Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Innovation and Job Opportunity in Manufacturing

One of the central points in my new book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, is that it’s important to upgrade your skills if you want to compete in the economy of 2011. The book has many specific suggestions for how to do this. But maybe you’re wondering why a high level of skill is so important.

It’s because of the current nature of our economy. The days are long past when an American kid fresh off the farm would be put in front of a machine that stamps out auto parts (or something comparable), could learn how to use that machine in a few minutes or hours, and would take home a comfortable paycheck at the end of the week. Those hayseeds-turned-factory-workers are now working in China and other low-wage countries.

But does that mean manufacturing in America is dead? Not at all. Manufacturing was actually one of the first industries to bounce back from the depths of the recession. It has seen its growth slowing in recent months, but no more so than almost all other industries. This week, Ford Motor Company reported that it just had its most profitable quarter ever, netting $1.69 billion and paying down it debt faster than planned.

Innovation is what has kept American manufacturing successful and will allow manufacturing to continue to provide jobs. It’s particularly striking to see how manufacturing compares to other industries in a study (PDF) by the National Science Foundation that looks at innovative products and processes. NSF surveyed 1.5 million for-profit companies and asked them about their practices for the years 2006–08.

The study found that “22% of the manufacturing companies introduced product innovations (one or more new or significantly improved good or service) and about 22% introduced process innovations (one or more new or significantly improved method for manufacturing or production; logistics, delivery, or distribution; support activities).” Compare this to the mere 8% that is reported for both kinds of innovation in the nomanufacturing industries.

I’m particularly interested to note that the 22% figure applies to both kinds of innovation. It indicates that the high level of innovation is motivated by more than just the need to compete with low-wage overseas workers. If wage competition were the only issue, American manufacturers would simply be upgrading their processes--for example, using more robots or economies of scale. But American manufacturers are being equally innovative in the products they offer. New products open new markets and draw new purchases from existing markets.

What does this mean for job opportunities? If all the innovation were happening only in manufacturing processes, most of the resulting jobs would be for engineers and engineering technicians. But new product development (NPD) is a multidisciplinary field that also involves marketing managers, technical writers, artists, commercial designers, logistics specialists, cost estimators, and perhaps even anthropologists. (Not long ago I did a presentation for an NPD team, and the most effective presenter that day was an anthropologist.) NPD work is highly collaborative, so it requires excellent people skills and communication skills. It also requires a high level of creativity.

So America’s most innovative industry sector is going to need a wide variety of highly skilled workers. This drives home the most important point in 2011 Career Plan, that today’s economy requires you to hone your skills.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Green Jobs Satisfy in Many Ways

This week has produced some interesting news about green jobs. This subject is dear to my heart because I’ve been writing about it, most recently in Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career. I’ll also be speaking about it on November 1 at the STEMtech conference hosted by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

One of the most intriguing things I’ve read about green jobs this week was in a USA Today article that I learned about from a JIST colleague, Athena Wampler. The article, “Are workers in green jobs happier? Study offers clues,” reports on research by two academics at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The research project, called “Business for the Greater Good,” is being done in cooperation with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which is working with dairy farmers to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from their farms.

One of the researchers, Ante Glavas, commented that “We’re finding that people who work for green companies have a pride-in-ownership mentality and are happier and more productive.” In fact, he said, workers who feel they are contributing to the greater good can be as much as 40% more productive.

This study provides an interesting new way to look at the economic benefits of green business practices. Most other studies focus on results such as the cost savings from recycling, conservation, and use of alternative energy. Or they may estimate the economic impacts of global warming. The Notre Dame researchers focus instead on the productivity of workers. Their study is a reminder that one of the principles of career development--helping people find meaning in their work--makes good business sense.

Another lesson to take away from this study is that the shift to a green economy is happening for a wide range of reasons, not simply because it’s better for our planet. This lesson was reinforced by a news story in The New York Times, “In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy.” It reports on how six towns in Kansas competed to achieve the greatest reductions in energy use. A small nonprofit group, the Climate and Energy Project, understood that many Kansans are skeptical about global climate change and resent large-scale government intervention. So the group appealed instead to the values of “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction, and economic prosperity.” They emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on foreign oil, the opportunities offered by green jobs, and the concept of stewardship of God’s creation. As a result of the program, “energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas--a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful.”

Another new development was the release of a bibliography listing dozens of reports about green industries and green jobs. Compiled by the O*NET Development Center, this list of references (a PDF) includes URLs for almost all of these reports.

For more about green jobs, look to the latest edition of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly for an article about wind service technicians. Or look at what the Solar Foundation reports from its 2010 National Solar Jobs Census: a workforce of 93,000, with a projected increase of 26%, representing 24,000 net new jobs by August 2011.

Green jobs are the wave of the future because they can be very satisfying. They offer people a sense of purpose in their work as well as growing job opportunities.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Career Tips to Increase Your Visibility

In one of my recent books, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, I make the point that one way to improve your job security is to make yourself more visible. My blog this week enlarges on this topic.

The basic point is that your employer will value only the employees they are aware of; likewise, prospective employers will be much more likely to hire job applicants who are familiar to them. You may be doing superlative work and you may have a dynamite performance appraisal or resume for showing off your accomplishments, but employers don’t like to have to read these documents. You need to find other ways to make your employer (or prospective employer) aware, on an ongoing basis, of your outstanding skills and achievements.

In the book, I suggest that the reader “start an in-house Web page, newsletter, or bulletin board showcasing the project you’re working on and soliciting suggestions from people outside the project. This will encourage them to buy into the project and make your efforts look not purely self-promotional.”

Blogging is another platform, and you can use it to build a national reputation. Focus your blog on some niche in your industry that you are well-informed about. If you can’t think of some such topic or you don’t have time to maintain a blog, consider being a frequent commenter on an existing blog. Anyone who follows a blog over time starts to recognize and appreciate the particular expertise of the people who are frequent commenters. That could be you.

Much of the impact of blogs is achieved passively; that is, blog readers come to your blog, and that’s how they become aware of you. However, you can use your blog for making active connections: Include interviews. Record a telephone interview of someone who is of interest to your readership (making it clear to the subject that you are recording the conversation), transcribe the interview, and post it on your blog. With a somewhat higher level of tech savvy, you may be able to post the interview as a podcast. Each time you do an interview and make it available, you will be connecting not only with your readers but also with the person being interviewed. This increases your visibility two ways.

Twitter is often referred to as “micro-blogging.” You can use it like a blog to make yourself a highly visible hub of information, and Twitter has the advantage of being very brief, so it can reach readers who are carrying smart phones or who simply don’t like to read long articles.

Still another way to make yourself a wellspring of information--and therefore more visible in your industry--is to publish a business directory. (I learned this idea from my cousin, Arlene Hershman, former editor of Dun's Business Month.) Assemble and publish a directory of facts about businesses and/or people in your industry. Obviously, it helps to focus on some specialized industry niche or to include some facts that are not available elsewhere (or not available in a single place). Doing the research for this directory provides an excellent pretext for you to contact everyone who matters in your industry (visibility-enhancer #1).

Being the conduit of this information is visibility-enhancer #2. Although you can get exposure by posting the directory on the Web, you may consider using teasing as a strategy: Post only a sample of your contents and make would-be readers pay a nominal subscription fee or at least register with you to get the full directory. By requiring your information-consumers to do this, you make them (a) pay additional attention to who you are, (b) place a higher value on your content, and (c) identify themselves to you, so you have a valuable list of subscribers. You need to assure your subscribers that you will not sell this list, but you may want to use the list yourself. It can expand the base of people or companies you can call for research purposes. Better yet, it can expand your network of contacts who will be helpful for future (or present) job-hunting.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Be All That You Can Be--In a Green Job

I’m paying extra attention to news about alternative energy now that my new book, Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career, has come out. You may have heard the news this week that solar panels will be installed on the roof of the White House. These units will supply both electric power and hot water. But you may have missed a more important item of green news: The military has started to invest heavily in alternative energy. This trend will have great impact on the growth of green jobs.

The armed forces are not promoting alternative energy as a symbolic gesture or as a matter of ideology. They’re not even doing this to prevent global warming. The policy makes good sense for purely military reasons.

One reason Alexander the Great was able to conquer Afghanistan was that his transport vehicles (horses) could live off the land. Nor did Alexander need energy for any purposes other than the campfires that could be supplied by local firewood. Modern military history, by contrast, has seen many armies made terribly vulnerable by long supply lines. Our military needs fuel not only to power vehicles but also to keep generators pumping out a steady supply of electricity. The Army buys gasoline for a little over $1 per gallon, but the cost of trucking that gallon to distant bases in Afghanistan can reach $400. Tanker trucks chugging through mountain roads are prime targets for Afghan insurgents. (Also for angry Pakistanis.) In fact, one Army study found that an average of one soldier or civilian is killed for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s why energy created at the point of use can be so valuable to a military campaign. Company I, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines will be using the following equipment, according to the story in The New York Times: “portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; solar chargers for computers and communications equipment.” This will be the first time that alternative-energy equipment will be taken into a battle zone.

The Times reports that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships. The Navy has already commissioned an amphibious assault ship that’s hybrid-powered. The Air Force is testing mixtures of biofuels with jet fuel and will have all its planes certified to use biofuels by 2011. The one alternative-energy source notably absent from the military’s plans is wind turbines, which are extremely bulky and work best on the hilltop locations that are hardest to defend.

Secretary Mabus notes that as the military’s use of green energy sources ramps up, the price will come down and infrastructure will be put in place. That will make these technologies more affordable and practical for the civilian economy. That, in turn, means more jobs for green-energy workers.

But the article fails to note one very important consequence of this military policy: The military will be training large numbers of green-energy workers. Civilians often forget that the military is a major educational institution, one that actually pays its students. As the armed forces adopt alternative energy technologies, they will become important sources of worker training for these technologies. As military personnel cycle out of their stints in uniform, they will enter the civilian workforce with the skills required to install solar panels, process biofuels, service hybrid power plants, and perform many other green job functions.

I expect that a future edition of 150 Best Jobs Through Military Training will include Solar Photovoltaic Installers, Biofuels Processing Technicians, Geothermal Technicians, and other green-energy occupations.