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Syd Weighs In

The last durable industry

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

Where have all the durable industries gone?

(Thinkstock)

US President Barack Obama recently called for a return to an era when workers could have steady jobs in durable industries.

The trouble is, there are no more durable occupations that offer long-term job security. What’s more, most people would not want to go back to that era, for the age of disruption has created many benefits we have become accustomed to and opened even more opportunities.

But there is a catch — to win in the modern economy one must stop thinking about durable jobs and start becoming a durable talent.The last durable industry is not an industry at all, but your own skills and talent.

Where have all the industries gone? Their passing has been stunning in its speed. New entrants and competitors have changed the rules, innovated and disrupted in industry after industry. You make cameras? I’ll take mine on my smartphone, 10 megapixels and all — thank you very much. And while you’re at it, let’s skip the compact discs for my music collection, the GPS navigation gizmo for my car and the newspaper delivery to my house.

So many of these changes have come because of the shift from analogue to digital, from physical to virtual. Even in my own industry — higher education — massive open online courses (MOOC’s) hold the potential for massive disruption, especially to universities that cannot differentiate by brand, research, or teaching quality. Even tenure for professors is much less common than it used to be; by some accounts only one-third of university faculty are protected with such job security. If academia cannot offer durable jobs, who can? 

Powerful customers have also emerged to force change in supplier companies, much of it directed toward lowering costs, and therefore, wages. This is not only about Walmart or Amazon.com. The legal industry, for one, is in turmoil because of precisely this pressure from traditional big company customers who are no longer willing to effectively subsidize the training of young lawyers by paying for their billable hours.

Industries that have taken advantage of regulatory-enabled protections are not immune either, although they continue to try to hold onto their positions. They use political strategies to do this, rather than market strategies. Taxicabs are a perfect example. Typically regulated and controlled by local government, there are now mobile phone apps that let customers find alternative transportation in a much more convenient fashion. Naturally, taxi companies fight to keep what they have — dominance — rather than fighting to fix massive customer service problems that created the opportunity for a competitor to emerge with a different business model in the first place.

By the same token, it will just be a matter of time before the emergence of television available anywhere pushes cable and satellite companies to sell channels a la carte and not bundled. Time Warner Cable’s recent dust-up over transmission fees with the CBS network in the United States may well be the trigger for a fitful move in this direction. Surely one of the most despised of all business practices, it will be even harder to defend when mass-market customers become used to watching individual channels on the Internet via alternative broadband providers. An entire generation of twentysomethings access most of their TV this way already.

When this happens, cable and satellite companies will cease to exist in the manner they have become accustomed. They will have to create a new business model to survive, something opportunistic entrepreneurs at Netflix, Hulu, Google, Apple and Amazon have been working on for some time. Good luck with that.

I could go on with further examples of industries that will never provide the stability they once did, not just because of technological and customer changes, but also because of global competition that destroys the fat and lazy, because of the increasing importance of services over manufacturing to the economy (removing many high paying, steady union jobs in the process) and because so many of us have become accustomed to almost unlimited choice, making it difficult for any company to maintain steady market share, and hence, steady jobs.

In the end, this means that the only durable industry is yourself. We have no choice but to be durable, since the world around us has become so capricious. Job security is not only an unrealistic goal, it’s a foolish one. While we still need to dedicate ourselves to our jobs — there is no alternative to creating value while at work — we no longer need to dedicate ourselves to a single employer. Why? Because that company might not be there for us tomorrow.

The skills people need in this world are constant learning, adaptability, open-mindedness, networking and curiosity. Yes, the more you wonder about why things work the way they do in your industry, the closer you’ll be to becoming one of the disrupters. And even if you’re not ultimately a disrupter, the mindset of always thinking about what could be different, better, faster, smarter, or even opposite to how things look today, brings you quicker to change than the next man or woman.

Ironically, President Obama came into office on a wave of “change we can believe in,” but whatever that change is, it won’t be back toward durable industries and durable jobs. Those days are gone, and sooner we all realize it the better.

Do you agree that durable industries no longer provide long-term job security?

How do you make yourself indispensible?

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Job security is not only an unrealistic goal, it’s a foolish one.