Don’t just be an input, be an investment

As we sit here with both historically low unemployment, but also a labor force participation rate that hasn’t yet recovered from covid, I expect that we will start to see workers lured back not just with the prospect of high wages, but the prospect of re-tracking their careers. I expect to see a bump in field and industry switching, as well an interest in educatonal programs that might enable such a switch. Since we’ve already wrung our hands over the fields (teaching, nursing, etc) that are mired in labor shortages, we should start thinking more about the opportunity to re-track their careers that workers are grabbing with both hands. And with that, I’d like to give my one piece of universal career and education advice: be an investment, not just an input, and never customer.

This works in a lot of ways. First, and this isn’t trivial, it will keep you out of scams and traps. They want to hire you, but you have buy $300 worth of training videos? Scam. You can start immediately, but you have to buy your sales stock from the partner who recruited you? Ponzi scam and trap. You’re admitted to the professional degree program, but you can’t find any evidence that recent placements are earning at least double the tuition immediately after graduating? Trap. Your incoming cohort seems wildly underprepared given your expectations for the program? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re not there to bring presige to the school with your subsequent exploits. You’re there to write checks and wait for your degree in the mail. You’re not an employee or a protege, you’re not even a product. You’re a customer and, I promise, you’re not getting your money’s worth.

Avoiding drains on your wealth isn’t sufficient, of course. You’re trying to pay your bills and hopefully build a career. Well, if you wank into an office filled with uniform, impersonal and undecorated cubicles filled with nothing but recent graduates and temps, you should be on immediate alert. Decent chance you haven’t stepped on the first rung of a corporate ladder – you’re entered a mill that does the grunt work for the people actually on the ladder. Your job, on the other hand, will be to execute monotonous tasks until boredom or a loose labor market pushes you out the door, while a rotation of temps ensures that your exit proves esssentially unnoticeable for your employer. You’re not an team member, you’re barely an employee. You’re a commodified cog, one that they expect to wear out before any improvement in your capacities or value could possibly pay off.

What you want to be is an investment. Whether it’s school or an entry-level job, the most important thing to find is firm/school that has a stake in your long-term success, incentive to invest in your human capital, and a structure within which this investment can in you can reliably flourish. Easily advised, harder to pull off, especially as a job applicant on the outside. There are, however, signs and signals to look for.

A mixture of employee ages is a good sign that people are sticking around because they see a payoff to long-term employment. While a program of temp-to-hire can actually be a great sign, a constant rotation of temps to backfill in a perpetual exodus is a huge red flag. Training and education reimbursement programs? Great sign, doubly so if they come with built-in time off. It might seem counter-intuitive, but I consider it a better sign if the company requires continued post-training employment i.e. you have stick around for at least x years or pay the company back for the training. It might seem like a limitation on your career, but it’s also a really good sign that your employer anticipates significant value in the labor market for your training. They’re not just looking for good PR, they’re looking to protect their investment in you.

Training and education are great, but the absolute best signal that your employer views you as an investment remains dedicated mentorship. If your senior leadership is investing time and energy to prepare you for the next round, great. What you really want, however, is leadership investing in you to eventually replace them. Why is that such a positive signal? Because it means that they don’t see training you as a threat because they’re going to keep moving up too! It means that the firm invests in their employees up and down the ladder, and everyone is anticipating the continuedf acquistion of skills and progression in their careers. If, on the other hand, every bit of process knowledge is a secret fiefdom, every scrap of credit jealously fought over? That’s a sign of employees that feel stuck, desperate only to find an exit while clinging to job security like under-paying driftwood in a storm.

If you’re going to grad school for a doctorate, it’s easy to assess whether you’re an investment or a customer.

  1. Are they paying you or are you paying them?
  2. Is there a defined pattern of how people are trained, granted a degree, and eventually placed within the job market?
  3. Is the program transparent about their students first job placements?

If you’re picking a PhD program, you should obviously go work with professors whose research excites you, but always on the understanding that they view you as an investment. Sure, they’ll get cheap labor our of you with regard to research and teaching assistance, but even those should be investments in your skill sets and experience. At the end of the day, good departments are eager, bordering on desperate, to brag about their former students. They are willing to pay you to go to school there because you will become a valued and hard-to-duplicate input in their research in the short run and a labor market star that further contributes to their own prestige in the long run.

Whatever step you are taking next in your career, especially if you are making a big sweeping change, make sure to find people who’s interests are aligned with investing in you, not just plugging you into their machine or selling you something. Remember, labor is an input, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an easily replaced and interchangeable commodity. Everybody wins if you become more valuable. Make sure you work and study somewhere smart enough to know that.

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