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The Key to Preparing for the Future of Work in the Rust Belt

Workplace

The Key to Preparing for the Future of Work in the Rust Belt

by Adam Hickman and Jim Asplund
The Key to Preparing for the Future of Work in the Rust Belt

Story Highlights

  • Job loss and underemployment can cause people to lose hope for the future
  • Having a new perspective on your talents can restore that hope

When a company closes, its former employees must find a new path forward. But finding that path when all the familiar options are gone can be terrifying. This is a reality that individuals in the Rust Belt have been dealing with since the late 1970s.

I'm a native Ohioan, and it's a reality I've been watching unfold my whole life. And as technology replaces more and more human workers, it's a reality many are going to be living in the future of work.

The situation can feel paralyzing to people trying to make career decisions in a bad economy. That's an understandable response, but it's also a disastrous one. Better by far is to make job decisions based on jobs that are coming, not ones that have gone, using your own talents as a guide.

Under These Circumstances …

Making solid career decisions isn't something a lot of people actually do. In all honesty, in most Rust Belt areas, career planning is largely influenced by the town you live in, your place in the community and financial imperative. "Get a job that pays the bills, kid" is pretty typical career advice.

So people set out on a career path without much information. We adjust as we learn and as opportunities arise. That's not career planning. It's bumbling around until you land a decent job. And most of us can say that it works OK … until it doesn't.

Make job decisions based on jobs that are coming, not ones that have gone, using your own talents as a guide.

If you work in an industry that is shedding jobs, this "bumbling around" doesn't work at all. And as tough as that is on young people, it's worse for older workers with mouths to feed and mortgages to pay -- and difficult decisions to make, often with very few options. Everyone hears that education is the answer, but re-skilling and up-skilling can be questionable investments. How do you know what you should do? What you'll like? What you'll be good at? What employers really want?

Meanwhile, the manufacturing and distribution of political false hope ("Vote for me and I'll get your job back!") is a Rust Belt cottage industry. It's been going on for decades. When the jobs don't come back -- or when they do, but they're jobs no one has ever heard of or they pay half as much as the one you lost -- people become disappointed and disillusioned.

That disappointment reinforces the belief that nothing can get better because it rarely does. Or if it does, it won't happen here. At least not to you.

Under those circumstances, people lose hope that things can change.

"The Job They Know How to Do"

The loss of hope has very real effects. Former Gallup Senior Scientist Dr. Shane Lopez once defined hope as "belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so."

Underemployed and unemployed people who stop believing that things can change stop doing what's necessary to make them change.

So they put their lives in neutral. They search for jobs like the one they lost, because that job is what they know how to do. Or they hire on somewhere just to tide them over until a similar job comes around again, and they fall behind financially and emotionally. Or they start a business -- and take on a ton of debt -- to recreate the job they lost.

The common thread of this dynamic is "the job they know how to do."

But in the Rust Belt, our old familiar jobs are unlikely to return. New ones will -- manufacturing is coming back strong -- but people need different preparation for different jobs in a different economic environment.

Underemployed and unemployed people who stop believing that things can change stop doing what's necessary to make them change.

That's why hopelessness and inertia are so incredibly dangerous: They hobble people to the memory of a time that's gone and blind them to the possibilities around them.

However, every catastrophe hides an opportunity, and here's ours: We can start choosing our jobs better.

Broaden and Build

Remember, most of us didn't really choose the job we have -- bumbling around until we find something that pays the bills is the usual method of career selection.

It doesn't have to be that way. We can choose a different path. Instead of plotting our careers on dangerously outdated notions, we can make our career decisions in congruence with our own innate talents -- those patterns of thought, feeling or behavior we're all born with and that indicate our areas of greatest career potential and personal satisfaction.

Most of us don't do that. Most of us don't even know we have talents. In fact, just about everyone who takes the CliftonStrengths assessment is surprised to find their innate traits are areas of unlimited potential -- and fairly rare too. Talents are embedded so deep that they are often overlooked and undervalued, rather than recognized as unique and extraordinarily useful traits.

Matching those traits to job role is the royal road to workplace engagement. And decades of Gallup science show that people like their jobs more when they can use their talents at work. Even their physical health improves.

Talents are embedded so deep that they are often overlooked and undervalued, rather than recognized as unique and extraordinarily useful traits.

And that's great. But using talents to influence job decisions has a side benefit that's vital to Rust Belt workers: hope. People suffering a setback to their financial and career wellbeing desperately need to see that they are good at something, that they have something to offer and that the future can be different than the past.

And that sense of hope can have a ripple effect throughout the rest of a person's life.

Dr. Barb Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory finds that positive emotions spark more positive emotions that "build that individual's personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources."

In other words, positive outlooks tend to self-perpetuate.

Here in the Rust Belt, we need that spark. We understand the loss of hope and a descent into neutral. A lot of us are just waiting for our old job and old life to come back. It won't. But new, different jobs are coming, and we need to be prepared.

Many others can relate. Many more will relate in the near future. New skills are going to be necessary in the future of work.

Knowing that you're good at something -- or more precisely, great at a few things -- offers genuine hope that a worker can broaden and build on. Hope may be what we need to see the jobs market for what it is, not what it used to be, and not what false-hope politicians promise it will be. And then make career decisions that capitalize on our talents in that market.

Positive outlooks tend to self-perpetuate.

The realities of the future of work force a choice, but they offer a chance too. The chance to build careers based on your talents. The chance for new industries requiring a new kind of worker. But most of all, to those of us in the Rust Belt, the future of work offers the chance for us to make the future different than the present.

Knowing your CliftonStrengths can restore your positive outlook and prepare you for the future of work.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

Adam Hickman is a Learning Design Consultant at Gallup.

Jim Asplund is a Principal Researcher, Predictive Analytics, at Gallup.

Gallup


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