The Straits Times
Thursday, Nov 15, 2012
For the 80 million people entering the working world this year alone, the chances that they will hold down any one job for long are slim.
That is because technology, the global birth rate and juddering economic growth are rapidly changing how, where and on what people can work.
As it is, the International Labour Organisation reported in April that the 2008 global financial crisis had wiped out more than 50 million jobs.
It would take at least the next five years to restore some of those jobs - but most were already obsolete.
Now, American work change expert Alison Davis-Blake says that not only are some jobs disappearing forever, but the nature and pace of work has also altered so fundamentally that, throughout one's career, one will have to vacillate between full-time and part-time work.
"I'm afraid the working world is going to be more ruthless than in the past," she says. "But if you are inclined to be adaptable and hard-working, it can be very energising because it can otherwise become very tedious to do the same thing for 30 years, right?"
On her first trip to Singapore recently, Professor Davis-Blake, 54, was at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for a week-long visit to advise its senior management on growing the campus.
She has been the dean of the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business since August last year, after a five-year stint as dean of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
The married mother of two has been lauded by her peers for her studies as to how work arrangements everywhere are changing, and for strengthening ties between academia and the business community in general.
Employable for life
The key to staying employable for life in even the most turbulent times, she stresses, is finding out what an employer needs and wants most at that point in time.
It is then about positioning yourself to meet those needs and wants and adding value while you are at it in ways that others cannot, or will not, do.
"I'd advise you to be much more in charge of your own career from the start, by thinking very broadly about what you want it to look like," she says. "Ask: 'What kind of work do I want and where and how can I best do it?'"
One would then want to plot carefully how to be paid well enough to live securely while working on those terms.
But isn't the very notion of working part time a case of perennial job insecurity?
Not so, she counters. Her research shows that job uncertainty does not necessarily lead to job insecurity, any more than a fancy title or fat pay packet would these days.
For example, she says, if you are contracted to design a building for a company that later needs someone to run it well, you would be among the first candidates it would consider since you already know the building well.
"If you're central to what they need, you can be hired; if you're peripheral, you can be severed," she says, and proceeds to point out that one's job opportunities expand even more if the company in question has projects overseas, as is increasingly common in this highly interconnected age.
The future for part-timers or freelancers is even brighter now that many companies have warmed to the idea of outsourcing, or hiring specialists outside one's business to do work that does not have a heavy enough load to warrant engaging someone to do it full time.
Employers, she notes, have tended to outsource low-skilled work such as fielding customer calls to, say, India to cut costs, so much so that companies often use outsourcing as a knee-jerk solution when there are more workers than work.
That has given outsourcing a bad name because many mistake outsourcing for offshoring, or taking jobs away from one's countrymen.
But these days, she says, outsourcing work to specialists means that freelancers who are good at what they do can hope to be retained indefinitely by satisfied clients.
That relationship is far more desirable than those in the workplaces she audited in the 1980s.
Researching human capital
Prof Davis-Blake's first degree is in economics and, fresh out of Brigham Young University in 1979, she worked for a year as an auditor in New York City.
That had her analysing clients' pension plans for employees and wondering why the people who she could plainly see were performing well were not paid commensurately.
That piqued her interest as to how employers assessed the contributions of employees.
She quit her job to pursue a master's degree and then a PhD in organisational behaviour at Brigham Young and then Stanford University, and has since taught and researched the subject at four other universities.
It was at the University of Texas at Austin that she became a full professor and was asked to chair her department.
She grew to like administration so much that she switched to it, while carrying on with her research into maximising human capital.
Today, she is known for delivering strong, relevant results.
She looks it too, being perfectly turned out during this interview, crisp in tone and cool in manner.
She also listens intently and is careful with anything she says. The one instance when she raves is about Singapore, marvelling at how "such a small nation can make such enormous contributions to the world".
Her father, information systems pioneer Gordon Davis, once lived here for a year as a member of the advisory board of NTU's Nanyang Business School.
He is now an emeritus don at the University of Minnesota, and his 40-year career there inspired Prof Davis-Blake in part to pursue a life in academia because he showed her how vibrant universities could be. He was with her on this trip to Singapore to advise NTU too.
Ethical business lessons
Prof Davis-Blake wants to deepen such vibrancy in her school by beefing up its emphasis on ethics, by training students to make "a positive difference" - or at least absorb the lessons from the 2008 global financial crisis.
To her, leadership is not about being at the top of the corporate pecking order, but rather having the ability to influence people to achieve outcomes that are healthy for society.
She tells her students successful leaders can answer all the following questions satisfactorily:
•Do you treat others fairly and ethically and do your friends, family and colleagues respond positively to you?
•Do you influence your workplace such that people are happy to come to work and contribute creatively?
•Is your workplace making a positive contribution socially, and not just economically? But isn't it ironic for a business school don to be talking about steering everyone towards meaningful growth when so many heralded business titans have been clay-footed?
Names like Enron, Olympus and, not least, Lehman Brothers spring to mind.
To that, she allows that she is only too aware of how much business has misplaced its moral compass. "I wouldn't say it was a lack of ethics, although there was some of that," she says.
"Rather, business has historically had a single-minded focus on a very narrow set of outcomes, such as shareholder value creation or wealth maximisation. And if you focus your attention on a few variables in life, other variables would be neglected."
For example, she says, most bankers who sold mortgage- backed securities to their clients were thinking only about how they could maximise sales of these, and not how those securities are backed by actual mortgages which are paid for by human beings, who might default on payments.
Business people have to consider first how their plans and actions make or break society, she stresses to students. Already, there are business movements heading in the right direction: "They go by such terms as conscious capitalism and shared value creation, but they're all saying the same thing."
She muses: "This rising generation has a rendezvous with destiny. They will determine if we are going to take the lessons of 2008 and have a different kind of society or... forget all that happened and revert to what led to 2008."
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