10 ways careers may change in the future

The employment landscape continues to evolve, with changes in educational requirements, salary expectations, work schedules, and job roles. Alan Norton looks at current trends and offers a few predictions.

In my recent article 10 common career myths, I noted some ways our traditional concepts of career have changed over the years. Now I'm going to pull out the crystal ball and have a look at some trends that may shape your job and career in the future.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Viable alternatives to college

The soaring costs of higher education are making college less attainable for lower- and middle-income families. You may be surprised to learn that the student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in the United States. Many are beginning to ask if the benefits are really worth the costs. For the first-time employee, college is a piece of paper needed to get that high-paying professional-level job. From the employer's perspective, college separates the wheat from the chaff. Both preconceptions should slowly begin to change.

There must be more affordable and more efficient ways to train post high school students. Here is a list of a few alternatives to college:

A combination of two or more of these approaches -- for example, a co-op program combined with a virtual university -- may be the best option. Whatever the next higher education alternative will be, it should train students to be productive sooner at a lower cost. In addition, human resources will need a better method than a college degree for separating the qualified from the unqualified.

2: Lower salaries + broader career paths = more stability

The labor glut will lead to lower starting salaries in the foreseeable future. The wise employer will develop broader career paths for non-managerial positions, with more opportunities for promotions in smaller steps -- the goal being to retain experienced and key employees. This should lead to less job-hopping and more stability in the IT job market as employees seek job security first.

3: More specialization by job type and industry

There will always be generalists, but the increasing complexity and the ever-growing number of technologies will mean greater opportunities for those specializing in small segments of the IT pie. A model for this already exists in the medical profession. When you have a specific medical ailment, you want the best specialist money can buy.

Financial services, defense contractors, health care providers, and other industries will be seeking IT personnel who understand their business. Each has its own unique requirements, tools, technology, and terminology. Jobs will go to those IT personnel who have the education or experience unique to a particular industry.

4: More employee sharing

Perhaps the most job satisfaction I got while working at Hughes Aircraft Company was when I was loaned out to other departments to do project development. I was happy because my skills and talents were being used and I was doing something new and exciting. The company benefited as well by having their needs met with existing internal resources while fostering more job satisfaction and experience.

Fortunately, my manager was willing to let me go. Unfortunately, most organization charts and hierarchical organizational structures do not encourage the sharing of employees. The use of employee pools would allow for greater flexibility and "best match" of employee talent and company need. There may even be greater sharing of employee talents and skills with affiliated companies. The days when one manager or one department has exclusive use of an employee are likely to change.

5: More integration, less development

It wasn't long ago that every Web site was designed and built using custom code. It no longer requires an experienced Web developer to piece together and customize the templates now commonly used to build basic Web sites. You know when the Wall Street Journal is writing about how to create a Web site, the days of the simple Web site developer are numbered.

Integration of existing canned-code modules will be the preferred option over new development. Free code and software is available on the Internet for the taking. Software apps to solve nearly every business function from inventory tracking to human resources have matured and decreased in cost. To survive, developers will have to become integrators of others' code, focus on newer technologies, and savor the odd custom coding job when it comes along.

6: Narrowing remunerations

It's easy for the average worker to complain about CEOs' and other high-level executives' compensation packages. They have gotten absurdly out of line with reality. The CEO-to-average-worker salary ratio pegged at 525 to 1 according to the AFL-CIO in 2000 and has been steadily decreasing since. The Graziadio Business Report at Pepperdine University states lower numbers, but the trends are similar. These trends should continue to approach the ratios of 40 to 1 and 85 to 1 last seen in the 1980s and 1990s.

The discrepancy of salaries worldwide by IT position will also decrease as the global economy becomes increasingly pervasive.

7: More employee empowerment

Employees will be given greater control and freedom to choose how corporate assets are used to compensate workers. For example, benefits previously mandated as part of the pay package will become options for the employee to choose from and new options will be made available. Non-managerial staff will be given greater say how to operate the business, more say in the decision-making process, and greater responsibility in making important everyday decisions without managerial approval.

8: More use of older workers

Traditionally, employees worked until retirement and then left for the golf course and their favorite hobby. Currently, our society places little value on the aging employee, but I believe that is about to change. A large wealth of experience and expertise is lost when an employee leaves for more quiet climes. Unlike previous generations, Boomers will both need and want to work later in life -- but not at the same frenetic pace as their younger working years. The end of one's career will be less well defined, as Boomers look for continued work and additional income.

It's ironic that the generation so disrespectful of its elders is now slowly aging into that role. It's no fun waking up each morning feeling like a used-up old washrag that is no longer useful. Boomers will demand respect -- and they are a big enough political force to get it.

9: The flexible workforce

Not all job functions can have a flexible work schedule, but showing up from 8 to 5 "because everyone else does" will no longer be mandatory. Want to work 40 hours one week and 20 the next? Maybe you want to work 2 PM to 11 PM on Mondays and 12 AM to 9 AM on Fridays. The flexible workforce means more opportunities for employees to work when they want. It also means that employers will achieve greater flexibility with a larger pool of employees working fewer hours. Independent contractors and part-time or temporary workers may be more widely used. A new type of worker, the Internet worker, may become the next large source of human resources. Expect to see fewer full-time employees -- the most expensive class of labor.

10: Emphasis on multinational teamwork

In 2000, I sat in a meeting with representatives from CSC Singapore, Netherlands, Australia, and the U.K. It was the beginning of a working relationship and the rolling out of systems we developed in the United States to the other data centers. It was, I believe, a harbinger of things to come.

Skilled IT professionals worldwide will work together as teams to complete corporate tasks and projects. Closer integration with peers in multinational companies will be one area for greater efficiencies and lower costs going forward. This isn't outsourcing, it's cross-sourcing.

The bottom line

There are trends that you should be aware of or risk being left behind in the rush to the future. They include making do with less, changing job roles, increased flexibility, and even more rapid change. Perhaps you will spot a few of these changes over the course of your career. Recognizing change and acting before others will give you an advantage in a tough work environment.

What changes do you see coming?

Author's note

These items are part wishful thinking, part recollections of past business experiences, and part sheer guesswork. Perhaps there is no greater fool's errand than to put down in writing what the future will be like. Remember those exhibitions at the World's Fairs and Expositions that told us we would be whisked about in flying cars by now? History is replete with incorrect predictions. So I have no illusion that any of these predictions will come to pass -- and you shouldn't either.

By Alan Norton

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...