Much as I admire David Leonhardt, the Washington Bureau Chief for The New York Times, a statement he made in his column this Sunday is just plain wrong. Or, more accurately, it is symptomatic of the myopia with which many of our experts and opinion-makers think about the unemployment crisis in this country today.
In a piece about “Why D.C. Is Doing So Well,” Leonhardt opined that “High-skill economies can overcome temporary downturns. And young superstars eventually tend to find the supporting cast they deserve.” If only pigs could fly and that were true.
Such a view is off the mark on two counts. First, it reflects the naive Good Will Hunting notion that high skill people – i.e., those who are well educated – are always rewarded in the workplace. If that were true, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics wouldn’t be reporting that 53.8 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 are now unemployed or underemployed. The truth is that even superstars can be thrown out on the bricks like anyone else.
Which brings us to the second reason his statement is wrong. Superstars do not “deserve” success in any economy, whether it’s a so-called “high-skill” one or some other kind. Today‘s global workplace is a Darwinian environment that brutalizes any and everyone who doesn’t take the initiative to protect and advance themselves in their career.
How is that done?
We must make it our job to be both at the state-of-the-art in a viable occupation AND an expert in basic career self-management. While most of us are aware of the former, however, an awful lot of us – including superstars – are oblivious of the second. The body of knowledge and set of skills required to manage one’s career successfully is eminently learnable, yet tragically, we are never given such education. As a result, we are academically proficient and career deficient.
We don’t know how to take either the precautionary measures that can insulate us from workplace events and decisions that harm our well-being or the proactive steps that would ensure our continued advancement. We have been led by educators and policy makers to believe that high skill in a field of study is sufficient for success, when it is only one-half of what we need to survive let alone prosper in a global economy.
We could, of course, wait until academia or the government recognizes this shortfall and plugs the gap. But for those of us who live and work in the real world, the only realistic strategy is to take on the task ourselves. We must make it our job to become as expert in managing our career as we are in our profession, craft or trade. That’s the new definition of a “complete education,” and a complete education is the only way to ensure we are always employed and always by an employer of our choice.