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Is there something amiss in the talent economy?


Among politicians and economists there is an article of faith that more education will lead to individual success and economic growth. That is certainly true if one is talking about getting people to finish high school; but if you look around at the number of people with master’s degrees working as baristas it makes you wonder if something is amiss in the talent economy.

Another confusing sign is the number of senior managers who are “in transition” (i.e. unemployed). You would imagine that someone with many years of experience at a well-known company would have no problem finding their next job. That often isn’t the case. It can take a long time for these people to get work and when they do it’s often a few steps down from where they were. They’ve fallen off the ladder; their skills, experience and talent are no longer in much demand.

Of course there are professions where talent is in short supply; but that doesn’t help the large number of skilled people outside those niches.

My observations raise a question: have we reached a point where we have too many highly educated well-trained people; and encouraging people to go back and get another master’s degree is not good advice?

Young people have to realize that the education system is a bit like the cosmetics industry. Ask the cosmetics industry how to get ahead and they’ll tell you to use cosmetics. Ask what to do after you’ve got all the basic cosmetics and they’ll tell you to buy more advanced cosmetics. Lipstick and university degrees both offer some value; but recognize that the organizations offering them may put their own biases and economic interests ahead of what is best for you.

Older professionals have to recognize that it’s easy to fall off ladder and that a track record of success may not be enough to get that next good job. A degree of paranoia is healthy if it encourages older professionals to keep their networks and skill sets ever expanding.

Karie Willyerd and Barbara Mistick have a new book called Stretch which argues that professionals have to continually stretch themselves to remain “future proof”. I’m a little horrified that people need to be told this, but I certainly agree with the premise. However, I’d zoom in on something more specific. I think people, both youth and experienced professionals, need to adopt a more “entrepreneurial” mindset The main difference between the employee and entrepreneurial mindset is that employees see the world as it is and entrepreneurs see a world they might create. The employee mindset ponders “Where are the best jobs?”; the entrepreneurial mindset ponders “Where is there a need in the world that I find interesting and want to create a solution?”

I’m not entirely happy with my choice of the word “entrepreneurial” because I’m not suggesting everyone ought to be launching their own start-ups. I think more in terms of people making big lateral moves such as moving from being an HR generalist to working in business development for an HR technology company or in terms of becoming a free agent where you create a niche for yourself.

The point is that people, young and old, need to have the mindset of creating work, not just falling into a place where they are given work. They have to presume the structures they know—such as going to law school or moving up a job grade—may well not work for them. The entrepreneur never expects the world to have a slot waiting for them to slide into, but they do believe they have the ability to create a slot.


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