“Career Resilience”

David Foster’s post included a link to this column about career risk. The author argues that it’s risky to bind yourself for the long run to an apparently-secure institutional job, because institutions can fail and leave you hanging. You are better off to keep trying new things and accepting failures and short-term uncertainty, in exchange for greater long-term adaptability. I think he’s half right about this.

He’s right that it’s a good idea to accept opportunities and take calculated risks, but he’s a bit off in his framing of the overall issue. What distinguishes the resilient from non-resilient career paths in his examples isn’t risk-taking per se, it’s diversification. Instead of investing all of your career effort in a relationship with one big company that is the sole buyer of your services, you should diversify among multiple, smaller customers, none of which is big enough to put you out of action if they fire you.

This is basic risk management. It is difficult to assess long-term risk going into a venture, no matter how smart or experienced you are. There are too many things that can change over time. The big-company job or big institutional customer may appear to offer security but that’s an illusion. They can be belly-up in a few years for reasons no one can anticipate. The rational strategy is therefore to diversify your income among multiple sources as smart people have always understood. Just as independent professionals know to keep a large enough number of clients that a loss of business from any one client won’t hurt them much, prudent people with institutional jobs may use their income streams to finance investments in real estate or other alternative revenue sources. There is no one career path that works for everyone. As America transitions from its 2.0 institutional model to a more decentralized and individualistic system, people increasingly will need to take account of risk and diversification in managing their careers. That’s probably better for everyone in the long run.

11 thoughts on ““Career Resilience””

  1. “Or just get a job in the shale gas industry.”

    I was talking to a college freshman at my daughter’s graduation last week. He is an engineering student. We talked about petroleum engineering, which he is interested in, and he didn’t know what fracking is. He does now. What a great future he has.

  2. A buddy of mine has a degree from UC Santa Barbara in Hydrology (worthless). He’s now enrolled in the University of North Dakota’s petroleum degree program. Apparently being a security guard at the age of 30 is unfulfilling.

  3. Maybe hydrology isn’t as lucrative as petroleum, but I can’t believe it’s worthless. Was he put off by the demand for advanced degrees? With all the problems, issues, and considerations with water management these days, it seems strange that he couldn’t find something to do.

    I’ve had some passing interest in it because of some recent work I’ve gotten involved with.
    The best book, bar none, I ever found on chaos theory was written by a Hydrologist:

    For risk management, the diversification strategy that may be better is the “barbell”
    Rather than equally spread risk over everything (which definitely works better than “expert” optimization), the barbell is to put a majority of your eggs in one super safe area and the rest in risky pursuits that have a chance for a big payoff.

    Nothing in between. The in between is where we get into trouble, where we think we’re safe but we aren’t

    The risky pursuits may blow up on you, but you have the super safe anchor to fall back on if you do. The blowback doesn’t kill you and you learn from it and gain actionable experience.

  4. Barbell strategy makes a lot of sense(though barbell may not be the right metaphor, since you’re putting more assets on one side than the other).

    The employment equivalent of a barbell strategy might be something like having a salaried job while writing movie scripts or trading leveraged financial instruments on the side.

  5. Gurray – yes, I know that, oh so well! My savior is that the pension pays the mortgage and just about all of my bills.
    But post-retirement, I worked so many jobs to fund my work. Dear god, the most soul-searingingly horrible of them was a year at a phone-bank customer service company. The trouble is, I think, that as you get older, you just don’t wanna put up with that kind of stuff any more.
    My current business partner in the Tiny Publishing Bidness freely confesses that the reason she started her own company was that she couldn’t work for anyone else any more. Just couldn’t. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

  6. Sgt. Mom, I guess the real key then is finding and forming a support structure.
    If we’re struggling alone than that’s a real problem, but banding together with fellow compatriots in the same boat helps with not taking things so personally.

  7. One usually safe approach is to wed oneself to an expensive piece of infrastructure.

    Before they could de-staff, they would have to write-off the infrastructure.

    Not a perfect guarantee and probably a boring career, but it has its points.

  8. A degree in one of the Engineering disciplines will always be a passport to steady employment. Almost as good will be technical training as an Instrument and Controls technician, welder, machinist, or plumber. Those are skills that the oncoming automation wave will only enhance, not eliminate.

    The biggest disservice our education system did was to de-emphasize vocational training.

  9. I have to disagree with Joe Wooten. I have a degree in electronic engineering, and was a nuclear I&C technician for a number of years. I also worked as a machinist for several years and know welding, plumbing, roofing, carpentry, concrete work, and tile setting. I also worked in aerospace as a space shuttle engineer for 13 years and in my spare time built a fiberglass airplane from a kit.

    Before I gave up and retired, I tried for 15 years to find a job in any of the disciplines you mentioned, without success. I’d be damned if I would accept a job away from home that paid $19 per hour with no benefits. Finally I said “hell with it” and took early social security.

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