Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Career Decision Making and Career Planning Are Not the Same Thing

People sometimes use the terms “career decision making” and “career planning” almost interchangeably. One reason may be that both the decisions and the plans are supposed to be based on predictions. The decision is based on foreseeing what career choice will be satisfying and will offer opportunities. The planning is based on foreseeing the best pathway for reaching the career goal. However, as Niels Bohr once remarked, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Many people who are happy and successful in a career can say truthfully that their choice makes sense only in hindsight and would have been difficult or impossible to predict or plan for.

I offer my own career as a case in point. I showed an early flair for writing and was intrigued with the idea of writing books ever since the children’s author Beman Lord spoke to my fourth-grade class. However, I was even more obsessed with collecting. I started with a rock collection and later branched out to seashells and, to a lesser extent, stamps. I learned all the minutiae of the things that I collected and devised new ways to organize and display them. My parents sometimes speculated that I had a future career as a museum curator.

With adolescence, however, my interest shifted toward collecting odd facts. I remember that after I mentioned some obscure bit of trivia, my eighth-grade wood shop teacher declared me the Official Keeper of Useless Information. In the perfect vision of hindsight, it now appears inevitable that I would find satisfaction and success in writing books that draw heavily on databases of information. What is a database, after all, if not an organized collection of facts?

But it’s important to realize that the word “database” was known to only a few hundred computer scientists and programmers in the early 1960s. In those days, most people didn’t know any databases other than the phone book and the daily stocks-and-bonds listings. Hardly anyone at that time expected that databases would become easy and inexpensive to access and use.

In my first job at Educational Testing Service, I started writing career information for a database, and within a few years I learned how to create and manipulate new databases. My managers recognized my interest and ability with these tasks and encouraged me. Although I learned some programming skills to accomplish my tasks, the programming never interested me as much as finding ways to make the databases helpful to users. Later, JIST Publishing gave me the opportunity to build books around databases of career information.

It was not inevitable that the particular subject matter I would focus on would be careers. (One database I helped design and assemble at ETS was about books for young people.) But one appeal of career information is that it touches on almost every aspect of life and therefore appeals to my broad range of interests.

The main lesson to draw from this account is a recognition of the limitations of career planning. To the extent that planning can be successful, it depends on prediction, and predictions are very unreliable. Occupational specializations that we can’t foresee will emerge in the coming years, and each one will prove to be a good choice for the right kind of person. Like generals planning to fight the previous war, most young people are planning for yesterday’s careers, not knowing what new opportunities will be available. So learn to accept the reality that career decision making and career planning are not the same thing. A lot of career decisions that get made are unplanned, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as John Krumboltz argues.

This does not mean that career strategizing is impossible. The best strategy for facing uncertainty is to be (a) prepared for many contingencies and (b) alert to emerging opportunities. With regard to careers, being prepared for a range of outcomes means getting a broad-based education that equips you with skills for communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, calculating, and (above all) learning. Being alert to career possibilities means keeping abreast of trends in demographics, technology, popular culture, and business practices and (above all) having a network of contacts in many walks of life. I can’t think of a better way to summarize this two-pronged strategy than the words of the second century sage Simon ben Zoma: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

College Loans: The Next Bubble?

Last year, for the first time, the level of student debt ran higher than the level of credit card debt. This happened partly because credit card use has been on a downward slope ever since late 2008 and partly because the upward slope of college tuition loans shows no sign of leveling off. The two trends are, of course, related. The recession has caused consumers to use credit cards less and has also caused more people to seek higher education to compete for scarce job openings (or to take a leave of absence from the discouraging job market), taking out loans because they and their families are less able to pay their own way.

This trend worries me for several reasons. One is the big-picture worry that we’re seeing the growth of a bubble. Like the housing bubble, this one involves people taking on lots of debt to acquire a commodity that they desire because it keeps increasing in value.

The present situation differs from the housing bubble, however, in some important ways. The value of houses kept increasing because of constant demand from home buyers and then crashed when the market became glutted with houses that were foreclosed on. The value of a college degree, however, keeps increasing because of the demands of employers. Even for positions where bachelor’s-level skills are not needed, employers tend to prefer job applicants with a degree, and it seems unlikely that this behavior will change. Unlike a house, a college degree is something the banks can’t repossess and throw on the market, so it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which bachelor’s or associate degree suddenly loses its value. Yes, there are a lot of people with college degrees who are unemployed right now, but the recession has hit those without degrees much harder.

The way this bubble might pop would be if massive numbers of college loan holders defaulted on their loans, like the homeowners who walked away from their houses after the value of the houses sank below the value of the outstanding mortgage. Many tuition borrowers have technically gone into default. Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that one-fifth of the loans that went into repayment in 1995 were in default. With college loans, however, precisely because there is no real estate that can be repossessed, lenders can continue to extract repayment from borrowers who have fallen behind in their scheduled payments. Bankruptcy does not generally free tuition borrowers from their repayment obligations. Lenders can garnish wagers; for federal loans, the government can also garnish tax refunds and even disability checks and Social Security payments. The danger is that in a future wave of college loan defaults, even these methods of extracting payments would not be sufficient to save lending institutions from a crash similar to what happened when the housing market collapsed.

Although there is reason to worry about what might happen at the macro level, I’m more concerned about what’s already happening at the micro level. Tuition borrowers who fall behind in their payments take a severe blow to their credit ratings and may be unable to borrow to buy a house or car. Even those who are able to keep up may find that the burden of loan repayments cuts into their disposable income for many years. Young people sometimes talk about the problem of when to tell a potential mate about your college loan. Second date? Third date? With rueful humor, they sometimes compare it to having a herpes infection or a family history of insanity.

From my perspective as a writer about career development, I’m particularly concerned about the effect of college debt on career choice. I fear that the burden of college debt sways too many students to elect majors that are potentially lucrative but ill-suited to them. An article on the Yahoo! site mentioned a student who graduated from Northeastern University with $200,000 in debt. She probably could have managed her college planning better (for example, starting at a community college and not taking a semester abroad), but it’s interesting to note how many people who commented on the story assailed her for majoring in sociology. For example, one person wrote, “I would pick a major with a higher ROI if I knew I was gonna rack up that much debt.” I would hate to see the day come when only students from well-off families can major in the liberal arts or social sciences.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Workers Who Make House Calls

I think I may be perceiving a new trend in business: house calls. I don’t have any statistics to back up my conjecture, but I believe that we will see an increasing number of businesses that come to your house to perform various kinds of service. Businesses that adopt this practice will have a competitive edge over the services that require you to come to their shop or office. This business arrangement may also provide unique job satisfactions for the workers making the house calls.

I became conscious of this trend a couple of weeks ago, when a van pulled up in front of my next-door neighbor’s house. A man from the van wheeled my neighbor’s lawn tractor out of her garage, upended it, and proceeded to give it the kinds of service that are needed now that the grass is starting to sprout: changing the oil, spark plug, air filter, oil filter, and fuel filter, sharpening the blades, and lubricating where needed. Last year, she arranged for a shop to pick up the lawn tractor on a trailer and service it in their shop. It took this shop a whole month to return the tractor, and that business charged more than the man who made the house call this year. I was so impressed with my neighbor’s experience that I had the man with the van come back two days ago and to service my lawn tractor.

Several other industries are finding house calls a useful business model. You may have seen Geek Squad cars in your community or may know of a similar service that comes to people’s homes to fix computer problems. You may have seen a van-based worker replacing a cracked windshield. (They can also do that at the parking lot of the business where you work.) I know of a pet groomer who parks her van in your driveway so Fido can get a wash and a trim just a few steps from the front door. Some physicians are reviving a practice that was common in my childhood, the doctor’s house call.

House calls have always been standard for service technicians who work with appliances that are not portable, such as your furnace or washing machine, but several economic factors are converging to encourage more occupations to adopt this business model. One is the increasing number of retirees (like my neighbor) and people who work at home (like me). We appreciate the convenience of not having to leave home and have considerable flexibility about the times when the house call can happen. Computer technology, perhaps combined with a geographical database, is making it easier to schedule house calls and route the van to your door with maximum efficiency. Cell phones and wireless network capability allow the business to change the service professional’s appointments in mid-day, perhaps in response to emergencies, whether this is coordinated from some central office or from inside the van itself. Smart phones allow the service professional to consult online manuals, order parts, or consult records of past service (such as your medical records) from your driveway or bedside. Miniaturization is allowing increasingly complex tools to be taken on the road. Did you know that a doctor can now do a skin biopsy in your driveway?

Admittedly, this business model may remain uncommon in many service occupations that are capable of using it. But, besides giving a competitive edge to some businesses, it can offer workers some job satisfactions they would not get in a shop- or office-based setting. It provides a constant change of scene, a form of workday variety that many people enjoy. It allows the worker to interact with clients in a more casual and emotionally warm environment. It gives the worker greater autonomy. While traveling between calls, the worker may need to deal with the annoyances of traffic jams and adverse weather conditions, but this interval may also provide a chance for the worker to decompress between appointments.