Making Yourself Indispensible

Published July 2010

Recent graduates are entering an Iowa job market as tight as the one which my classmates and I encountered when we received our diplomas in 1982. An article a couple of months ago in the Ames Tribune interviewed a half dozen or so graduating seniors from Iowa State University on their plans following graduation. What struck me was that not a single interviewee was headed for a traditional full-time job.

In addition, the recent uptick in the economy has prompted many previously underemployed and discouraged unemployed workers to renew their searches. A recent opening for a math teacher in Eastern Iowa reportedly resulted in 70 applicants. In short, itís tough out there.

Unfortunately, the Great Recession will certainly not be the last recession nor perhaps even the worst that graduates or those returning to work will experience over the course of their careers. There will other waves of layoffs.

For those lucky enough to land a job (or for those that have a job and want to keep it), Iíd like to offer some words of advice on what you can do now to minimize the chances that the layoff reaper will find you the next time the economy turns south.

First of all, understand that while your education, skills and experience may get your foot in the door, itís the demonstrated ability to work with others to consistently produce results that keeps you there. On more than one occasion Iíve had to gently pull aside a recent graduate engineer and explain that, although I understood how hard they worked in school over the past four or five years, it didnít mean a lot to Joe who spent the last 30 years learning in the factory.

A commencement speaker at an Ames High graduation several years ago said it best: ďToday weíre heroes, but tomorrow weíre zeroes.Ē

This requires a major shift in behavior. During much of our formal education and job search, we compete against our peers for grades or jobs. Once weíre hired into an organization, however, our peers are now partners in making the organization successful. The more effective we can make co-workers, the more valuable we are to the organization.

So in summary, itís not about you or what you know. It is about the relationships that you forge with colleagues to blend your knowledge with theirs to serve customers better than anyone else.

That leads to my second piece of advice: Figure out who your customer is and determine whatís really important to them. Depending on your job, your customer may not be the consumer that actually buys or uses the product or service which your organization provides; it may be other employees.

We all have customers. Figure out who yours is and focus on being excellent at satisfying those vital few features that they truly value. This will convert them into vocal fans and save you from wasting time perfecting things which they donít give a hoot about.

Next, continually challenge the status quo by looking for better ways of doing things. Again, by better I mean an improved (safer, higher quality, quicker, less costly) method of meeting customersí needs, not just better for you. Employees that can get the job done and actually improve the job differentiate themselves.

Finally, never stop learning. The rate of new information being discovered and disseminated each day via the information revolution renders the majority of our formal education obsolete within a decade of graduation. Going forward, the rate of knowledge depreciation is only going to accelerate. Thus the ability and willingness to continually learn becomes critical to remaining relevant to your employer. Discover the methods of learning that work best for you and take full advantage of them to keep your skills current.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees of employment in todayís global economy. But if you understand that there are no entitlements and that itís up to you to prove your worth to your employer each day, youíll put yourself in a good position.

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