Fast Company

The Skills Portability Factor

A Kick in the Career: Are the days long gone when employees stayed with one job for 25 years and landed a nice silver watch? In this week's column, humorist and career expert Tom Stern takes a discerning look at job hopping and skills portability.

I think I know why legendary quarterback Brett Favre has struggled so mightily with the issue of his own his retirement. It's because over the last twenty-five years, since he's been putting on a helmet and shoulder pads, he forgot to learn another core competency to carry him into his post-athletic career. Sure, he's made over a hundred million dollars in salary and endorsements and is regarded as an icon in his field, but is he up to speed with Excel? Can he navigate the latest version of ACT contact software? Can he reconfigure an SAP financial module with a two week pending go-live date?

In today's culture of reduced job security with a greater emphasis on skill-set development and portability, people aren't just taking jobs; they feel the necessity to use them. Start a working relationship, learn something that makes you more marketable, and then leave the place flat. It's kind of like the Internet dating scene. You wear out the person you met though E-Harmony with all the annoying habits you've built up over the last decade, only to correct those habits just in time to be a more pleasant partner for your next future ex from Great Expectations. It's just this kind of opportunistic job-hopping that would leave any self-respecting CEO feeling cheap and used.

Of course, sitting atop their giant corporate thrones, CEOs may have forgotten what it's like for those who toil beneath them, dependent on a paycheck and managing their simmering resentment by waiting for their next coffee break so they can secretly sniff a fresh bottle of Wite-Out. Yet, perhaps the problem is not our conflict with authority, but rather keeping up in a rapidly morphing technological landscape that moves with all the inexorable ferocity of Paris Hilton chasing her next photo op. (Talk about retooling: the rumor is that she is fed up with charges of nepotism and will soon be changing her last name to Ramada.) We've all come to accept the stress of constantly trying to reposition ourselves, fueled by the fear that the skills we do have are becoming obsolete. And there's no precedent for this in the evolution of commerce. Think of how different history would have been if Moses had said to the guy who chiseled out the tablets, "Sorry, I thought you were conversant in Hebrew 9.0. I'll tell you what, just stop at the Fifth Commandment."

It had to come to this. We all want to make sure we are ready for every eventuality the shrinking job market might throw at us. It's all about survival. Corporations once owned us and kept us dancing to their tune. Now a new crop of skill-set hustlers, who strut into the metaphorical pool hall of their workforce and clean up on a sucker bet, are challenging them. Today's job market is doing double time as the University of Turnover. And you know us Americans. Between our denial and our tenacity, eventually we will begin to feel that we really can fill any position that might come our way. Six figure heart surgeons, apprehensive about their ability to keep abreast of the latest approach to ventricle deconstriction, may keep one eye peeled for a second career. Who knows, they may even pick up pointers from their neighbor Al, the most respected salesman in the field of weather-proofed, nuclear-resistant wicker patio furniture. So even if they're not forced to make a change professionally, their anxious patients will be put at ease by their newfound sales prowess. ("Listen, here's my guarantee: if your new heart doesn't make the rest of your chest cavity feel like a million bucks, you can return it within 30 days.")

Has the need for portability turned us all into secret operatives, ducking under the security systems of our employers like Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the high tech caper film Entrapment? We steal what knowledge we can from those who train us without setting off any human resource alarms, and then move on to a new company and a better pay grade. Although I doubt most of us would look quite as appealing as Ms. Jones wearing tight black Spandex and arching her back seductively during a weekly staff meeting.

Speaking of covert operations, as an executive recruiter I couldn't help thinking of what might be my most challenging assignment when it came to advising a candidate on how to obtain maximum portability. Even more than a football player, I thought, a CIA operative might have the hardest time transitioning. Yet, I'm confident that, if approached by a man with sunglasses and an earpiece who has just come back from a five year assignment guarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian Island of Spitsburgen, I could help him reposition himself for the private sector. For the purposes of this column, let's just say the agent's name was "Pete." I think the intake interview would go something like this:

Tom: I know you think you're trapped, Pete, because the kind of work you do is unusual, but if you just give me a skill, I'll show you where else you can use it.

Pete: Okay. Disinformation.

Tom: Piece of cake. Advertising.

Pete: Plotting and staging a coup.

Tom: That's Change Management.

Pete: Relentless interrogation.

Tom: Human Resources.

Pete: Financial fraud, money laundering…

Tom: CEO.

Pete: Plotting and getting away with murder.

Tom: Hollywood celebrity.

Pete: How about sounding like I'm an authority when I don't really know anything?

Tom: That's easy. Business humorist.

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