Endangered Careers: Dr. Ira Wolfe’s Opinion

Scary stuff, but here’s an article on the changing job market that I’d encourage you all to read with the permission of the author, Dr. Ira Wolfe of the “Perfect Labor Storm 2.0” blog.

High Unemployment: Slow job creation is just part of the problem

As Dr. Wolfe points out, and I’ve echoed in many of my own writings, the biggest challenge right now for our economy isn’t simply a lack of job opportunities.  It’s (to quote the good doctor) that “the U.S. does not have enough people with the right skills to fill the jobs that are being created.  We do however have an ample supply of people ready, willing, and able to fill jobs that are or should be obsolete.”

Again, this is sobering stuff, since the vast majority of us likely fell into our career paths at an early age without the slightest bit of analysis, wonder, or worry about the long-term potential of the occupational field in question.  Back in the day, though, this was okay.  Things moved more slowly and there weren’t nearly as many careers on the “endangered species” list as there seem to be now.  As long as you kept your head down and your nose clean, the majority of employers would keep you on the payroll and even (gasp!) invest in ongoing training for you, so that your skill sets could stay razor-sharp and highly relevant to the company’s needs.

In the last few years, however, the obligation of maintaining “ongoing marketability” has been dropped squarely on the shoulders of each of us, as individuals.  It’s become crystal-clear that capitalism, practiced in its purest bottom-line form, is indifferent to our fate.  It’s not the market’s job to care about our individual livelihoods, in other words.  It’s now, unquestionably, our own job.  We each need to take responsibility for staying relevant in today’s economic system, and at best, government and/or society at large will hopefully still be able to provide at least some semblance of a minimal “safety net” to help those folks who fall into hard times.

Dr. Wolfe’s article, in my opinion, underscores this notion.  Just yesterday, in fact, I ran smack-dab into some evidence of what he’s talking about (especially the part about “transactional” careers)  when running some afternoon errands.  My first stop?  The local Albertsons, where I was picking up lunch and got herded into one of those new “self-checkout” lanes where you scan your own groceries — and a single attendant oversees the simultaneous transactions of 4-6 customers at once.  Following this chore, I headed to the bank, where the employee who greeted me pretty much INSISTED I make my checking deposit using the ATM machine, versus the way it’s always been done before — which is to fill out a deposit slip, stand in line, and conduct business with a real live person.

In fact, my skeptical nature leads me to suspect that the NEW deposit slip that Bank of America has created, asking for a bunch of additional information, is simply a ploy to force behavior change on consumers — and condition us all to start using the automated ATM kiosks, versus the more “expensive” option of a bank teller.  Then again, this could just be my twitchy paranoid streak acting up again.  Hard to say.

The takeaway?  The times, indeed, they are a-changing, and we’ve all got to be more forward-thinking in our outlook and willing to keep a close eye on our own professional development.  There’s a common bond, after all, between spotted owls,  giant pandas, and the accountant who doesn’t know QuickBooks — and isn’t willing to learn!


15 Responses to “Endangered Careers: Dr. Ira Wolfe’s Opinion”

  1. I realize that I am late to the dance on this post. However, in my work at Bellevue College I have had the chance to sit through a number of focus groups we conduct with employers and the most interesting note that I have seen is the value of “meta-skills”. Whether it is outsourcing or automation, there are certain tasks that are easily replaceable. However, those higher level skills: critical thinking, relationship management, system design and architecture, etc. are still in demand… and hard to fill. Quite simply, activities that require more complex mental processing are still needed in all sectors and at lower levels of the food chain.

    I am growing quite fond of the 21st Century Skills framework that is popular in education. (http://www.p21.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=120)

    Thanks for the post!

  2. D Johnson: Thanks to you (and all the others who commented) for weighing in and sharing your perspective on this issue, since obviously there are a lot of complexities involved and its a highly sensitive subject for many professionals today — especially those who have experienced prolonged unemployment. In response to a few of your points, I assure you my “scary stuff” characterization wasn’t intended to instill fear in people or sensationalize the topic for traffic purposes, but merely to acknowledge that there is tremendous anxiety out there about these issues among the U.S. workforce — at least in the people I’ve come across. So I was trying merely to acknowledge this reality, versus trying to amplify it.

    Secondly, while I can see how the elimination of jobs like bank tellers and grocery clerks may not seem to directly relate to the situation of more senior professionals, I was citing these examples simply because they were fresh in mind from my errands that day — as well as my belief that ALL jobs in this country, at some level, are part of the same continuum. Meaning that most white-collar professionals probably didn’t worry about the loss of manufacturing jobs decades ago, and may not get too concerned about the loss of some of these retail service jobs, right now, but eventually these kinds of market changes can sneak up on us all — and I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that these kinds of market transformations could easily start to impact highly-degreed professionals, as well. If they haven’t already.

    So you’re right, no reason to push the panic button with both hands, but I think it behooves us all (and our elected representatives!) to pay more attention to this issue, going forward…

  3. First, I think the characterization of “scary stuff” as related to some types of jobs going away is not the most productive way to approach the issue (fear is certainly a tactic used widely these days for various purposes, but doesn’t always produce the most productive responses). The examples of automated tellers and check out clerks displacing employees probably doesn’t apply to many of Matt’s client base (at least that is my guess) as far as their reasons for seeking employment. I think we’ve all seen examples of jobs that just aren’t here any more due to advancing technology (milk man, blacksmith, typewriter repairman). I didn’t think this article spoke much to the contemporary “white collar” professional workforce and the reasons that many of them are without work these days. I do agree that all workers who work in any type of office situation should know how to use the MS Office Suite products, e-mail/instant messenger, internet search engine, and yes even QuickBooks if you’re in that line of work (it’s not that difficult to learn).

    I have heard a great deal of talk about so-called “new economy” and how as a country we don’t have workers with the right skills for this new economy. I read recently the President’s remarks at a visit to a North Carolina facility concerning plans for “high-tech” training for jobs. It’s a little light on detail so far – see

    I then saw an interesting op/ed article in the Wall Street Journal written by a GE Executive and CEO of Amex on how we need to meet the job creation challenges. The op/ed in particular also addressed training workers for manufacturing jobs, and putting construction workers back to work. All good goals. Not much detail on how to get white collar professional employees back into the workforce, or details on potential re-training for this type of worker if it is needed. I did like the Op/Ed’s call for easier SBA loan access as most agree that small business is the primary employer of workers in this country, and they could certainly use a helping hand cranking up their operations after the past couple of years. See –


    So what are the potential solutions for the professional worker and their need to be able to find jobs that they are qualified for that didn’t go away because of an automated bank teller, and that don’t want to transition into the construction industry?

    I’d like to see more concrete information from private industry leaders and government officials on plans to stimulate the professional sector of the employment market . I have a friend who is now working in India, and I really don’t want to move that far away from home to find a great job.

  4. What is interesting to me is that new, niche jobs are springing up with titles like “Employee Engagement Manager,” or “Culture Officer” These new jobs require a new combination of skills or even new skills that are currently being discovered as important to modern business. This means that, especially for these new jobs, yes, individuals need to take control over their own career development and be sure that they can piecemeal together their experiences into a believable picture when it comes to new competencies.

  5. Qualified American worker – I agree with much of what you have to say about jobs and qualifications. However, since you aren’t getting to the next step (an interview) if I were you I would take a hard look at your approach to the market.

    First step, you hopefully have a list of companies that you follow closely and are targeting – news feeds, LinkedIn (openings, who’s there/coming/going), etc. You’ve compiled intelligence about those 10 companies and will have an idea about whether they are growing or not. Let’s say that’s 10 companies. At least 5 of these companies should be ones that people who read probably have not heard of.

    Second step, and if you have done this – congratulations – but you might consider cold-calling. It is a seldom used tool by job seekers but extensively used by salespeople (please ponder the parallel). A financial analyst would likely report to the CFO, Controller or some Finance Manager. It’s reasonably easy to find out who the CFOs are in companies. Call them on the phone. You might reach a gatekeeper (executive assistant) or you might get lucky. Frankly, I personally get so few calls on my desk phone I answer it.

    I have gotten a contract by using this approach.

    In short, there are times to get creative with your approach. If you have done these things – great! If not, I strongly suggest a more creative approach to not necessarily finding a job, but creating a position with a company.

  6. Qualified American Worker June 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I don’t understand the prevalent opinion of HR hiring people that those looking for jobs are somehow “mismatched” to the skill sets needed to do them. I have been applying only to jobs that I am actually qualified to do for the past year and have had no luck even getting an interview. I’ve never wasted time applying for jobs where I don’t have the exact qualifications requested. I’m not a retail worker whose job has become automated. How is it that my financial analysis experience in one industry using standard industry accepted software programs and analytic metrics isn’t transferable to another industry where I could also do financial analysis? Does this make me a hopeless mismatched individual who will never have the magical set of “matched” skills that are needed in order to get hired by the 24-year old hiring managers who are assessing my skills and experience in light of their own inexperience? Is my use of Excel in one industry not going to be the same Excel that I could use in a similar job in another industry? Are my basic accounting skills using GAAP methods somehow mismatched for another job in another type of business using the same industry accepted standards? Are HR hiring managers so myopic that they cannot see any use for people who may have experience lacking in one bullet point in their overwritten job description, but match 10 other bullet points? In the example of a retail cashier not being qualified to take on the job of a software engineer – the author is correct – the skills are clearly different and not equal. I don’t think the millions of unemployer Americans were suddenly displaced by automated check-out stands in grocery stores. I think there are other factors at play. I also get very tired of large corporations like the one in Redmond (no names mentioned) bringing in foreign workers simply because they are cheaper to hire than US workers, not necessarily because they are better trained. Or perhaps they are better trained when their wealthy parents can afford to buy them a Harvard MBA and the average middle classed American family can barely afford to send their child to a state university any more. I don’t buy into the bashing of the American work force and the idea that somehow those of us who are unemployed are hopeless mismatched individuals who can never fit in to corporate American or add to the bottom line – this is nothing but a big fat LIE!

  7. Good coverage Matt!

    Just as Dr. John Sullivan is reporting the demise of corporate job boards (or at least their lack of usefullness – link below), there has not just been a paradigm shift in what today’s jobs should be but an actual shift in what work is available.
    Thanks for your timely thoughts,


  8. Well written, Matt. And I heartily agree. There are jobs that are going the way of the dinosaur for many reasons.

    I guess it’s my early training in retail–where we always had to know when a product would become obsolete–that has made me painfully aware of this trend. The responsibility is on each of us to ensure that we are delivering value in the context of the most current market.

  9. Anonymous: Thanks for sharing your comment, although with all due respect, I think my outlook is plenty broad already — and having studied this issue for a great many years, the idea that the jobs crisis in this country is primarily due to a single factor, such as outsourcing, was debunked long ago. Given the interconnectedness of the world today, and consumer markets, there’s no practical way to “unring the bell” in terms of the outsourcing and globalization phenomenon. And even if U.S. employers were somehow able to attempt such a move, there would equally damaging consequences (e.g. tariffs, boycotts of U.S. goods) that wouldn’t make matters any better, necessarily. So while you’re certainty entitled to your opinion, myself (and most experts, economists, etc.) strongly disagree that any one single factor, such as outsourcing, can be blamed for the work shortage today.

  10. In regard to the last comment, many people are overqualified, and as a result, also will have salary expectations aligned with their previous experience and position. Employers know this, so over-qualification is a liability.

    Ideally, your next job is a combination of “been there, done that” but has some aspects that are a stretch.

  11. People are very qualified, matter of fact most are over qualified. Plus there is an abundance of people out there with many qualifications but have not job. Problem is outsourcing to foreign countries. You need to broaden your outlook.

  12. Eric Popowski June 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Good post Matt. Price Taylor also touches a on great point in his comment. Life in our current economy must be lived as a “self-employed free agent”. This is not strictly in selfishness, but in realizing that we all must produce to receive a paycheck. I think our attitude must continually be “What measurable value do I provide my customer, boss, industry?” We must ALWAYS be able to provide a clear value proposition to each of these relationships if we want to have the benefit of being employed. Too many feel their employers owe them something without being clear what concrete value they offer the employers in return. Some believe it is the company’s responsibility to take care of them because they have been there for a period of time, not because they still provide a value in this diminished economy. We are responsible for our own success. “Luck is where preparation and opportunity meet.” – attributed to Seneca, a Roman philosopher.

  13. My experience has been encountering HR hiring staff who will not consider ALL of an applicant’s capabilities, and things like the fact that if you’re highly skilled in one type of software, well DUH – you could also quickly become highly skilled in another type of software. I have come to believe that a large number of HR hiring staff are age biased, and effectively favor younger candidates without much experience simply because they are younger and can be paid less and treated less well and perhaps won’t complain as they don’t know to expect any better standard of employee treatment in the workplace. My experience with the 20-something employee group is that many of them lack a decent work ethic and aren’t terribly productive or career focused. Despite this, the usually young HR staffers continue to screen out experienced “older” candidates with many, many transferable skills who are willing to become up to date on any new technology or practice in favor of hiring the young for youth’s sake alone. Part of the American disposable culture seems to be throwing out experienced candidates and writing them off as “not having the right skills,” despite evidence to the contrary that many experienced workers have invested quite a bit of time and money to upgrade their skills in order to be familiar with the latest and greatest industry qualifications. It’s a smoke screen for outsourcing to third world countries where employees are paid less and where employers don’t have to pay for employee health care costs for example that add to their bottom line expenses. In the language of the young – “It’s bogus, dude!”

  14. Really good posting Matt, right to the core of issue of the U.S. labor market.

    First of all, I’ll make a comment about high unemployment and what the government could or should do about it. I think at this point in the economic upturn (the U.S. is technically that, with positive GDP growth…but perhaps not for much longer), it’s pretty clear to everyone that the government is not going to be the solution to our high unemployment. The real interesting macro-economic factor at play is that with our currency devalued, this would be an excellent time to “make hay” with exporting manufactured goods. Our problem is that over the past 20 years, much manufacturing has gone overseas. To know what an vast impact manufacturing has on an economy, look at the U.S. – it has roughly 15% of the jobs and double that in contribution to total GDP.

    What has that left the U.S. with? Plenty of jobs in the aforementioned article that require a high degree of skill. But there’s the problem, right? I think we’ve all laughed at job postings that even call out specific versions of packaged software. 10+ years ago, familiarity with was in most cases good enough, the company would either train you or would have time to learn it on the job.

    Those times are gone. It’s been said before but perhaps worth repeating – whether you are taking a job as a FTE, a contractor/temp or are an independent, the actual work is the same that requires the same attitude of a self-employed free agent.


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