Back in the early 1970s, when my parents were in the workforce, it was common for employees to stick with the company for upwards of 20-30 years or more. Back then, companies like National Semiconductor and Hewlett Packard were offering pensions for employees who stayed loyal for 20 years. Back then, employees were openly offered 401(k) retirement plans, nice big cafeterias, and in general, a stable way for a person to pay their bills and feed their families. But with technology comes the reality that we are all expendable, we are all replaceable, and that we are all basically consultants working on borrowed time.
A discussion at work around the copier machine will always include talk about who got hired, who got laid off, and how glad we are to have a job. The underlying paradigm driving the discussion being that as long as we do what we're told, don't make any mistakes, and make sure the boss is happy, that we'll all be sitting pretty in our careers. But employers are no longer seeing the economy as an open-ended free for all that once was. Companies now have to worry about where their next contract will come from, and more importantly how to continue to meet the profitability promises that they've made to their investors. In the end, it is the employee who becomes the scapegoat in the struggle for the bottom line.
Today, employees are, more than ever, more tool than human being. Employees are overhead, they are costs, they are assets which need to be managed just like a work bench or a fax machine. And yes, employees today are subject to depreciation. The way this happens is simple -- your company hires a software programmer to write a very specific program. Once that program is written and working, the programmers value drops significantly. The programmer basically worked himself out of his forte at the company, and now the company has to evaluate the need to keep that programmer on board.
There are differences now from before that changed the employee value paradigm. Back then, there weren't 200 programmers all looking for the same job, which gave the company a selection of workers with varying salaries and skill sets from which to choose from. Companies today can pick and choose who they want to bring in, and more importantly, who they want to replace you with. Also, today's projects don't last as long as the projects of yesterday. A technology project, driven by a technology market that evolves constantly, cannot last very long because the project has to hit the market as soon as possible. Add to this that technology itself has enabled us to develop tech projects in a fraction of the time it took our predecessors. We can design and develop in weeks what used to take years.
What this means to you, and that you are now valued the same way a wrench or any other tool is. Even with your degree, those fancy certifications and years of experience, you're just a commodity. The company uses -- yes, uses you -- and then when your acute value has been realized by the company they will elect to let you go to save money, or replace you with the myriad of other cheaper alternatives who would eagerly take your job. It is literally "Thanks for your work, don't let the door hit you on the way out".
Ultimately, you are a consultant, and you need to protect your business -- which is you. You are your own company. Remember this.
Your skills, accomplishments and your background are the bullet points on your line card. The company is your client, not your friend. And when the you-know-what hits the fan, the company will not hesitate to chop your head off and throw you under the bus to save itself. It happens every day. Keep in mind that today's employer already considers you as consultants-with-benefits -- it's time you woke up and realized this.
As such, I always elect to leave companies when my work is done. This serves to allow myself to work on fresh new projects somewhere else, and it saves the company from having to [continue to] pay a lot of money for a guy to write reports all day. The last thing I want is to become a sitting duck waiting for management to pull my name out of a hat and staple it to a pink slip.
Leverage your skills and background to keep yourself working, the same way you leverage them when interviewing. Businesses don't survive by betting on just one customer, and you you shouldn't either. Be willing to work at a company for a year or two, and be ready to leave for greener pastures. Companies always assume that employees want to work with them for years and years, and they use this to their advantage. Let your employer know that you can leave anytime you want, and take your skills with you. Let employers know that the term "at will employment" goes both ways. Take real control of your career.
In today's economy, we are all consultants. We no longer have loyalty from employers. We are all assets that get replaced or dumped all the time. Be willing to change the balance of power in your career, so that you're not beholden to your employer.
... Because sticking with the 1970s work paradigm today, is just waiting for borrowed time to run out.