Where is the work and what does it take to find it?

It’s natural for parents to want life to be easier and more secure for their children than it was for them. Our forebears came to North America because this was the land of opportunity where anything was possible if they worked hard enough and smart enough. The ink in which “hard enough and smart enough” was written into the social contract has faded.

There were no guarantees then and there certainly aren’t now. According to The Economist, “The number of young people out of work globally is nearly as big as the population of the United States.” As our children have been learning, especially lately, aspiring to prosperity is a right: achieving prosperity isn’t.

We may all want to rethink the notion of a university or any diploma with “Pay to the bearer on demand one ironclad career and lifestyle” written on it. Besides, today it would take at least two. Young people contemplating a postsecondary education and their parents should start thinking seriously now about having in-depth discussions about life after high school graduation.

This isn’t about predictions of things to come: unemployed and underemployed youth are a fact of life as this is being written. So are chronically unemployed adults. But there is another story: the one about opportunities that are there to be exploited by anyone prepared to work hard enough to find and land them.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2005, the business school at a university in southern Ontario offered to exchange 100 Commerce students, 2 hours in a lecture theatre, and a lot of attitude for 100 numbered tickets and a presentation I’d prepared and vetted with them about what work is.

I accepted.

The event was a focus group. To ensure that they were fully “focused”, each student kept one half of their admission ticket. The other half went into a hat. Each time I asked a question about a point in the presentation, I’d reach into the hat, withdraw a ticket stub and read out the number printed on it. The “lucky winner” would then answer the question. All but a handful of the students were called on.

I wasn’t there to teach. My objective was to gauge how well these future BComm’s and MBA’s would conduct themselves in circumstances not all that different from the vagaries working people deal with all day, every day:

    • Thinking on their feet
    • Presenting reasoned counterarguments to points raised in the presentation
    • Staying cool under fire
    • Dealing with a situation for which they couldn’t prepare
    • Being open to points of view that differed from their own

After trying to reach a consensus over a definition of the word “work”, we broadened the discussion to take in the environments in which work is done, the rules that govern those environments, how such environments come to be, how they change, why they change, what that means for individual and collective performance and, ultimately, financial and career security. We talked about the term “labour market”, what it meant and where it came from.

The concept of raw survival was the one that gave them the most trouble. Work, they reasoned, wasn’t about survival, which they treated as too basic and uninspiring a concept to warrant discussion. Work was about individual expression and fulfillment and creativity, three higher concepts they felt were worthy of discussion.

The evening ended the way it had begun: work was still an abstract concept rooted in individual wants and needs, one that didn’t take the employer or market conditions into account. They couldn’t seem to grasp that first they had to find an employer who needed what these students were selling. Then they had to convince that employer to buy it from them. Otherwise, there would be no ironclad career or lifestyle. There was also the matter of a Plan B if Plan A didn’t pan out.

I was standing in a lecture theatre filled with soon-to-be bearers of Commerce degrees who refused to accept that they (the students) wouldn’t survive professionally if no one was interested in what they represented. They didn’t react kindly to the notion that their ideas hadn’t stood up to closer scrutiny. They considered disagreement with their view of the business world an affront. Humility wasn’t on their agenda that night.

PDD believes that the first step in resolving this dilemma is to rethink and re-rank our priorities and our expectations. We are all in compete and survival mode and to the victor go the spoils.

Marketing, advertising and PR gurus have shown that they can steer us in the direction of the unfolding Android-Samsung-iPhone-BlackBerry story and new smartphone apps. PDD can guide you to and help you make sense of the economy and labour market story.

All you have to do is call or write.

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