Today, the uncertainty of the employment environment is less about staying employed and more about staying employable.
I want to share with you how I came to develop this perspective and framework. It’s a personal story of how I began to proactively stay employable. The catalyst for me was a single line from a book. Andy Grove, founder of Intel, in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, wrote, “Nobody owes you a career.” I kid you not, when I read this book in the mid-1990s, it literally changed my life and sent me in a new direction. It was a true epiphany moment! Afterwards, I went to night school to get an MBA, and I eventually switched careers. I switched from engineering to finance, working as an investment analyst.
Only the Paranoid Survive is all about adapting and surviving. The background story for the book is that Intel produced a chip with a flaw. The company's response angered customers. The subsequent corporate upheaval and crisis drove Intel’s CEO to later write the book. The book has broader messages about the relationship between companies and employees.
The key message I took away from reading this book is, in a changing world, companies can’t guarantee employment because they can’t guarantee their own survival. So, staying employed is your responsibility.
Here is the full quote from the book. This is from a speech Andy Grove delivered to Intel employees. He didn’t mince his words! … “Who knows what your job will look like after cataclysmic change sweeps through your industry and engulfs the company you work for? Who knows if your job will even exist and, frankly, who will care besides you?” “The sad news is, nobody owes you a career. Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. It is your responsibility to protect this personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.”
Words like that terrified people back in the 1990s, a time when many workers were still accustomed to lifetime employment. At that time, reality was starting to sink in. Corporate downsizing was spitting out 10,000 people at a time on to the streets. Yet, I think these words are even more telling in today's world of changing technology, globalization, wage stagnation, skills gaps, demographic headwinds, etc.