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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sell Your Knowledge

I have blogged recently about how you can make a career move that leverages your knowledge of an industry in a new way: for advocacy or for standards enforcement. I call these “sequel careers” and have written a book, The Sequel, about making these career moves. Another popular sequel career is sales.

Although some sales workers start their careers with little or no knowledge of the industry in which they land their first job, your background in an industry or at least one product can be a great advantage in a sales career.

The basic function of a sales worker is to convince the buyer that a product or service meets the buyer’s needs. That means a good sales worker has a thorough knowledge of the product or service being sold, is able to determine what the buyer’s needs are, and has the persuasive skill to sway the buyer to value the benefits of the product or service. As part of the process of closing the sale, the sales worker may need to negotiate the price or at least make the case that the going price is fair. The sales worker also may need to discuss optional features, the mode of delivery, a warranty, or other terms of the deal.

In some companies, the sales manager identifies likely customers by doing research, but sometimes this is done by sales workers. Likewise, an account manager may handle the task of making follow-up phone calls to verify the customer’s satisfaction, but often sales workers do this as well. Sometimes sales workers modify the product at the customer’s site as needed or train the customer’s staff to use the product, but for a highly technical product, this task is more likely to be handled by a sales engineer.

Sales workers usually need to keep track of new products and competition. They may visit trade shows and industry conferences. They attend sales meetings at their company to review their sales performance and learn about current sales goals.

For working in sales, it helps to have an outgoing personality and be able to get along with many kinds of people. One of the satisfactions of the job is the contact with people, but clients sometimes can be demanding. The work may require a lot of travel. Sales workers are often under pressure to meet a sales quota. Sometimes their income is based partly or wholly on a commission.

Most sales positions have no formal educational requirements. Workers need two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of sales technique and knowledge of the product being sold. Employers may train sales workers in both. For example, a manufacturer may rotate sales trainees among jobs in plants and offices to learn all phases of production, installation, and distribution of the product. Other employers offer formal classes and on-the-job training under the supervision of a field sales manager.

However, a good background in either or both kinds of knowledge will improve your chances of getting hired as well as your success on the job. Employers sometimes recruit sales workers from the end users of their products because these experienced users are familiar with the benefits of the product and the ways to get the best use out of it. Experience like this is particularly valuable for landing a job selling a scientific or technical product, although a bachelor’s degree in a scientific or technology field is another way of qualifying for such a job. If you’re a knowledgeable user of a product, you might consider approaching the vendor about a sales job.

Sales engineers usually have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but some who hold this job title are knowledgeable about science or technology without being engineers. Usually they learn their skills by being teamed with an experienced sales worker, and they often continue to work as a team with someone who is more skilled with sales technique and less knowledgeable about technology.

Knowledge of a particular industry may give you an advantage in a job selling investments, commodities, or insurance related to that industry. Brokers and investment advisors must pass an exam and register as representatives of their firm with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Similarly, those who want to sell insurance must obtain licensure for the particular type of insurance, which usually depends on taking specific courses and pursuing continuing education to maintain licensure. Check the regulations that apply to your state.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Career Advice Inspired by Bruce

“Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”

These lyrics are from a Bruce Springsteen song that sometimes brings tears to my eyes. The song is especially poignant for me because my hometown is only a few miles from his—in fact, we were born in the same hospital, less than a year apart—and I have seen the decay of many of the places that Bruce and I grew up in.

Of course, his song is not meant to apply solely to our native part of New Jersey, but also to the many neighborhoods in decline across America as the economy has undergone drastic changes. For me, the most stark reminder of this sea change is the graph below, which appeared in an August 2012 data brief (PDF) by the National Employment Law Project. The NELP bases the graph on an analysis of statistics from the Current Population Survey. The bars for jobs lost in the recession represent the difference in employment between the first quarters of 2008 and 2010; the bars for jobs gained during the recovery, the first quarters of 2010 and 2012.

What does this graph say about your career future? Try reading the graphic with the understanding that wages are roughly commensurate with level of skill. That means that the segment of economy showing the greatest impact of the Great Recession consists of the occupations requiring a middle level of skill. In numerical terms, these occupations accounted for 60 percent of recession job losses but only 22 percent of recovery growth.

The inescapable conclusion is that you are going to need good skills to compete for the greatly diminished job opportunities at a middle level of skill—or, ideally, to secure employment in a high-wage occupation—and to avoid a career among the many low-wage workers.

One thing the graph does not show is how low the compensation is for many of the jobs that make the lower bar as long as it is. Consider America’s fastest-growing job, home health aide, which is projected to grow by 70 percent between 2010 and 2020. The median hourly wage is $9.91, which amounts to an annual wage of $20,610. Of course, many of these aides work part-time, earning a lower annual wage and probably no benefits. It’s no surprise that 40 percent of aides are on public assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

I’d like to have some hope that the plight of these workers will be eased by an increase in the minimum wage—which is by no means certain to happen—but federal minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to them because they fall into the same category as babysitters.

Okay, so what are the high-wage occupations that will have a lot of job opportunities? I divided the range of occupations covered by BLS into three income zones with an equal number of occupations in each. I drew from those in the highest one-third to create the following table with the occupations that have the best combination of job growth and average annual openings, as projected by the BLS. The annual earnings are estimates for May 2011; the estimate for Physicians and Surgeons is almost certainly too low, because it is an average of all specializations, some of which have earnings above the maximum that BLS reports.

At the end of "My Hometown," the song's narrator sings about a conversation with his wife about maybe packing up and moving south. But the song's ending leaves this question unresolved. It's true that some parts of the nation (some in the Sunbelt, but don't forget North Dakota) have lower unemployment than others. Nevertheless, I suggest that for most people, the way to cope with this economy is to move your skills northward.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Will Work-at-Home Work for Your Career?

I have blogged about the joys of working at home, but it’s time to revisit this issue. This work arrangement has become the topic of considerable discussion now that Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, has told all her employees to report to the office. Further piquing my interest was a research study that I found this week in which economists compared the productivity of workers toiling at the office versus those working at home.

Let’s look at the research (PDF) first. The economists, at Stanford and Beijing Universities, studied the output of call-center workers employed by a Chinese travel agency. The workers were randomly assigned to work either at home or in the office for nine months. Those working at home performed 13 percent better than those in the office, partly as a result of putting in more minutes per shift (a 9 percent difference) and partly as a result of making more calls per minute (a 4 percent difference).

But consider the reasons that Marissa Mayer cited for her decision to call the 200 work-at-home employees back to the office. According to The New York Times, “A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture.” Having come from Google, where this culture was the norm, Mayer decided that the change in work rules was needed as part of an overhaul that would bring Yahoo back from its long decline.

I think her reasoning makes sense, despite the findings of the economists. The Chinese call-center workers have no need for communication or collaboration amongst themselves. They communicate with the people who telephone them. They can work well—in fact, better—in the isolation of their home offices than in a noisy call center. The Yahoo workers, on the other hand, are doing the kind of collaborative work that causes the high-tech industry to cluster in places such as the Silicon Valley and the Boston suburbs. The famous “idea factory” at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, where so much of our present technology was developed in the 1960s, was laid out with a long corridor that encouraged engineers and technicians from different disciplines to rub shoulders and trade ideas as they made their way to and from the cafeteria.

The photo below was actually shot at Allied Chemical in 1967, and although it often is mistakenly identified as showing Bell Labs in 1966, it gives an idea of the same architectural thinking at work.

If the world were really growing “flatter,” in the sense that Thomas Friedman describes, there would be no need for Silicon Valleys. We all could work at home. But note that many of the jobs that can be done at home—and call-center work is an excellent example—have been moved overseas to lower-paid workers. By contrast, many of the jobs that will remain in the United States will need to be the kind of collaborative work that is much harder to do at home. For example, one of the reasons that manufacturing is coming back to the United States is that creative production that stays one step ahead of the competition demands that engineers and technicians work close to the factory floor—in close contact with its workers and machines—rather than send specifications to a plant across the ocean.

Besides the creativity that teamwork can foster, another factor that is driving collaborative work is the need to hold down costs. Even in industries that require hands-on work that can’t be done at home, workers are becoming more collaborative so that highly-paid specialists can focus on the tasks that require their level of skill and knowledge. For example, in the health-care field, physicians work in collaboration with physician assistants and nurse practitioners, to whom they can hand off various tasks, and nurses do the same with aides and orderlies. In other industries, a similar cost-cutting relationship exists between engineers and technicians, between accountants and bookkeepers, and between teachers and classroom aides.

What does this mean for your career? It suggests that work-at-home arrangements will be harder to obtain if you want to work in the kinds of highly creative and collaborative jobs that pay well and are not likely to be offshored. If you want to work at home, be sure to ask yourself why what you’re planning to do can’t be done by someone overseas.

There certainly are creative jobs—often niche jobs—that are not collaborative, can be done at home, and would be hard to offshore. For example, think of an editorial cartoonist, who needs to be immersed in the American political and popular culture. Or think of an advice columnist, who needs to be attuned to the shifting mores of our society. For jobs that do require collaboration, advances in technology such as Skype make it increasingly possible to simulate face-to-face collaboration from one’s home.

But the trend in America’s economy is toward on-site, collaborative work. Technology will allow more flexibility in our work schedules, with some work still possible at home, but much of the work in the best jobs will be in the office.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Careers That Keep You Out of the Cubicle

Are you hoping to avoid the Dilbert work environment? Specifically, do you desire a career that doesn’t require you to sit at a desk all day? I have some suggestions for you.

Maybe you have an antsy personality. Something about you is not satisfied with sitting in one place all day. If you feel strongly about this, you don’t have to explain why.

On the other hand, maybe you favor an active occupation because you are aware that it would be better for your health. Researchers have linked desk jobs to increased incidence of back pain, eyestrain, obesity, and even colon cancer. One Australian study found that men who sit at their desks for more than six hours per day were almost twice as likely to be obese as men who sit for less than 45 minutes. An American study found that women who worked at a sedentary job for 14 years gained 20 pounds more than women who worked in the least sedentary jobs.

Whatever your reason is for seeking active work, that kind of occupation is harder to find than it used to be. The shift to an information-based economy has meant a constant increase in the proportion of workers who manipulate data for a living—and who therefore spend most of the workday sitting at a desk. Researchers have estimated that the percentage of workers in physically demanding occupations decreased from about 20 percent in 1950 to less than 8 percent in 1996. Even in offices, people are probably doing less physical work than they used to do in the days when desk workers cranked mimeograph machines, hand-collated documents, whacked staplers, carried memos from one room to another, and typed (and re-typed) on manual typewriters.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of high-activity occupations for people who prefer them. And these are not just menial jobs that are likely to be phased out as soon as someone invents the right kind of robot to do them. Many active occupations have good earnings and are expected to have good job opportunities. They allow you to use your brains as well as your muscles and involve the kinds of people and problems that can keep you interested in your work.

To identify these occupations, I looked at two measures in the O*NET database that indicate level of physical activity. One is a work activity measure called Performing General Physical Activities. It is defined as “Performing physical activities that require considerable use of your arms and legs and moving your whole body, such as climbing, lifting, balancing, walking, stooping, and handling of materials.” Every occupation has a rating between 0 and 7 on this measure. The other measure is a physical work condition called Spending Time Sitting, which represents how much the occupation requires sitting. (Despite the name, it is not strictly a measure of time.) This measure also uses a rating scale between 0 and 7, so I subtracted each occupation’s rating from 7 to determine the amount to which the occupation does not involve sitting. I then took the average of these two work activity measures to get an overall score indicating the level of physical activity—i.e., how much the occupation is not behind a desk. Then I removed the least-active half of the occupations and kept the most-active half.

This was still a large list, so to focus on the most rewarding occupations, I followed the procedures I use in the “Best Jobs” series of books. I eliminated occupations that lack economic data, those with a particularly dismal outlook, and those that pay only a pittance. Then I ranked the 340 remaining nonsedentary occupations three times, based on these major criteria: median annual earnings (May 2011 estimates), projected growth through 2020, and number of job openings projected per year through 2020.

Here are the best 30 occupations that don’t trap you behind a desk. The figures for “Physical” and “Sitting” indicate how each occupation scores on overall physical activity and requirement of sitting, on a scale where 0 is minimal and 1 is maximal: