Sunday, January 13, 2008

Another Non-Story: Low Unemployment = Workers Demand More

Via Slashdot.

NetworkWorld is running an article on the challenges of retaining young workers. Seems Johnny Y doesn't want to work at Initech and expects to be well compensated for his skills and time.

So, the job market has equalized since the Tech Bubble burst, unemployment stays at historical lows (sub 5%), and, huh, tech people are demanding more out of work. Money, perks, decent working environment.

I'm gestating a theory that we are all Dory. Our capacity, as a group, to remember things farther back than just a few months seems to be severely limited.

For example, I bought a house in 1997. By the peak of the real estate frenzy, it had tripled in value. In the past year-and-a-half it has fallen 25% of its peak price. It's still overpriced. If it settles at double in the next year or two--well, I'll probably still think it's overpriced.

The whole time this was going on, any rational person could see that it couldn't possibly last. At least around here, we go through this cycle every, oh, 15-20 years? (I'm hoping to make a jump when the market crashes again: It's not the price of the house but the taxes that are the killer.)

Of course, bets are off if the government gets involved. It can screw things up in some remarkably persistent ways. Combine bloated government with an ossified industry (used to using the government as a crutch) and, well, you end up with this.

The tech industry is just a remarkable series of Leonard moments. Tech industry takes off in the mid-'90s and I get lured out of my starving writer lifestyle to make a ton of cash. Businesses start complaining about being able to hire workers--often using impossible job criteria--and push heavily on the H1B. People seem to be irritated that tech skills pay so well. A bunch of unqualified gold-rushers jump into the field and really screw things up.

Then the tech market crashes. Tech jobs start paying a lot less. (Businesses still moan about not being able to hire qualified workers.) Workers complain about the devaluation of their skills. A lot of gold-rushers (and good people, too) bail out. Those that remain hang on to their jobs while they can, hoping not be forced out by a market flooded with competition willing to work on the cheap.

But IT work is like plumbing, electrical work, road building--it has to be done. Businesses can't run without it and be competitive. (The remarkable inefficiencies I see every day--and the unwillingness of businesses to change to eliminate those inefficiencies--still surprises me.) As the economy recovers, tech workers get choosier--and businesses complain about being able to hire (or in this case, keep hired) qualified workers.

All this--all of it--is just detail level supply and demand. Unlike my grandfather's generation, I've never worked for anyone with the expectation that they keep employing me. (There was one exception, where I was repeatedly told otherwise, which should have set off my radar.) When I was younger, I would happily jump from contract to contract for more money (though I've always had a rule about not leaving work undone).

This is a good thing: I learned a lot about how companies work, about the value of a good, competent boss, and the dangers of incompetent ones, about the difference between liking someone and trusting them, about friendly work environments versus well-organized ones, where money fits into all this, and so on.

Those going out for the first time into the workforce today should realize that all things must pass, economies are elastic, and that gathering your rosebuds while ye may is not necessarily a bad plan. Try not to bitch about it, though, when your value drops. It's not personal.

And realize, no matter what, employers (as a group) are going to always bitch that you're not available enough, that you're not grateful enough, that you want too much money or too much influence.

It's as natural as forgetting what happened yesterday.

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