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It’s time to rethink how we look at employment

Interview with Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of “The Job”

By David Hugh Smith

Ellen Ruppel Shell tears apart assumptions about employment like they are a pile of old resumes. In her book “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change” (reviewed in the Fall PDC Post) she rips into received wisdom and in so doing, frees us to begin rebuilding — or building— a world where workers can more easily find a job and be happy at work.

“People think everyone wants challenge in their jobs,” Ellen said during a recent interview with the PDC Post. “(And that) everyone wants advancement. But that’s simply not true. The most consistent thing people want in a job is stability.”

She adds: “Many people really value kinship in their job. They want to see (the same) folks every week. Have relationships with them.”

But these aspirations often are not well served by today’s economy where many workers rely on “gig” work or jobs that only last till the next corporate lay-off.

“We have employment at will,” Ellen comments. Workers are not protected by law from easily being “let go.” “(But) it used to be that employers didn’t like to let people go.” That’s changed.

For example: “IBM didn’t fire anyone without cause till 1991. This was a policy. . . . Now, of course, IBM is famous for laying people off.”

A ready willingness by organizations to eliminate jobs, to “let go” of even long-time workers who have served with dedication and who may struggle finding another job, merges with today’s “gig economy.” Ellen says, “The ‘gig economy’ was very much oversold. It was oversold by people in the IT community, the high-tech community, (who imagined workers) getting on their bicycles, going to a mountaintop, programming at the mountaintop, and getting paid well for it.

“First of all, there (are) very few people in that category. Second, it doesn’t work in a lot of other fields.”

Blasting apart assumptions about the long-term unemployed

Beginning with the “Great Recession,” many more professionals started spending years either unemployed or underemployed.

Often these are so-called “older workers.” And often friends, family, business contacts, and the workers themselves believe they are to blame for not scoring a good job. The answer, they believe, is to work harder at finding a job, work smarter, improve their appearance.

But Ellen questions whether all the blame should, in fact, be laid on the shoulders of the long-term un- or under-employed.

“Things are changing. The mid-level-skill jobs are in decline. That’s not news. There’s plenty of data to show that. Very highly skilled jobs are not on decline, but they are changing, and (employers) are now seeking folks who are, in many cases, recent graduates of top universities. (Mid-level) workers are playing a game that’s gotten more difficult.”

Meanwhile, for older workers, the game is particularly difficult, and not because they are any less qualified to work.

“We’re told we need to find a way to fit into whatever corporate culture will hire us.” This presents a problem for someone who is, say, 55. “The average worker . . . is around 37 years old. When people are in their 50s and 60s they are up against that problem of being ‘the other.’ . . . People tend to hire people like themselves.”

Meanwhile, “Updating of skills is not a bad thing to do. I would never not recommend someone update their skills. We all can get better. But updating skills may not be sufficient to push through this challenge of corporate culture.”

So what does Ellen recommend for someone who has been unemployed for a long time?

“They should rethink some fundamentals about their life. What brings them meaning in their life? What brings in some income? How do they have to change their life to comport with the realities on the ground? People in their lives need to think about diversifying. If they are not able to find the kind of job they used to have, and they’ve been trying for years to do that, they have to step back and rethink their life strategy rather than fine-tune their job-seeking strategy.”

Ellen talks about graduates of top-level colleges who may be ready to take jobs as police officers and firefighters – because they value “kinship and stability.” And then perhaps they also decide “‘I’ll find my intellectual stimulation through my books, through my hobbies, through my friends.’ One of the things I argue in the book is the job is not one-stop shopping for everything in your life.”

Are there enough qualified workers?

Companies like Amazon promote the idea they are creating jobs, but this is untrue. In fact, it’s the opposite, and Ellen recently wrote a front-page article for Newsweek about this.

“When you look in aggregate as to how many people Amazon has un-employed, it has un-employed more people than it employs by a good deal.

“We love Amazon and we love the convenience . . . (But) Amazon is doing many things (to reduce workers). It’s a very large robotics company. They are doing what they can to automate not only warehouse jobs but white-collar jobs.”

Meanwhile, another major piece of received wisdom Ellen debunks is that there are not enough qualified workers for many jobs.

“The idea that there’s a labor shortage, or there’s a skills gap, does not comport with my experience and my observations. Being someone who’s trained in science, I wanted to see what the evidence for this was. And it turned out there’s no evidence of a serious skills gap.

“The people we’re talking about (who are unemployed) – many of them are highly skilled. And yet they are turned away for positions they’d be quite appropriate to be holding.” These would be people who perhaps didn’t fit the culture of the organization they were applying to for work.

Meanwhile, Ellen said, “There is no shortage of good work. But we have to take control. We can’t just sort of sit back and be pushed by technology or vested interests. We’re going to have to decide what we’re going to do with that technology, how we’re going to apply it.

“There’s just enormous amounts of work to be done. And we need to find ways to incentivize people to do this (work). One of the fastest-growing job categories in the United States is home health-care provider. There are many people in the United States who would love to do that job, and would be very good at it. . . . But we don’t pay people to do that job. It’s one of the lowest-paying jobs. And yet . . . there’s huge demand.

“How can we elevate this job to a living-wage job, to a dignified job that involves education and supports, and a system that will make these folks feel worthwhile and valued?”

Ellen also mentions child care as an area where there is high demand for workers but insufficient supply because of poor pay and recognition. “We have a crisis in the United States with day care. It’s a nightmare. There are plenty of people, young people, who would love to work with young children, (including) college-educated young people.

“There is no reason why that is not a good job. It’s crazy. Why should someone who designs apps . . . earn a very good living and someone who works with young children not . . . and there are all sorts of other jobs that should be elevated to being (respected and well-paid employment).”

In the next issue of the PDC Post we look deeper into Ellen’s ideas for creating an improved jobs economy.


David Hugh Smith is president of Right Writers, a Brookline, Mass., communications company. He’s also editor of PDC publications. His email address is

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