people I know who have been forced to take subsistence jobs to replace their engineering or development careers, we consistently fail to wonder why so many people end up with these choices.

What I mean is that we pretty much accept the idea that the engineer whom the market has cast aside will be working at a sandwich shop or a Best Buy. We rarely talk about the possibility of transferable skills, that the engineer through years of rigorous study and effort might be qualified for something similar.

I see this in my profession of software development all the time. If I were hiring, I'd rather hire someone with 20 years of experience, even if he had never worked with the specific technology, than the kid with a couple of years gained solely in that technology. (Understand I'm not being absolute here; there are plenty of dullards who've somehow lumped through a 20-year career without doing anything of note, and plenty of bright eager young people who are worth their weight in gold. I'm talking about a comparison of two average people in the two groups.) But I'm not hiring, and my attitude is most definitely not the dominant one.

Even more broadly, as a developer, I've done every job in the software lifecycle, so I know, for example, that I am a great tester. I've worked with a lot of the automated tools, and I seem to have the kind of curiosity and thoroughness that are the hallmarks of fine testers. Yet, I can't get a job as a software tester, because I've never had that exact title, I haven't lived and breathed the testing lifestyle (or whatever people are looking for).

I'll survive, but it's indicative of something larger. When our economy was on the rise, there was so much demand for so many different jobs that intense specialization became the rule, even when it wasn't appropriate. Now we have C programmers, and C++ programmers, and Java programmers, and so forth, and each exists in his or her own employment silo. That a good C++ programmer might be superior at coding Java than a mediocre Java programmer isn't a problem, not as long as a superior Java programmer will come down the road soon, and there is a near-infinite supply of C++ jobs anyway.

But things are different now. For various reasons, in various fields, opportunities are far harder to come by. So, if the C++ market dries up (or large corporate auditing, or Wall Street quant modeling, or radiology), the only option left for even the best performer is to take a generic job. No one in corporate hiring (if any of those people are left) is going to "take a chance" on even the best C++ person if the job listing calls for Java.

The job seeker is left with some pretty noxious options, most of which involve fudging the resume. If that doesn't work, it's off to the warehouse with you.

This has huge implications for education and career development. There used to be a focus on creating the "educated man," on giving all graduates a common base of knowledge that they could apply to whatever profession came their way. There were specific specialties that needed advanced training, but the vast majority were expected to be generalists, getting more specific as their careers progressed.

Now we have high school students who are required to declare a major, and, even in schools without this requirement, there is societal pressure to figure out what "you're going to do with your life." This is why we shouldn't be surprised that our young people seem so stupid. There is no reason for the person on the investment banking track to know where Madagascar is; that's just mental space that is better spent on collateralized debentures.

We're all duly appalled at Leno's Jaywalking features, in which some telegenic kindergarten teacher demonstrates that she doesn't know who the first president was, but her job is teaching letter recognition and monitoring naptime; George Washington doesn't come up a lot in her duties. Articles like this one, which lament Americans' ignorance of the particulars of the current status of Bethlehem, are ultimately pointless; it might be nice if people knew the demographics of Christ's birthplace, but it is hardly essential knowledge (and, realistically, how many people could describe the religious makeup of their current towns?).

As for what will happen next, I don't know. Workers will have to somehow become more generalist, or they'll be subject to the feast-or-famine workplace we are developing now. But the other side will have to change, companies will have to spend the time to figure out what person will fit the job best, even if the credentials aren't an exact match...but they won't.

Why not? Because they don't have to. XYZ Corp can't find 25 Java programmers with exactly 2-1/2 years experience, who each have training in some obscure library? No problem, some guy who works out of a post office box will offer up his 25 people with exactly that experience (then call his brother-in-law back in Bangalore and tell him to staff up and find some online training guides).

What this does is create even more risk for the person trying to build a career. You have to be fortunate enough to pick some specialty that "can't be outsourced," and you better make yourself absolutely indispensable within that specialty. Retraining, the great answer to every question, will only allow you to start over at the bottom. Unless you're really lucky, your income will lurch up and down until you hit a certain age, at which point it's pretty much whatever you can scrape out of the marketplace. There will be no middle ground.

This post is already long enough, so I'll let the reader work out the implications for society. (By the way, I understand that there are some people who find what I've outlined above as desirable, a commendable way to regularly reorder things to approach an optimum condition. To them, those who value the creative aspects of chaos over the institutions that one can build on stability, then it's all good and you should be happy.) The changes will be profound.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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