Adapting to the New Normal in California Employment

Michael Bernick
Former California Employment Development Department Director & Milken Institute Fellow

(A version of this article first appeared last week in Zocalo Public Square as “Five Ways to Get a Job in California”).

We’ve reached a New Normal in California Employment.  It is characterized by (i) intense competition for almost any job; (ii) full time employment replaced by part time employment, contingent employment and independent contracting; (iii) greater and greater cost competition and pressure to reduce labor costs.

The Great Recession hastened the arrival of this New Normal. But the economic and social forces driving the New Normal predate 2007. The New Normal reflects structural, not cyclical, change in California.

What to do?

Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 7.39.56 AMAs we head into summer 2013, with the California economy continuing to show payroll job gains, here are five job search techniques that I utilize as a volunteer job coach.

1. Understand the New Normal, then move beyond it—No whining:  “It’s not you, It’s the New Normal”, I tell job seekers, parents or partners of job seekers, anyone who is bewildered by what’s happening to them and others.  But we don’t dwell on how bad things are. We go over how the job world has shifted in California, why job search is so much more difficult than in the past. Then we move on.

Most California workers are moving on. One of the untold stories of the Great Recession and its aftermath is the resilience of California workers. Most California job seekers submit of stacks of resumes without a response, go on interviews that turn out to be humiliating charades, and wake up each morning and start again.

2. The Job Boards are a starting point, but you need to take additional action to stand out: In the past decade, the online job boards have come to dominate job listings. But the ease of application, along with the surplus of applicants, means job board applications rarely result in hires, or even interviews.

We use the job boards, but only as a starting point. Whenever, there is any employer interest or opportunity, we try to stand out:  a white paper on improving sales or performance, a video presentation on unusual skills or drive, one or more recommendations from current employees at the targeted firm. Because employers are inundated with job applications, increasingly they are giving prominence to recommendations by existing employees.

3. The Hidden Job Market and the Job Network: An estimated 50% or more of hires in California are not advertised through Job Boards. These jobs, the hidden job market, are reached through job networks. Traditional jobs networks, including family, friends and former co-workers, remain the best source for the hidden job market.

The traditional networks have been augmented in recent years by the social media sites, especially LinkedIn. These sites enable job seekers to hear of company needs before any jobs is listed, and put themselves forward before any job is listed.

4. Getting in the Door through Part-Time Work, Project Work or Volunteering: Even when the economy is doing poorly, there is an enormous amount of worker movement among jobs, and enormous amount of hiring. In 2010 and 2011, as California unemployment remained above 11%, there were roughly 300,000 to 400,000 separate instances of hiring per month in California.  In 2013, this number is averaging over 450,000 instances of hiring per month in California.

This active hiring underscores the importance of getting in the door.  Even with this high volume of hires, employer can choose today among tens of applicants, or more. Go for a full-time job. But be open to other ways that can give you a leg up on employment.  Part-time work is one way; project work is a second; and volunteering a third. Each of these approaches allows the job seeker to show competence and enthusiasm for the employer’s mission.

5. Permanent Beta in Skills Improvement: In his recent book, The Start-Up of You, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman speaks of a work life in “permanent beta”: on-going refreshing and sharpening of skills, adapting to new business conditions, expanding job networks.

The twin forces of technology and globalization continue to redefine occupations in California. The best job search technique is to stay ahead of the skills curve, and maximize contacts when you’re not looking for a job.  While in the job search process, though, skills upgrade through online or in-person seminars can make sense.  Joining a Job Club definitely makes sense in contacts, and in combating the isolation and lack of confidence that often accompanies a job search.

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I’ve been in California’s job training and placement world since 1979. Finding a job has never been easy, throughout this entire period. However, today the process is qualitatively different. Above all, I urge family and friends of job seekers to reach out and try to assist in the job search, not by giving advice but by making calls, leveraging whatever contacts they have. Don’t be hesitant to help an adult child or spouse or friend. It’s brutal out there and will continue to be so in California hiring. It’s not them, it’s the New Normal.

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