Work As We Know It Is Changing–Get Ready!

That Was Then

My maternal grandmother went to work when she was thirteen years old at a china factory that made dishes for hotels and restaurants and, eventually, naval ships.  She stayed in a rental room with her two-year-older sister during the week and went home on the weekends.  She got married when she was seventeen and continued to work at the factory sporadically.  She was very good at what she did.  She was a Master Painter and she supported her family of eight during the Depression by painting.  It never occurred to her that that factory wouldn’t always be there, but when she was forty-seven the plant went out of business, taking hundreds of jobs with it.

Carr China Grafton WV

China from Carr China

My paternal grandfather spent his entire professional life at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, most of it as engineer driving passenger trains.  He told my father not to go to work for the railroad, because it wasn’t going to last.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad went out of business three years after my grandfather retired–taking hundreds of jobs with it.

Baltimore & Ohio Passenger Train

B&O Passenger Train

My mother’s cousin was forced to retire from the steel mill when he was fifty years old.  He wrote about it in an article published in the Beaver County (Pa) Times, “Now time has changed again, old friend [the steel mill] and now times are not certainly in your favor.  I am reasonably certain that my sons will never know you as I have but you can be sure I will tell them your story and how finally you were befallen by so many uncontrollable factors, and how you, who meant so much to so many, now sit mostly idle as wind whistles through your empty buildings; your coke batteries, your blast furnaces and continuous caster are now cold, dark, and silent.”  And hundreds of jobs gone.

Steel Mill in Pennsylvania

Steel Mill in Aliqiuppa, Pa

You may have similar stories from your grandparents, parents and even from your own experience.  This is happening to us.  Companies and work as we know it are changing irrevocably.  It’s sad.  There is a lot to grieve.  There are things you can do about it, though, so when YOUR company and YOUR job change, you land on your feet.

This Is Now

I read a couple of things over the weekend that discuss something that I’m seeing in the workforce among my coaching  and organizational clients. It is the next way that work will be.  The longer you don’t believe it, the louder you rail against it, the longer it will be before you are ready for the next “way we work.”  The first thing I read was  The Rise of the Supertemp by Jody Greenstone Miller and Matt Miller in Harvard Business Review.  They describe a phenomenon that many of us have seen.  Companies are going to contract workers.  According to a McKinsey  2011 study cited in the article, 58%  of US companies surveyed are planning to increase use of temporary employees AT ALL LEVELS.   Not only are they using project, technical and finance contract workers, they are starting to hire contract Executive talent–business development, marketing, lawyers, CFOs, and even CEOs.  BOTH companies and Executives need to adjust to this new reality.

Companies need to learn how to organize work so that these Supertemps can come in and make a difference. Mostly this means that work needs to be organized into project-type work.   Executives need to package and sell themselves for this work.  The most telling thing in the Harvard article, however, is that those who have done this work DO NOT want to return to the ‘old way.’  This is true of the people I know who have done this kind of work as well.  They really like it.

Think about how you make yourself a well qualified candidate for these positions.  There are some ideas for that in the second thing I read this weekend–The Finch Effect by Nacie Carson.  Carson suggests that like Darwin’s finches, today’s workers need to evolve to adapt to the current work environment.   She points out that unlike the time it takes other species to evolve, humans can evolve their behaviors to adapt as they choose.  Her suggested strategies for adapting to the new work environment:

  • Adopt a ‘gig’ mindset: piece together a combination of contracting, consulting, and free lance work that gives you a income equal to or more than your ‘full time’ job
  • Identify your value:  this is your professional brand–it communicates intangibles like values, personality and mission
  • Cultivate your skills: you (not your company) take responsibility for growing your skills
  • Nurture your social network: use appropriate sites for appropriate messages, rebrand as necessary, communicate your brand
  • Harness your entrepreneurial energy: look at your job and skills from a position of personal responsibility, initiative and personal direction

AND you can apply all of these to you ‘real’ job.  They will help you stay in it and succeed.  And they will help you be ready for the next ‘way we work.’


Filed under Books, Career Development, Career Goals, Job Hunt, Leadership, Networking, Reframe, Success

5 responses to “Work As We Know It Is Changing–Get Ready!

  1. Great blog, Jo. I adopted the “gig” mindset after leaving LexisNexis in 1998 and it paid off. The trick was to ask myself if my goal was the relative safety of a consistent paycheck and surroundings, or if my goal was to solve problems, help teams work efficiently and ultimately to help the community. The answer was the latter. To make this work, however, requires a good reputation and solid network. And so the real work begins.

  2. Kathie Graham

    I enjoyed your blog and especially the photos. My mother’s Scotch family lived near Grafton in Newburg, WV and my grandfather went to work in the mines when he was 13. He hurt his leg and wouldn’t go back. He ended up working as a streetcar conductor in the Wheeling area. My great-grandfather and his son both worked on the B&O. The B&O didn’t go out of business, it is now part of CSX which is all documented in the B&O Museum in Baltimore. I have relatives that now work for CSX. I am sure people lost their jobs when that happened. CSX is now running coal trains out of the Keyser/Grafton area to Baltimore.

    • Kathie,

      I appreciate your comments. I can also see your point that the B&O didn’t go out of business, but from my family’s perspective it did. When Chrysler bought Jeep they kept the name. When CSX bought B&O, B&O as an entity went away. CSX is a great railroad and we’re lucky it is still running. When I’m in Grafton, I watch the trains run through and am grateful that CSX is there.


      • Kathie Graham

        I see your point too Jo. For them it was gone. My Dad worked for Weirton Steel and when computers came along he felt he was too old to learn them so he retired. When I started working for the government the only computers were at the Commerce Department but after 17 years I decided to go to school at night to learn programming and it brought me a great career. So what made my Dad retire ended up being a blessing for me. Definitely plays into what your blog is about, Work as we Know it. It’s nice to talk to someone whose family came from the same area as my Scotch ancestors. I knew what part of Scotland they came from and went there in 1985,

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