The days when having a college degree meant job security until we die are gone. These days staying at work means staying relevant, and staying relevant means learning as much as you can about everything.
The unlikely benefactor of this new workplace paradigm is the community college. As the workplace morphs into a more fluid entity, community colleges have become as vital for serious professional growth as a stop on Letterman is for presidential hopefuls.
The schools, says Marci Alboher, author, former New York Times columnist, and current Yahoo.com blogger, are certainly aware of this. But Alboher wants to make sure they know how to deal with it. She will present “Shifting Paradigms: New Strategies for New Times,” on Friday, May 8, at 9:30 a.m. at Mercer County College’s Conference Center in West Windsor. Cost: $50. This event is already full. Call 609-570-3311 or E-mail ComEd@mccc.edu for cancellations.
Once a lawyer who had “a mid-career ‘Is this all there is?’ moment” 10 years in, Alboher pulled back on her law practice and started freelance writing. Her first published credit: A column in the New York Times on how to conduct legal research online. The auspicious start led her to write to her strength — law-related articles for legal publications. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she earned her J.D. from American University. Two years and one book later she started teaching and job coaching. In 2001 she began a regular careers column for the New York Times.
When the Times gig took off, the Brooklyn native who grew up in Wildwood pulled back on her coaching. And she did well with her new column until this past December, when the Times pulled the plug. As part of the contract, she got no severance and was suddenly out of work. But her niche — careers — proved a fortuitous one. “Everybody wants to talk about jobs,” she says.
Alboher returned to coaching and teaching and started to speak publicly. By the end of the first month she replaced all the money she would have made from the Times. “I just got out there,” she says. “I started accepting assignments the next day.”
Thanks to her time at the Times, however, offers rolled in from several sources. She finally decided to become a contributing blogger for Yahoo, and writes “Working the New Economy” three times a week.
It’s not just the economy, stupid. The 21st century model of business started well before the bottom fell out of the economy, Alboher says. Years before the troubles people went to school and embarked on careers with every intention of finding several additional ones before they retire.
The difference now is that more people, particularly the young and techno-savvy, are finding ways to do more of them at once, or at least in close proximity. “There’s this very fluid model of building jobs and careers,” Alboher says, “a fluid relationship between jobs and entrepreneurship. There are periods of being a worker and periods of being an entrepreneur.” Like herself, more people are juggling consulting work with existing jobs, engaging in freelancing, or finding ways to make a living in between chunks of time spent working directly for someone else.
What it means to you. The dynamics of the new workplace mean that there is a premium on skill diversity. By design or attrition, job descriptions have become more involved and complex — writers, for example, no longer just write, they help market, edit, and research.
“There’s a real need for retraining,” Alboher says. “Adult education is booming,” even more than normal, she says. In her time as a careers writer and coach Alboher has been asked time and again where the growth sectors are. Education has never been off her list. Now it’s just especially hot, as workers look to make themselves more relevant to their bosses, independents look to know as much about their industries as they can, and people look to find ways to make money doing what they love.
Passion vs. pragmatism. People used to go into jobs a lot more idealistically than they do today, Alboher says. The realities of many industries, however, can sap that. Still, she says, people want to believe in what they do, even if only part of the time.
Alboher says she has seen a united growth in passion and realism among people looking to diversify their job skills. She, however, unapologetically recommends following the passion angle if you can. If you are forced by reality to have to find alternate or additional sources of income, she says, why not try to find something that makes you happy? It might just work out.
The slash effect. If Marci Alboher goes on to contribute one new definition to the English language, it likely will be for the word “slash.” As the Kansas City Star states in its review of her book “One Person/Multiple Careers,” workforce buzz words started with “yuppie,” moved onto “DINK” (double income, no kids) and have now moved on to “slash.”
Slash refers to the strokes between job titles. For example, the book offers glimpses of the lives of a longshoreman/documentary film-maker and a management consultant/cartoonist. Note the union of left-brain and right-brain. It is becoming increasingly common, Alboher says, for people to identify themselves as someone able to professionally handle the practical and analytical alongside the creative and emotional. Says Alboher: self-knowledge is all the rage these days.
How schools can capitalize. All this need to slash oneself into an ever-more-impressive job description means that community colleges have become more valuable to today’s workplace, Alboher says. And, like the people they serve, community colleges have had to adapt to the changing workplace in order to stay relevant and integral to society. Sure, colleges are still teaching degree curricula as their primary function, but non-credit, continuing education, and certification courses are now a sizable hunk of many community colleges’ incomes.
Alboher says that such schools need to understand the business community surrounding them in order to design programs and curricula that are relevant. Mercer County College sits directly next to the country’s pharmaceutical capital and one of the Northeast’s main hubs of science, research and development, and high-tech industry. The school’s catalog suggests that Mercer gets it, offering certification courses in healthcare, pharma, and computers, but Alboher wants to make sure the message is getting through for all institutions.
“I’ll be talking to administrators about what’s relevant to curriculum planning,” she says of her coming talk. “It’s all about staying relevant.”