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Volume 6, Issue 2, March 2003
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Employment Analyst Advises Technical Writers: Change Your Spots!
By Ann Whitley
You might say that Rudyard Kipling’s story about how the leopard
got his spots is a parable for the structural unemployment we are currently
experiencing in the high tech industry in Oregon. As the story goes, two
successful hunters, an Ethiopian man and a leopard, suddenly find themselves
without game to hunt on their regular hunting grounds. When they ask an
oracle, “Where have all the game gone?” The oracle replies,
“I suggest you get into another spot.” In other words, it’s
not working for us, so something has to change.
The potential need to change to another “hunting” spot by
changing jobs, industries, location, or any combination of these elements
was the theme at the February Contractor’s SIG meeting. Presenter
Dusty Moller painted a dreary picture for technical writers in the Portland
metro area, also known as Region 2 by State analysts.
Moller knows first-hand about having to “go into other spots.”
A former marketing executive in the deflated timber industry, he is now
earning about a third of his former salary as a workforce analyst for
the Oregon Employment Department. The self-proclaimed “Mr. Doom
and Gloom,” delivered an engaging but bleak forecast of the economy,
now “in its worst hiring slump in 20 years.”
So, why can’t unemployed technical writers find a job? High tech
workers are experiencing the effects of structural unemployment.
“Structural unemployment is when an industry has structurally changed,”
explained Moller. It happened in the lumber and wood products, fishing,
and aluminum industries in the last 20 years. “High tech is next
on the chopping block.”
Many professionals find themselves forced to retool and accept positions
at a much lower salary to regain employment in another industry or job
type after months of unemployment with no response to resume circulation.
Part of the problem in Oregon is that the state has outpaced the U.S.
in economic growth since the 1980s. What goes up must come down, and the
economy is currently coming down hard.
For another perspective on the problem, Moller strongly recommends comparing
the trends in the Silicon Valley with the Silicon Forest in Washington
County. Silicon Valley companies pay top dollar to attract the best and
the brightest, and employees of companies based in the Silicon Valley
working in Washington County receive a comparable wage. In the Silicon
Valley, average pay slid to $62,500 in 2002, down from $79,800 in 2000
when the national average wage was $38,400.
Several factors affect Oregon’s economy today, including cyclical
issues, H1B (foreign workers brought into the U.S. because of their lack
of skills in the U.S.), Intel stock price, a no-growth attitude, and the
attack on 9-11-01. Workers in China and India are earning as many technical
degrees as those in the U.S., but they are accepting a much lower rate
of pay for work than engineers and other technical workers in the U.S.
Because of this trend, Moller said that technical writers should expect
that when product development is transferred offshore, the job of documenting
the product will be transferred offshore also.
Another facet of structural unemployment is the “mismatch between
the needs of employers and the skills and training of the labor force,”
said Moller. “For example, if U.S. colleges train too many technical
communicators for the jobs available, some would have to find work in
Statewide employment data shows that the total number of technical writing
positions in Oregon in 2000 was 759; in 2010, 911 jobs are projected.
Currently, 332 technical writers are reportedly out of work. Moller believes
this to be a clear indication that many technical writers will need to
migrate to another occupation or industry to regain employment. (To see
reports on wages and employment projections for technical writers in Oregon,
go to http://www.qualityinfo.org/olmisj/OIC
and type “technical writer” in the search field.)
Moller listed 10 important Oregon workforce trends to consider when deciding
your next career move:
- Slow employment growth
- Labor shortages (matching skills shortages)
- Workers unable to find suitable work (skills required are changing)
- Aging workforce (delayed retirement means more competition for limited
number of jobs)
- Growing minority workforce (may require more foreign language skills)
- Increased growth of all of Oregon (immigration to Oregon)
- Continued technology growth (high tech is expected to continue with addition
of biotechnology and nanotechnology, which may create a class of high-paid
technical people and a class of service industry workers earning an annual
household income of less than $50,000)
- Continued large wage returns to education (education becoming more difficult
to obtain but greater return)
- Wage changes
- More alternative work arrangement/self employment
A survey of 2,100 Oregon businesses indicates that in 2002, larger firms
in Region 2 were much more likely than smaller firms to hire new workers.
A full 33 percent of companies in Region 2 stated a shortage of skilled
workers as the leading factor making it difficult to find qualified applicants,
compared with 43 percent statewide.The survey also found that many employers
want applicants with more supervisory and Spanish language skills, and
wish that more current employees had Spanish language skills.
The top skills sought by employers are computer software application
skills, problem solving and logical thinking skills, and interpersonal
Moller suggested that job seekers utilize the resources available at
the State of Oregon employment offices. For more on his employment recommendations
see the related article in this newsletter, “Career Advice from
the Oregon Employment Department.”
All materials distributed at this presentation are available at the Quality
Information web site http://www.qualityinfo.org/olmisj/OlmisZine.
Following is a list of materials distributed: Portland Metro Labor Trends;
Employment Projections By Industry 2000-2010 Oregon and Regional Summary;
Oregon Wage Information; Portrait of the Workforce: An Oregon Employer
Perspective (Region 2 results from the 2002 Oregon Employer Survey)
Ann Whitley is a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication.
She recently experienced job loss through a broad corporate restructuring
and is currently seeking contract and freelance opportunities. Ann has
been a technical writer in the Electronic Design Automation industry for
the past seven years. Ann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.