If you're an experienced professional, it can be tough to find a job in today's market. Sally (name has been changed) was laid off six months ago. She was a training manager for a large corporation, advising middle and senior managers on career development. She'd worked for her company for a dozen years and was regarded by her boss and her peers as a good performer. Located at the home office, she developed long-term relationship with her clients. Because management and professional services have traditionally been delivered face-to-face, Sally thought her job and location were reasonably safe. But they weren't.
Looking for a job was harder than Sally thought. She didn't just face tough competition from younger job seekers. The market dynamics that pushed her out of a job were happening across the whole marketplace for her profession. Global IT and increasing global pressures have dramatically changed the game. More people and companies are increasingly comfortable with virtual collaboration and remote professional services. As a result, many companies cut costs in those areas, just as they outsourced manufacturing decades ago. Between 2007 and 2008, financial, information, and professional service jobs were outsourced at an average rate of 5.4% (PDF). John McCarthy of Forrester Research predicts that at least 3.3 million white collar jobs and $136 billion in wages will shift from the U.S. to low-cost countries by 2015.
This shifts knowledge work from a craft into a knowledge production system. Where Sally was a skillful collaborator integrated into her division and providing tailored services, the new low-skilled remote staff advises clients with a semiautomated template of choices.
You might think you are immune to this shift if you are a manager, but that's not the case. This is a fundamental shift in how professional and managerial work gets done, and you can't merely sharpen your skills to stay competitive. You need to do something to distinguish your skills from "everyday" professional services.
We've known for a decade or more that this shift to more production-engineered knowledge work was underway. Like most of us, you probably couldn't have anticipated how much it could impact local job markets. It's not easy, but you can still chart a career through this difficult this environment.
- Get on the cutting edge of your discipline. It's tempting to concentrate on your core skills. But if your previous company isn't keeping your skills at your high-cost location, chances are high that prospective employers aren't either. You'll need to differentiate yourself. Every discipline evolves. You don't have to be a "fresh young thing" to bring new ideas and approaches to prospective employers. In fact, cutting-edge, seasoned expertise might be even more valuable. Learning about new developments in your field will be more engaging than pounding the pavement for your old job. Niche professional expertise is less likely to be reengineered and sent to an offshore or low-cost provider. Expertise that directly supports corporate leadership is also likely to remain in its current location because of its centrality to the leadership center of the organization.
- Become a contractor. If cost is a driving force for potential employers, you can still be cost competitive. As a consultant, you absorb the costs of benefits, and hiring you is a low-commitment proposition for employers. As you prospect for new clients, you can test out different combinations of your new cutting-edge focus. And as a consultant, your internal experience is a plus. Many companies in this transition hire back former employees as contract workers.
- Don't sell yourself short. It's tempting to get a job lower than your expertise. But with this global shift, de-skilling yourself is not likely to be an effective way to stay competitive because it puts you in direct competition with the low-cost, less-skilled competitors that are changing your field. Yes, as a contractor, you'll likely do some things that only use some of your skills, but it leaves you clear to continue to develop your edge. You offer your clients more for less.
- Find a market niche. A CPA was laid off from her high-paying, high-pressure job as comptroller in a small private sector company. When she became a consultant, she shifted her focus to accounting in nonprofits. Even though the accounting aspect of her niche is below her level of ability, she serves as the top advisor to the senior management team on the organizations' financial health and the potential financial impact of their decisions. Although she makes less money, it is better than competing with the literally hundreds of applicants for comptroller jobs. Her clients appreciate the fact that she can speak the language of senior management. She chose nonprofits that she had an emotional interest in and loves contributing to something she cares about. Finding a niche not only distinguishes you, but your expertise will be genuinely appreciated.
You're not just competing against other professionals; you're competing against the shifts in the market itself. What other market-level shifts do you see in impacting your job search, and what other strategies can you think of to distinguish yourself from both other job seekers and market trends?