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"Be Ready to Change"
Ventura Star, April 11, 2004

By Terry Paulson, PhD

It's an election year again, and protectionist policies are again being played to a populist drumbeat. Fresh from licking their wounds after a record Southern California supermarket strike, too many people are taking the wrong lessons.

America has been getting a wakeup call from the world, but far too many are whining instead of responding to the challenge. Many feel that they are entitled to a good standard of living, increasing salaries and increasing benefits. Most workers thought they could learn a skill, find a comfortable career, and work comfortably into retirement. Unfortunately, the world has changed, and too many Americans are desperately trying to hold on to jobs that are rapidly becoming unnecessary.

For the first time in history, anything can be made almost anywhere and sold everywhere. Talented and motivated workforces in India, South Korea and China are just a mouse-click away! These changes aren't just taking American jobs; they're also creating jobs. Most of those foreign workers are using American software. Most are drinking Cokes. They watch our TV shows, and they want the brands that we have. As they become more successful, they can afford to buy more American goods and services.

It is true that when computer manufacturers in the U.S. can't compete because of the labor costs, they may move operations offshore costing U.S. jobs. But this brings down the cost of computers so more can afford them. The market expands because more companies and families can afford to have computers. More people need training, so trainers are hired. Computers have to be maintained locally; people are hired to repair them. Such changes are painful for people unwilling to learn new skills. Economists call it "churning," and it has happened over and over again throughout the history of capitalism. Its playing field is now global, and the speed of the churn is faster.

A few years back, Lee Kuan Yew, called by many the "Father of modern Singapore," made some eye-opening observations about the global economy and America's role in the world: "I see a very troubling and at the same time exciting new world in which international boundaries can be penetrated without difficulty. The flow of information, of capital cannot be stopped. ... Whether we like it or not, technology has made this a one-world market for labor. Jobs can leapfrog boundaries. But good minds in the world will command very high salaries, very high fees. In the same way, jobs at the lower end of the scale can also be transferred across the globe, and will be. And so, whether Americans like it or not, whether Singaporeans like it or not, our lower-end jobs are going to be taken over by our neighbors because they will be able to do these jobs for one-half, sometimes one-quarter the price.... Unions will try to protect themselves and their members' interests, but their jobs will run out because their companies will be beaten in the international marketplace unless they can make use of cheaper labor elsewhere. There's no use perceiving this as a threat because it's going to happen. So it's got to be seized as an opportunity and made the best use of. The process has barely started; the diffusion of knowledge is going to take place willy-nilly, either with your participation...or against your wishes.... Ride it. You can't fight it."

The American dream is not dead! Wealth is still out there; it is just on the move. Instead of throwing up protectionist walls, we must help American workers meet the challenge of change. As my great uncle on the farms of Illinois used to say, "It's easiest to ride a horse in the direction it is going." In short, it's wise to develop skills that will produce what customers are going to need. His second advice: "If the horse is dead, get off it!" In practical terms, don't send around resumes for skills that are no longer needed. Instead, master new competencies or lose out to those who are willing to refocus and retool to take advantage of change.

If you fear that you are rapidly becoming obsolete, develop your own recovery program. In fact, always invest time in your Plan B, a "What I could do next" Plan. Let me add to my great uncle's advice: "Since it's hard to know if your horse is dying, have at least two horses." Don't wait for a career disaster or a prolonged strike to hit your family! Invest 5% of your time in your next career at all times. Start a small business on the side. Look for cross-training opportunities and volunteer for your organization's strategic projects whenever you can. There will always be a need for people who can make a difference where it counts for customers willing to pay!

Many have said, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" Well, you become an old dog when you stop doing new tricks. Welcome to the challenge of lifelong learning, your best insurance policy for the 21st century! Be thankful that in the growing 101 corridor, there are great institutions of higher education ready to help you meet that challenge.

Terry Paulson, Ph.D., of Agoura Hills, CA is a professional speaker on making change work and author of The Dinner: The Political Conversation Your Mother Told You Never to Have.

—Terry Paulson, PhD

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