I was talking to an experienced, but not-yet-discovered, on-camera, news/talk person at one of my Social Media Networking Parties. She was asking if I could give her some advice about getting in front of the "right" people in New York. Not a problem. I've got a couple of friends in the biz, so I asked her, "What are you looking for?" She said, "I want to host a talk show, anchor a news broadcast or be a field reporter for a local news station in NYC."
Somewhat stunned, I asked her to explain. And she replied, "It's my dream job. I want to be a famous talk show host or anchor and make a lot of money." Thankfully, at that very moment, several people joined the conversation and I was able to make a stealthy getaway.
I thought to myself, what made her think that any of the jobs she is dreaming about actually exist? As a practical matter, they don't. You can't go from 34 year-old, female, third-string, foreign language, cable news reporter to NYC-based talk show host. In fact, you probably can't get there at all. Not because of personal talent, but because the job doesn't exist. There is no locally produced talk show that is looking to hire a host. That's not how talk shows work.
Over the next several weeks, this conversation was replayed several times with several different individuals. Each person was asking me about a job that either no longer existed or worse, never existed at all. Then it dawned on me -- if you ask the wrong question, you are guaranteed to get the wrong answer.
While all of this was going on, WNBC-TV announced that Len Berman, the venerable sportscaster, was being let go because of budget constraints. But wait! Len is a fixture in NYC, he's a sports brand, he's one of the main reasons people tune in to Channel 4 ... um ... nope, he's a very big budget item that could easily be cut to make room for a bunch of high quality, low cost, good looking young people who can read, write and speak on camera.
Do you think they made a good decision? Go ahead, name all the "branded" sportscasters in the New York DMA. You can't? Neither can anyone else. The job of "venerable" _____caster at a local TV station no longer exists - everyone can be replaced with younger, fresher, cheaper talent.
Well, that's pretty depressing. Yeah, I think so too. But that's not where it ends. How many people are now looking for jobs that no longer exist? If you used to be a computer photo typesetter, you were replaced in the 1980s with desktop publishing. Now, if you had that skill set, you probably could have opened a boutique desktop-based print pre-production house and done fine. Or, you could have looked for work in the transportation or food services industry. They are all about as related.
Perhaps you'd like to be a theme music composer for television or a graphic designer for the broadcast industry. How about a gig as a professional studio trombone player, or a cameraperson on a remote three-person news crew?
All of these jobs still exist in some form, but they are far from dream jobs. In fact, these production skills have been commoditized and practitioners can look forward to making about the same kind of money as they would waiting tables in a good restaurant.
I started asking some of my more seasoned friends about what jobs actually exist in their industries now (as opposed to the jobs that people think exist). The answers were truly stunning.
Last week I had the honor of lecturing to a classroom full of graduate students at the Columbia Business School and then later in the week I had an opportunity to address a similar group of graduate students (via Skype) at the Newhouse School. As I do during every lecture, I gave the students my email address and invited them to contact me with questions or comments. Just for fun, I asked about a dozen of them what they hoped to be when they entered the work force. The answers were a total surprise. To a person, they are aspiring to jobs that have devolved into commoditized low wage work, that they still perceive to be high profile, high paying careers.
We hear so much these days about workforce development and career guidance. But I wonder who is educating the educators? Who is communicating reality to the job counselors? Does it make sense to go to school to become a studio musician in 2009? The short answer is no. You can certainly go to music school, that is a privilege and a joy. But there is no job called "studio musician" any more. In 1980, being good at that job guaranteed a six-figure income. Today, you'd be lucky to make $50k per year in a big city, and away from the three major production centers, beer money. Do you know how many students are in music school thinking that there's a commercial production business to go into? Now, substitute camera operator, editor, graphic artist, set designer, copywriter, news giver, spokesperson, model/actress, script supervisor, the list just keeps on going. And it's not just the production side; the same holds true for the business side, the promotion side, all of it.
What would you do differently if you had the ability to accurately assess the total potential of your dream job and found out that it was no longer possible for it to provide the living you dreamed accompanying it? There's only one answer ... you'd look for a different line of work.
The pace of change being what it is, it is truly surprising how many people still laud and revere certain jobs in our profession. Jobs that, in reality, bear little resemblance to what they used to be.
Shelly Palmer is a consultant and the host of MediaBytes a daily show featuring news you can use about technology, media & entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2008, York House Press) and the upcoming, Get Digital: Reinventing Yourself and Your Career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). Shelly is also President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy Awards). You can join the MediaBytes mailing list here. Shelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgFor information about Get Digital Classes, visit www.shellypalmer.com/seminars