In 1995, I was teaching job search skills to laid-off workers in the Allentown/Bethlehem area of Pennsylvania. At that time, we were seeing a ton of former Bethlehem Steel workers who had made a phenomenal living doing relatively unskilled labor. We were also working with the last of the sewing machine operators from the garment industry.
Both the (largely) men from "the Steel" and the (largely) women from the sewing plants had been living the American Dream for many years. While by no means wealthy, they had been able to send children to college, have a decent home and a second house at the shore and generally live a solid middle-class life with little more than a 6th grade education, nimble fingers (or a strong back) and a willingness to put up with a LOT of crap from supervisors. In return, they had expected basically one thing (besides the wages, of course)--job security.
During my classes, we spent a lot of time talking about the death of job security and the fact that the only security they could have for the future was skills security. They got this, although they weren't happy about the fact that the skills they were in a position to develop were only going to get them jobs that paid at best half of what they'd made in their heydays at 'the Steel" or "the factory."
I think that in the past 11 years, though, we've seen an even bigger shift, one that I'm not sure we've fully absorbed as workers. Yes, most of us get that the road to job security is having the skills that are in demand in the workplace. But what we DON'T seem to get is that using those skills at just one company may be just as suicidal as not having them at all.
Dan Pink has been talking for several years about living in Free Agent Nation and Tom Peters has been preaching the realities of working for "You Inc." since 1997. I've been a fan of their thinking for a while now and many of their ideas have guided my own career path. But Cathy Seip's discussion (via the Dynamist) about "job security" got me thinking about this whole issue again.
"But I've always felt more job security as a freelance writer than I did as a newspaper staffer. And even [Barbara] Ehrenreich admitted at the PBS press conference that as a freelance writer, she's probably better off now than most of the traditional media types in the audience.
I know how she felt. If I were to lose one of my regular gigs, for instance, I'd be unhappy; but unlike the laid-off staffer, my income wouldn't suddenly plummet to zero. In a world of constant corporate downsizing, anyone who doesn't realize this is sadly out of date.
Several years ago, as it happens, a veteran editor doing some consulting work at a local mid-sized newspaper offered me a staff job. Knowing the paper's legendary cheapness, I explained that I doubted they'd be able to come up with as much money I made freelancing - and it would have to be a LOT more for me to even bother thinking about it.
"Why would it have to be MORE," he asked, sounding genuinely shocked. "What about the SECURITY?"
Now I was shocked. This guy had been in the business half-a-century, witnessing God knows how many tanking media enterprises and in-with-the-new, out-with-the-old staff reorganizations, and he still could use the words "security" and "newspapers" in the same sentence without laughing?
I guess so. But as I explained, he'd have to count me out of that particular deadpan club."
I've been on both sides of the fence and I get where Cathy's coming from.
About a year and a half ago, I went to work for a former client of mine after spending several years as a freelancer. With a daughter going to college and my mid-40's with no savings staring me in the face, I thought that it made sense to get some "stability" in my life. What I had forgotten about, though, was the fact that when you work for someone else, you are at the mercy of their business decisions. Rather than learning from the experiences of most of my friends who had been laid off not once, not twice, but several times within a 10-year span, I thought to myself that being an employee brings greater security, so I went for it.
But the reality is, as Cathy points out, when you rely on your employer to be your brand, then you're limiting your options in ways that may ultimately be career killers. Freelancing is scary, sure. No health insurance (fortunately I'm on my husband's), you can't count on regular paychecks, and the job of getting clients falls squarely on your shoulders. But if you've done the work of diversifying your client base, then when work slows or disappears with one customer, you don't end up in the unemployment line.
Somehow I recognized this (without the thought being as cogent or conscious as Cathy's perceptions) and a few months ago I re-joined the freelancer ranks. I continue to do work for my former employer, but I'm now able to pursue other clients as well. And even better than that, I'm able to use a larger set of my skills because instead of doing the work that my employer wants me to do, I'm able to look at myself and say "This is what I have to offer--how and where do I want to use it?" It's a very freeing realization and one that I think will, in the end, bring me far greater security than I ever had as an employee.
What I wish, though, is that more people realized the realities of this new world. There is still a somewhat mistaken belief that working for a company will be more secure than working for yourself. For a large segment of jobs, this is simply not the case. And more than that, it ends up being the company that benefits from the value you bring, rather than you reaping the total benefit of the skills you have to offer.
In the end, I think it's time that we re-evaluated the meaning of "job security" and looked at what that really means in the new economy. As part of figuring out what to do with our careers I think we need to get a better handle on the environment in which we're conducting them.