FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2013 by Ed

Like everything else, the economy and job market are subject to fads. Every few years there's some new job or field that we tell our children to study in college and for which politicians pretend we're going to re-train laid off auto workers. Every time I see one of those "10 Fastest Growing Careers!" stories I immediately flash to Dustin Hoffman being cornered at a party in The Graduate: "One word: Plastics!"

Whenever there appears to be a hint of demand in some field or industry, we are all encouraged to stampede toward it. It's like watching eight year olds play soccer, mindlessly (and fruitlessly) chasing the ball from one place to another. Just in my lifetime I've seen the ball bounce from business (especially MBA) programs to anything remotely related to computers to law schools to medical fields like nursing and pharmacy. If I had a nickel for every article or new segment on the nursing shortage in the last ten years I'd…be making money in a very strange manner. I'd also have a lot of nickels.

And now, lo and behold, it turns out that doubling the number of nursing students from a decade ago is producing more graduates than the job market will absorb. Sound familiar, law school grads? After a lifetime of parents, guidance counselors, and academic advisers telling you that it was a great idea, you reach the end of your education and find a saturated job market. Your primary achievement appears to be helping to create a buyer's labor market for corporate hospitals and their endless battles with nurses' unions.

As the linked article shows, nurses and nursing students are apparently turning to the same fallacy that has sustained academia for the past five or ten years: that there is a giant cohort of Baby Boomers all getting ready to retire and they're just hanging on right now until their 401(k)s turn around. They're always just about to start retiring. Next year! Or maybe like five years! But it's gonna be soon, we swear. The problem, of course, is that the stock market has largely recovered since 2008, and when these aging boomers do retire, employers will look to a job market choked with tens of thousands of desperate candidates and offer salary and benefits that look nothing like what the departing older workers got. In academia, this means replacing retired tenured faculty with temps, adjuncts, and other industry terms for "cheap labor". In nursing, this means more hospitals outsourcing nursing to staffing agencies and short-term contract employment, meaning that the reasons we were all told to stampede toward that field in the first place – a shortage of qualified workers, good salary/benefits, and job security – no longer exist.

I think that's called "bait and switch." Or maybe it's not a bug, but a feature of the exciting new Third Wave knowledge-and-services economy. We never know what The Market will want from one moment to the next, and when it changes course we all need to drop what we're doing, uncomplainingly give up the human capital and experience we've amassed in whatever field we've been in, and learn how to do whatever new thing seems to be in demand. This would be ludicrous enough on its face without the added bonus of doing all that and finding that you can't even get a job in the Hot New Field.