Employability: The moving target of the modern working life

Long time ago, in the wonderful world of business, people used to work decent hours, make a decent living, raise a family, and retire happily with a gold watch to boot. Employability was simple. You only needed to be effective at the task you did. Moving through the ranks at a steady pace was the expectation. You were guaranteed to end your career relatively higher than you started.

Those were the good old days. Anybody willing to work hard is poised to succeed. The golden era lasted for a very long time. Then things started to slowly change. Technology began to move into the mainstream, and global competition became a real thing. Computers, which looked like houses can suddenly fit in a small room, then on a desk. That brought even more competition.

Through these changes, most people working in all sectors of the economy continued to perform as if their current way of doing business will last forever. The sixties turned into the seventies, then into the eighties, which turned into the nineties. By the time the 2000s rolled around, technology and global competition have displaced a lot of workers and new jobs which did not previously exist emerged. The new knowledge economy was just getting started. While jobs on one side of the economy were dying faster than anyone anticipated, other areas of the economy did not have enough talent to fill the needs of businesses.

Meanwhile, a group of talented engineers managed to put the computer on our laps and then in our pockets. This felt amazing, except that most people in displaced sectors of the economy started losing not only their livelihoods but also their hopes. City after city, the luster of the old days has yielded to a world of desperation. People needed to change, quickly, to adapt to the needs of the new economy. As we all know, change is difficult. And because technology won’t wait for us, employability has become a moving target.

Back in the old days, employability was stable with a respectable lifespan of 30 years or more. But as computers moved into our pockets, employability has significantly decreased. In this new era, employment relations that last longer than five years are not commonplace. If you stay in the same position for longer than five years, that means something is decidedly wrong with you. What are people stuck in the displaced sectors of our economy to do?

As with any change, we need to adapt. Learning is no longer optional. It has become the essential way to move up in the world of business. If you want to thrive in this new economy, you must develop learning skills. Most employers are committed to recruiting people who are teachable and who are willing to learn new skills.

The advice I have heard repeated too often is “Just learn to code.” Even though in the last few years millions of technology jobs went unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants, coding is not for everyone. I do not doubt that coding can lift millions (if not billions) of people out of poverty. There is, however, an investment in time that people’s desperate situations cannot accommodate.

You might argue that they should just go back to doing what they know, but as I mentioned earlier, technology and global competition have rendered their skills obsolete or moved their jobs to cheaper locations. So what is the answer?

The answer in my view is staying employable. What does staying employable mean? Employability looks different for everyone. My advice to all of us is to find an area of technology where we can invest our talent. Computers run our world. There is no corner of business that has remained completely analog. Regardless of what you do, I am 100% convinced that a computer is involved. This high visibility of computers in our workplaces make computer literacy a required skill, similar to reading/writing in the past.

Learning new skills will take time. Most of today’s jobs did not exist 20 years ago. Tomorrow’s jobs are being created today. If you wish to have a place in this future, you must acquire the skills that this future needs. And this means becoming a life-long learner and keeping your skills up-to-date because this is the only way to stay employable.