When you open your favorite news app today, you’re likely to find articles about “the” economy. Back in 2009, we were in a recession and today I read a news story that the economy is “roaring, at least for now.” For workers, these constant economic shifts can create quite a financial rollercoaster.
Language is important. The way we describe things has profound implications on our actions. If we consistently hear that “the” economy is collapsing, how does that impact our outlook on our careers? Do we feel helpless? Do we stop acquiring new skills or looking for new jobs because what’s the point?
What if there are actually many economies and, as workers, you can cross between them to remain employed in boom industries?
I grew up in poverty. While my ancestors sailed to America on the Mayflower and founded cities, grew industries, and became successful business owners; somewhere along the way those I descend from failed to invest in themselves or their children to remain in-demand workers and suffered financially for it. Perhaps they, too, believed there was only a single economy.
That poverty created anxiety. To remain calm, I made myself useful so I could always find work. At 10 years old, I took jobs doing anything to earn money. I babysat, cleaned houses, and mowed lawns. When I turned 16, I started waitressing. Over summers, I was a farm hand. I detasseled corn for sometimes 10 hours a day. My high school needed a groundskeeper so I signed up to lay pesticide, trim hedges, and maintain the landscape. A factory walking-distance from my house hired me as a janitor so I cleaned toilets and worked the assembly line when employees called in sick.
These odd jobs helped me pay for the university where I majored in English. During college, I worked in a bookstore and for my school performing data entry at local companies implementing business systems. That data entry work forced me to learn accounting, human resources, inventory control, engineering, and operations. Tutoring students in writing exposed me to papers on finance, history, economics, and the sciences. I said yes to everything. If a door opened, I walked through it – not out of a desire to learn but by a fear of being useless and unemployable.
My first job out of college was a customer service position with a manufacturing company coincidentally implementing a business system. Management knew I had experience in these implementations and made me a project manager. Despite never having done anything like that, I said yes. The management consulting firm leading the project recognized my skills gaps and enrolled me in various corporate courses – on their dime – to learn program management, project management, change management, requirements management, and many other disciplines over four years. I said yes to it all and never worried about not being qualified or enjoying the work.
Mentors I had along the way took me with them as they found jobs in different companies. I said yes to all the new positions. Once, I asked a mentor how people became experts in their fields. He told me, “They’re really faking it. They just know how to fake it with confidence. If you can do that, doors will open for you.” That conversation inspired me to take an improvisational acting class where I learned how to “think fast on my feet.” Showing confidence even if I felt none became my mission.
Over time, I developed a diverse set of skills that kept me employed no matter how “the” economy was performing. People around me complained about the lack of jobs and obsolete industries, but I couldn’t relate to their pessimism. For me, there was always an option to grow, be promoted, and remain viably employed.
In my forties, after years of being responsible for budget management, I enrolled in finance-focused courses so I could improve my skills. Contrary to what I believed about myself, it turns out I have a knack for estimating budgets accurately. Had I known when I was 17 how much I enjoyed playing with numbers, I would have majored in finance instead of English. When I realized this, I enrolled in graduate school and I’m currently double-majoring to acquire a master’s degree in finance and an MBA in industrial psychology. Why two majors?
There is one simple answer: Because there isn’t just “the” economy. There are many economies – each of which is on a rollercoaster of performance and requires certain skillsets. When I’m in an economy taking a downturn, I jump to another stable or growing economy. Using this strategy of constantly evolving my skills and saying yes to everything has kept me employed and consistently promotable.
Our federal and state governments aren’t doing enough to invest in maintaining a viable workforce to meet the demands of an evolving and global job market. But I am. In 2016, I founded 21rw, a non-profit company that provides individuals with free skills training and mentoring to make them in-demand workers. I call these workers 21st century renaissance workers – thus the name of my company. I don’t earn any money for this work, so it’s not something I can do full-time. But I’m still saying yes to everything and 21rw is my passion. I’m confident that someday the company will generate enough revenue for me to make 21rw my “forever” career.
When you hear reports of “the” economy failing, remind yourself that there is no such thing as a single economy. Then act. Perform some research to find the industries that are stable or growing and do whatever you can to acquire the skills necessary to jump into those economies. And, like me, you might find a career you once thought yourself unqualified for and thriving financially despite what the economists are saying.