June 25, 2018

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Where Did All the Jobs Go?

Let’s look at the trends historically first, going back to the early 1990s. Then we’ll gradually move forward to the present day and what we anticipate in the balance of the decade.

Early 1990s

The employment market was relatively bleak in the early 1990s. The economy was in a recession and there just weren’t a lot of jobs available. Workers had become accustomed to staying in one field and changing employers infrequently. With the expectation that employees would remain loyal to the same employer for an entire career, more than a couple of job changes would brand you as a "job hopper." Employers were wary of people who changed jobs, concerned that they were trouble-makers and wouldn’t follow direction.

Opportunities were limited for women and people who didn’t have decent educations (high school, some college). New hires were usually expected to start at the bottom and work their way up the corporate ladder. It was accepted almost universally that employees must "pay their dues" to earn positions with higher prestige and higher pay. Employers called the shots; they had always been in control.

The layoffs that came with the recession cut seriously into the fabric of the American workforce. They were felt deeply by employees who had expected the company to take care of them from cradle-to-grave. Workers who had never felt the pain of layoffs felt betrayed, abandoned. Their bitterness was passed on to their children, who soon moved into the workforce themselves.

The Boom of the Late 1990s

As the economy picked up, more jobs were created. People were brought back from their layoff status and thousands of new employees were hired. During this period, the younger workers were part of Generation X (born 1964-1985), a population of latchkey kids. These young people had learned to fend for themselves. They were independent, challenging, and believed in taking initiative. Their motto was "If it is to be, it is up to me." Non-conformists by nature, they ran into a wall when they encountered managers who insisted things be done according to established traditions.

This period saw the beginning of a new phenomenon: more jobs than people. Competition for good workers was intense. The employment market shifted from a buyers’ market to a sellers’ market. Applicants could practically name their own terms; a lot of new employees didn’t start at the bottom and climbed the ladder quickly.

The Slowdown

As we moved into the beginning of the new century, the economy slowed. The cautionary behavior of decision-makers was accentuated by the events of September 11, 2001. Employers let go of thousands of workers they had competed to attract just a short time before. Suddenly people who had become accustomed to changing jobs every 6-18 months found themselves stuck where they were. The employment market abruptly shifted back to a buyers’ market.

Employers took workers for granted as they pushed for higher productivity from fewer people. Technological improvements were implemented to boost productivity even further as companies anxiously sought ways to strengthen bottom line results. Ethics issues were raised and many employees—working and not—developed jaded attitudes toward corporate management. Leaders reinforced those feelings with complacency and reluctance to move forward.


During this period, employers looked toward opportunities to produce goods and services cheaper in other countries. While some ill-fated decisions were made about which jobs to send where, American workers were angry that citizens of other countries were working and they were not. The laws of economics encouraged routine work to be done by lower paid people, but the creative and high-skill jobs remained at home. In fact, other countries sent their work requiring higher talent to the United States.

A very small percentage of American jobs are going off-shore, though the news media play makes the impact seem much larger. The lesson for our workers is that they must sharpen and expand their skills to fulfill the higher level jobs that will be more prevalent in the domestic market. Training and education will take on added value in the years ahead.

The Next Boom

History is about to repeat itself. The boom we saw kick into gear in the mid-1990s will energize again in the middle of this decade. As we move through 2004 and into 2005, at least 1.5 million new jobs will be created. That figure is still lower than what we saw during the go-go years, but it’s considerably better than what we’ve seen for the past few years.

Recent surveys suggest that at least 30-40 percent of today’s workers have already "checked out." We call this "warm chair attrition." People are showing up each day and warming the chairs, but their focus is on getting their next job. As the economy picks up, these people will start changing employers, stimulating unprecedented turbulence in the employment market.

At the same time, employers will be faced with the challenge of finding people who are really qualified to perform the work that has to be done. Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest we may face a shortage of 10,033,000 skilled workers by 2010, the most severe shortfall in history. We’ll shift back to a sellers’ market in labor soon.

Employers have vacancies to fill today. The opportunities are there. More recruiters are talking with people about future positions, not just looking to fill today’s jobs. You will have more and more choices…if you’re qualified. Now is the time to check your preparation and make decisions about where you want to work. Get ready to go where you want to go, because your career is about to take off!

-Roger Herman
Roger Herman is an internationally known futurist concentrating on workforce and workplace trends. A contributing editor for The Futurist magazine, he is lead author of the Business Best Seller, Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People. His book for people who want to manage their career moves well is How to Choose Your Next Employer. Purchase this book at a 20 percent discount at Mr. Herman is CEO of The Herman Group, Greensboro, NC.

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