Water Cooler for Sept 2014: “Job security: Is anyone really indispensable?”

Take the September Water Cooler survey right here.

By Melany Hallam

piggyThere are two very different schools of thought on the best way to keep your job when layoffs threaten: (1) specialize and become indispensable and, (2) be good enough at a wide range of things and become indispensable. Notice that the goal in both of these theories is the same, become indispensable. I have a third option for you: (3) specialize OR become good at all kinds of tasks – it really doesn’t matter which option you choose – and learn the skills you need to find or create a job you really love.

The idea that anyone is indispensable is ridiculous. There’s always someone smarter, more experienced, more willing to work crazy hours, more educated, etc., etc. If you go the indispensable route, your life will be about work, stress, and constantly looking over your shoulder for the next threat to your position. Don’t be that person. Your family and friends will thank you for it.

My youngest brother and I are living examples of taking two different routes to the same goal: a job you love. Here’s how it played out for us:

Pete has been a math geek since we were little kids – always solving puzzles faster than anyone else, obsessed by calculating pi to the smallest decimal possible, convincing my parents to let him buy a desktop computer when he was in grade 10 (home computers were unheard of then – think about that for a moment…). He eventually graduated with a computer science degree and was recruited to work for Microsoft right out of university. He did well for many years and then took a couple of years off. Then, because of his work at Microsoft, he got headhunted by Google.

Now Pete is with a new company that creates software for other software companies. He specializes in coding for coders using computer languages that I forget the name of a second after he tells me – it’s something to do with debugging and compiling. Really, I have no clue. The point is, he’s incredibly specialized and he has his pick of jobs that interest him. These days he’s thinking that he may even go out on his own as a contractor and create a more flexible work situation for himself – he’s that good. But he didn’t specialize in order to ensure that he kept his job, he did it because specialized coding is what makes him happy. And he’ll always find work that suits him – whenever he wants it.

But my brother’s case is very rare. Most of us will never be that amazing at any one thing.

Take my situation for example – I took route number two. There’s isn’t any one thing that I’m incredibly good at. I have an ordinary artsy degree in journalism, which gave me all kinds of experience besides the obvious one (writing). This included video and sound editing (in the days of tape) and desktop publishing, not to mention soft skills such as thinking outside the box, clear communication, and working under crazy deadline situations. As a journalism student, you learn that you’re the only person you can count on, and then you just go with it.

I never did work as a reporter. A waste, you say? Not so. Many of the early jobs I had started out as entry-level office positions, but always morphed into something much more because of the skills I learned in school. As new tasks came up, I just figured out how to do them until I became the go-to person for all kinds of things, including problem-solving when new issues arose. I even discovered that I had an inexplicable knack for working with obscure databases. Who knew? All sorts of interesting things have happened to me shortly after saying the words, “How hard can it be?”

Fast forward to today, and I’ve converted this motley collection of skills and an ability to wing it into a job where I work from home. I get to do all kinds of different projects and I have a flexible work schedule that I love. It isn’t always easy, and I did spend some years in positions that weren’t right for me because of financial worries. But always, when I eventually moved on, my first thought was, “I should have done this years ago!”

Whatever path you follow, every job is an opportunity to learn. And every time you leave a position – for whatever reason – is an opportunity to use those new skills to create a job that you love.

Here is some further reading on how to handle job-security worries:

Some practical advice on what to do to reduce your stress level and keep your job in a layoff situation: http://www.sixwise.com/Newsletters/2009/April/01/Worried-About-Your-Job-Security.htm

A convincing argument for developing a wide range of work skills: http://oliveremberton.com/2013/how-to-succeed-when-you-have-no-special-skills/

The old tried-and-true specialization argument: http://www.dumblittleman.com/2013/07/worried-about-job-security-use-these.html

An opinion on job security for the 20-something crowd:

http://studenomics.com/personal-finance/find-a-stable-job/

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