The past 50 years have substantially changed the labor market, and employment prospects, for employees in the developed world. Automation and technology have reduced the number of employees needed to perform a specific task, by increasing the productivity each employee can achieve. The tremendous expansion, or I would suggest “bubble”, of organizations offering higher education have meant that college and professional degrees are available to more people than ever. In fact, I often laughed by butt off while briefly working in county government….because EVERYONE had masters degrees or PhDs. Seriously, both of the administrative assistants in the department I ran were working on post secondary degrees. One a masters degree and the other a doctorate. Three years later they have earned those degrees, but I would venture that neither is more employable as a result….. and they are earning essentially the same income……as before they received the degrees.
For my grandparents generation, college degrees offered the ability to differentiate oneself from the general population….who most likely did not attend college. There were relatively few colleges and universities offering degrees, and those institutions were well regarded. Along came the diploma mills, and somewhat lower standards, and degrees don’t offer nearly as much differentiation between prospective employees. (Please don’t take my comments as saying that all colleges/universities are diploma mills, many still offer a quality education.) The criteria for many job openings changed once most of the applicants had received degrees. It set the bar higher at many employers, which then required the applicable degree, but the change also forced the employer to use other criteria to differentiate the applicants.
As I was saying before, many changes have taken place in the labor/employment market. The internet has allowed employees to work remotely. Most employees change jobs, and often companies, every few years. Typical “labor” tasks on assembly lines and other factory jobs have been largely automated. What hasn’t changed? Your skills matter more than ever!
If given the choice today between a great paying job and mastering a unique/marketable skill, I would chose the skill hands down. My reasoning is simple. A particular job may end, and with it your income from that job. With the availability of seemingly endless amounts of data on the internet, the barriers to learning new skills have fallen dramatically. You can find Youtube videos and online tutorials covering a huge range of topics. The internet even allows you to take free online courses from well known colleges and upstarts like Kahn Academy. I have known several computer programmers, coders, and one robot fanatic, who taught themselves these skills and are now making well over $100k per year…….all without a formal college education.
Why is this possible? Because under the surface this world is a meritocracy. Sure it matters who you know, and knowing the “right” people will give you a leg up……but results and skills matter more. A great case in point is a friend of mine who has been obsessed with robotics for years. He doesn’t have a formal degree in the topic, but has been building them as a hobby for years. He has far exceeded the 10,000 hour rule, and caught the industry’s eye because of his involvement in competitions and online forums. He is very marketable now and consults for a range of companies. What’s more is that he can afford to only take on the projects that interest him. Only taking on projects that interest him and able to command very good rates for his time. Now that sounds like the ultimate in flexibility.
So far this discussion has largely surrounded the technology industry, but it needn’t be. Various forms of craftsmen are another great example of very marketable skills. Think of folks like finish carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians, etc. Some of these professions do require a license, but the skills are the key to getting those licenses. Put in the time developing your skills and the license or certification will come in time. What’s more is that the license or certification of your particular skill will come with you wherever you go. They don’t typically stay with the company, which makes perfect sense because you are the one with the skill.
Putting in the time is the only limitation to you learning a great new skill. The availability of funds and factors (like race and gender) are no longer limitations. The only question is if you are willing to put in the time and focus to learn new skills. If you are very busy, it may be tough to find the time between work……family…..other hobbies and commitments. This is all leading up to say that I am going to start taking free online courses on topics that interest me. I love to learn, and am a constant reader. When we aren’t on the road, I typically read three or four books a week. I just do it for myself, not really to make myself more marketable. That being said, it never hurts to learn new skills. I will likely start off with either a specialized history course or a class about economics in developing countries. I’ll let you know how it goes, but if I can take three or four courses per year….it should help satisfy my craving to learn….while continuing to build the mental models that Charlie Munger often discusses. Flexible Independence and the internet age were made for each other!
What skills have you learned? Which skills would you still like to learn?
(Note: We are enjoying the second week of our roadtrip. The pictures in this post were from a great night at The Union on the UW-Madison Campus. Good times, amazing friends, great weather, boats and beer. What’s not to love?! The swing trades are going well also. I hope you’re each having a good week.)