by Bob Lewis

The Lack of Future of Employment: Part 3 of the “Future of Work Trilogy”

Dec 14, 2010
IT Leadership

For most IT professionals the trend is clear: More contract work, less employment. Here's how to adapt.

For most IT professionals the trend is clear: More contract work, less employment. Here’s how to adapt.

ManagementSpeak: Must be an effective multitasker.

Translation: Workload for this position is unrealistic.

KJR Club member Richard Adams had to multitask briefly to both transcribe and translate this overused buzzword.

InfoWorld published “The IT Rust Belt” back in 2002. My conclusion then: IT jobs are headed overseas (and, with luck and some entrepreneurship, small-town America as well). Not all of them, of course, but too many for IT to be a promising career choice for your average college student.

It was, at the time, a minority opinion. It’s now gaining popularity (for one example among many, read “Why IT Jobs Are Never Coming Back,” (by Stephanie Overby in Computerworld, 12/9/2010).

Summing up from the last two weeks, here’s where we are:


Increasingly, corporations, and especially large corporations, consider employment to be an aggravating distraction (“The Semiotic Diet,” KJR, 11/29/2010). Compared to contractors they need a lot more time and attention … and there are all of those rules governing what you can and can’t do to them.

Even if that isn’t the case, employees are infrastructure. Having them increases fixed costs while decreasing incremental costs. Investments in infrastructure are the right answer in a steadily growing economy. When the economic outlook is unpredictable … and ours is structured for increasing volatility … infrastructure means cost that’s hard to shed during a downturn, making contractors more desirable than employees (“The future of work,” KJR 12/6/2010).

Which leads to the question, how will you, as a U.S. citizen with IT skills, make a living when the future gets here?

The conclusion is hard to avoid: You’ll have the most security by abandoning the security of a steady paycheck for the feast-or-famine world of contracting.

Easy to say. Harder to do. Here are a few pointers to either help you with the transition (if you’re accustomed to steady employment) or to reorient yourself (if you’re in college, preparing to enter the workforce):

  • You’re running a business. Be businesslike about it. Every conversation with your clients is about what they need. The only conversations about what you need are about what you need to help them succeed.
  • Think strategically about your business. Some companies compete on product … what they can do. Some compete on relationships … how well they understand their customers and can work with them effectively. Some compete on price. Decide in advance which model fits you best and plan accordingly.
  • Learn to read contracts for comprehension: Mostly, this requires patience. Skimming doesn’t do the job.
  • Hone your negotiating skills. And be businesslike about your negotiations. Emotion has no place in a negotiation, unless you want to lose.
  • Budget: Make assumptions about how many days a year you expect to be billable, and about the average rate you plan to charge. Plan your lifestyle accordingly.
  • Live healthy. You’ll be paying for your own health insurance, and a lot more of your medical expenses. Fried pork rinds aren’t your friend.
  • Find a home. For at least your first few engagements, work through a reputable staff augmentation firm. Even if you’re good at selling, this will help you learn the trade. And don’t gripe about the tithe they charge in exchange for placing you.
  • Be adaptable. Every company has a business culture, corporate style, and unwritten rules. Become excellent at learning them quickly and working within their framework.
  • Keep your skills current. Technical skills are temporary. Books aren’t enough: If, for example, you’re a developer, invest in the development environment you’ll need next so you can give yourself hands-on experience.
  • Spend time on Facebook. No, not to network, but to gain skill working within virtual communities. A lot of your work will be as a member of virtual teams that never congregate physically. Even in virtual teams the need for trust-based relationships matters.
  • Web conference with compatriots. More on the same subject: A number of web conferencing companies provide a free version of their services for consumer use. Take advantage of this to perfect your ability to work in virtual teams.
  • Pay more attention to making friends. People with jobs tend to satisfy a lot of their need for community in the office with co-workers. As a contractor your work connections will be temporary. You’ll need a substitute, or you’ll feel very lonely no matter how financially successful you are.

The United States has always had two economies — capital and labor. For most of our history the two were strongly coupled: Their fortunes rose and fell together. With globalization that’s no longer the case.

Its proponents continue to claim net on-shore benefits from shipping work offshore. For investors, they’re probably right. For employment, and for the U.S. economy as a whole, for that matter, they don’t even have a reason to care.

You do understand what “multinational” means, don’t you?

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.