Never do just one job: it’s a dangerous risk in our economic environment

By | July 30, 2009

Tonight I was chatting with Christine in the car as we came home after dinner. Through our discussions, I found that I really have been something of a jack of all trades through my life. I’m not sure if this is the result of personal upbringing or experience or is simply a reflection of my personality.

But I was thinking about my father’s generation. He was born about a decade before the 2nd world war, where it was common for boys to go into a trade as an apprentice. From there they would be taken on as a young worker after completing their training. Then they would pursue this as their career, eventually becoming ‘master craftsmen’ employees.

It was a system that worked well in the early industrial age as it helped train millions of apprentices to do the careers, in my father’s case engineering, that they had chosen. However, as things changed, somehow a whole generation of workers found themselves without any alternatives. In my father’s case, he didn’t pursue any foreman positions in his factories, nor did he learn to use computers much. In the 70’s, this meant a huge risk for him and thousands like him who were moulded in the traditional craftsman approach.

Nothing prepared him or them for the hollowing out of traditional heavy and light engineering that took place in the late 70’s and 80’s and he found himself without work for much of the ten years before retirement. Yet he had no alternative occupations that he would consider, couldn’t reconcile himself to the advancing developments in computing in factories as robots took over, and eventually he retired, spat out by the system that created his career.

In our children’s situations, we always encourage them to specialise in their education, training and career. Yet I wonder – it’s advice that didn’t work for my father, is there a chance that pursuing education, training and specialisation could backfire on them, too?

Really, it’s always difficult to predict the future, the speed of developments, and what skills will be needed in the future. But with the pace of change likely to pickup as time goes on, surely it would be better to help the majority of children learn the skills to do a job for a period of time and understand that flexibility in the workplace is as important as specialisation.

It’s weird, though because to a certain extent the trade-offs between specialisation and flexibility must always be quality. As a practitioner of your particular career, after 10 to 15 years of work, you really have internalized most of the things you need to continue in your line of work and do well. But if you keep job hopping, will you ever reach the point in which you can perform well. Or is good enough in your job performance all that we can hope for in the future?

What say you?