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Employment – it’s the age of the black swan

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By Alan Perrott

Because while we’re entering the Year of the Rooster, I’m afraid we’re still stumbling about in the age of the black swan and that only means all bets continue to be off.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with “black swan”, it was coined in 2008 to label unexpected events that have major consequences. Think the collapse of American housing market, the arrival of revolutionary technologies and the election of Donald Trump. More locally, we’re punch drunk from environmental events such as the string of earthquakes that have struck Christchurch, Kaikoura and Wellington. John Key’s sudden resignation had a tinge of black swan to it at the time, but we seem to have shrugged it off.

Not only do such events come as a shock, they affect the direction of entire economies, industries and career paths, so yes, career-seekers might find a crystal ball handy if they hope to avoid choosing one that isn’t likely to fold within the next few years.

Or they could talk to Jason Walker, whose working day pretty much revolves around tracking this never-ending lottery. As managing director of the New Zealand branch of Hays Specialist Recruitment, he’s spent the last 15 years watching the tidal changes in our job market, a role that is now much closer to home given his offspring are considering their own career options.

In an interesting spin on the chicken or the egg question, his son is wondering “what’s best, degree or apprenticeship?”

“The thing is,” says Walker, “just doing a degree for the sake of a degree doesn’t cut it anymore, as the job market changes so the balance shifts. Right now, if you gave me 50 carpenters fresh from apprenticeships and 50 new graduates, I’d find jobs for all the tradies and maybe 10 of the graduates, and if the other 40 don’t find positions in the next year then they’ll be competing against a whole new graduating class and on it goes on … ”

And why is this? Because a series of black swans are driving one of the biggest explosions in infrastructual construction in this country’s history. Buildings are being demolished and built, roads are being laid and railway networks are under way, and all while the usual private developments are continuing alongside.

In fact, Walker’s industry contacts tell him that the planned work for Auckland alone will require 40,000 more workers than are currently employed to reach completion.

…employers are increasingly looking for specialists, people they can parachute into a post without the need for extensive retraining…

If this sounds straight forward, just employ everyone you can, it isn’t. Most of the people they need to employ live far from the CBD and LTSA statistics show young people are less likely to have a driver’s licence than previous generations while our public transport network is far from adequate for the numbers they carry now. It’s complicated.

So there’s a decision to be made. On the one hand a degree brings some expectation of a future payoff but you’ll also be weighed down by debt, limited work experience and no guarantee of a job.

In contrast, a trade offers the chance of an income, savings and no debt, while demonstrating work ethic, aptitude and attitude.

But wait, there’s more; employers are increasingly looking for specialists, people they can parachute into a post without the need for extensive retraining. It’s for this reason that some tertiary institutions are looking to remodel degree courses such as management studies. Generalists no longer cut it, work is becoming increasingly niche oriented which, of course, makes the gamble on what direction to take ever more risky. Still, big rewards are out there with Hays’ quarterly employment report showing increasing demand for highly skilled, top end positions such as project managers capable of running multi-million dollar developments.

As for the lower ranks, well there’s been little salary growth for everyone else — which doesn’t look like changing fast – as well as declining demand for people in tourism, retail and education.

Plotting your way to the top is stressful stuff, something that struck Walker hard when he found his daughter crying. Why? Because she’s midway through a degree, struggling to cover her course costs and fretting over what happens after she graduates. “There’s so much pressure on young people today,” says Walker. “They are growing up in such uncertain times.”

It’s actually made them more conservative with a number of international studies showing that once they find employment they stick with it longer than their elders.

As for the rest of us, we have given rise to another new buzz word, the gig economy. This encompasses everyone who has forgone fulltime employment in favour of job-hopping from gig to gig, either as short-term contractors or in entirely different areas and it is being assisted by new technology that allows an employer to better monitor staff working from remote locations and an increase in demand for temps.

Gigging is all about multiple income streams. If it isn’t an easy way to make a living, at least you’re spreading the risk and gaining transferable skills. Which may also suit the times when, as the cliche goes, the only constant is change.

Take the idea of disruptive technology, those new inventions that drop and change everything. Well, we’re now beginning to see such technologies in turn being disrupted.

Take Uber, the taxi industry may never be the same again, but that will be upended yet again once reliable self-drive cars come on stream. It’s not if, it’s when and, if industry speculation is correct, the first casualties may be truck drivers and who would have thought the current generation of Will and Sonnys may be the last?

But hey, if all else fails, why not try one of the brand new employment opportunities? Let’s see there’s YouTube-based makeup expert, professional online gamer and – I’m calling this one myself – black swan exterminator. We could do with a break.

SOURCE: NZ Herald

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