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Is It Time for a Career “Plan B”?


It has been two years since the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009 and economic expansion began again. However, the US economy clearly isn't back to where it was at the end of the last boom in 2007. And, there are a lot of signs it is not getting there any time soon in some areas of the country, jobs, and industries.

How is your career coming along? If you are one of the many people who have been looking for work for the last two years and not finding the job you want, it may be time to take stock and adjust your goals. Simply put, you may need to move, switch industries, take a lower paying job, or all three, to get back into the workforce.

Curious about your current career and your position in the labor market? Complete a simple PayScale Salary Survey to see how you compares to others like you.

Location, Location, Location

Despite the tendency of the media to focus on single numbers, like the current 9.2 percent national unemployment rate, we really live in many different economies:

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  • Looking for work in North Dakota or New Hampshire? With unemployment rates back below 5 percent, both have employment situations consistent with what economists call "full employment"; pretty much everyone looking for work can find it.
  • Looking for work in California or Nevada? With unemployment rates still around 12 percent statewide and even higher in some cities, there is a lot of competition for most every job opening.

Employment by Industry

Even if you are in a state that is doing better than average, you still may be waiting for a job that is never going to come. It is not just about location, it is also about the industry you are in.

For example, nationally, construction unemployment is still over 15 percent in June 2011, though this is down from 20 percent a year earlier. That improvement is not because there are more jobs in construction. Total construction employment nationally actually dropped 1 percent from a year ago.

How is it possible for the construction unemployment rate to be down 5 percent, when the number of jobs available is also down? Basically 6 percent of people who used to be looking for work in the construction industry gave up.

Which brings us to a key question you must consider: Are you like one of the 6 percent in construction who recognized the jobs are not coming back and went for Plan B? Perhaps you decided to look for a job in healthcare or computer manufacturing, both with over 2 percent more jobs this year than last?

Or are you one of the 15 percent still waiting for a rebound in construction that is still many years away?

Embrace the Pay Cut

Besides looking for a job in a location and industry that is actually hiring, the third piece of realism is about what level of pay you can expect.

An example of this is mortgage originator. Back before the financial collapse, these employees found the (sometimes sub-prime) customers to take a mortgage for one of the many new houses being built. With healthy commissions (frequently 1 percent of the value of the mortgage), it was not uncommon for a mortgage originator to earn a six-figure salary.

While the job of mortgage originator still exists, and can pay well, the total number of people needed is dramatically lower today. People moving out of this job will have to recognize that, while their sales and financial knowledge may be useful, it may be hard to find an employer who can afford to pay like Washington Mutual did. Arguably, even Washington Mutual couldn't afford to pay as it did during the boom, since it went bankrupt.

Make a Change

Change is hard, but change is what America has always been about. Just before the Civil War, the hot job of the day was steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. As Mark Twain explained, these river experts were in high demand, easily earning more than $100,000 per year in today's dollars.

However, between the Civil War shutting down commerce on the Mississippi, and the expansion of railroads making steamboats obsolete, by the end of the Civil War this job had basically disappeared. Mark Twain went on to be a successful writer (after being a poorly paid newspaper editor) when he recognized his dream job of steamboat pilot was no more.

Look hard at your "dream job." If it is still out there, make sure you are looking in the right locations, industries, and with a realistic expectation of pay to land it.


Al Lee
Director of Quantitative Analysis, PayScale, Inc.

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