Monday, January 21, 2008

The job market is weak in the middle, and now, recession?

Michael A. Fletcher has a story on p A01 of The Washington Post, Jan. 20, "Highly Skilled And Out Of Work: Long-Term Joblessness Spreads in Middle Class," with link here.

He talks about a "CEO recovery" with jobs at the top and the (until recently) the bottom, but not so much in the middle. Of course, I.T. people all know what happened right after 9/11 (it had started at the end of 2000), with steady mainframe jobs (that had grown during the Y2K push) disappearing, and client server and Internet jobs only for the highly specialized. There was this "what's hot, what's not" mentality right around the start of 2002. COBOL was on the not category. But mainframe skills have come back, but always in specialized niches (like MMIS) for professionals who stuck it out in those niches. In 2002 there was a debate as to whether companies would pull back work from overseas and then not be able to find the people in their 50s and even 60s who knew the old mainframe skills. The IRS, for example, still looks for very specialized IBM mainframe assembler programmers. There is little demand overall, so there is little supply. It's like the l'Hopital problem in calculus -- indeterminate.

It's not true that there are no middle level jobs. Everybody talks about the demand for teachers and nurses. This demand is more appropriately filled by young adults or by people making mid-life career changes, with appropriate help; it's more problematic for retirees.

There is a tremendous bias in our economic culture to "get rich" (aka Trump) by selling things, the "we give you the words" mentality. That expectation has spilled over into career advice for retirees. Yet, that may be starting to work less well as in an individualistic world more customers resent being manipulated by sales people when they can take care of themselves.

It looks like we are heading for another 1990 style recession, with the crash in real estate prices and the subprime crisis. It happened in the late 80s in Texas (with the savings and loan debacle) but this time it is much more widespread. There certainly is a tendency for people -- even banks -- not to learn from the mistakes of the relatively recent past.

Still, people in college following technical career paths (IT, medicine or health, security) should be in good shape. In college, the student has an opportunity to look at what employers really need and plan his study accordingly. If he or she is of an activist mentality, there is at least the opportunity to approach the activism "professionally" rather than on Myspace. One can consider social contributions in many areas: engineering (going green, working in developing countries as one distant relative of mine does as a first job from college), law enforcement, intelligence, computer security, knowledge management (maybe the next thing), even the military (where "don't ask don't tell" is still a very serious problem).

For retirees, though, with some accumulated resources to draw on, it's understandable that the approach may be very different. A self-defined program of activism could be very appropriate.

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