The truth is it doesn’t exist.
There are very few guarantees in life and having absolute job security is not one of them.
There is something you can do however to make yourself the very last person on your boss’ layoff list.
Stop being a commodity.
Commodities are items, that although necessary, are easily replaceable. In the context of work, it means that the skills you possess can be easily replaced by someone or something else.
I’m the boss. You are the employee whose skills are a commodity. If you aren’t performing as well as I expect I fire you and hire someone else. If I need to save money I can pay you less. If you don’t like it I’ll fire you and hire someone that is willing to work for less. This is why commodity work by its very nature doesn’t pay well and will pay even less or disappear altogether in the near future.
Commodity work = Zero Job Security
How do you recognize commodity work?
A rule of thumb is that if you can create a manual for it then it’s commodity work. After all, if I can create a set of instructions that anyone can follow, then as an employer, I want to find the cheapest labour. In a sense, I have dehumanized the work.
This is literally what happened in car manufacturing.
At first it was high skilled complex work. Then came the assembly lines.
Take a complex system and break it into simple parts. Hire cheap labor to carry out the monotonous work. The less the worker uses his mind (the human element) the cheaper (more profitable) the system.
Eventually, thanks to technological progress, car manufacturers almost completely did away with the human worker in favor of machines. This fulfilled the dehumanizing of work: Human to non-human (machine).
The scary part is that this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to blue collar work.
I see a similar trend in my line of work. Developers, working on tech that’s fairly mature, don’t get paid what they once made. Within a decade they’ve seen a significant drop in incomes. At the very least they’ll observe that there is an invisible cap.
Why is that? There surely isn’t less work. Everything is going digital. There is more code being produced than ever before. This means there is more need for programmers to maintain it. No, demand isn’t the culprit.
We have just gotten better at breaking down complex systems into simpler parts. We have started to see programmers similar to how the factory owners saw their assembly workers. If a task is repeatable and has a well defined set of instructions then it’s a good candidate to be outsources to someone that is willing to do it for less money.
We don’t want insight. We just want the labour at the cheapest rate. We’ll provide the instructions. They just have to follow.
If you find yourself in a position where you are being spoon-fed, know that you are walking on thin ice.
What is the alternative?
Become an Artist
Seth Godin calls these people that approach their work as if it were art lynchpins to signify their importance to the employer. Without them the figurative wheel of work would slide off.
In other worlds they are indispensable.
Art in this context doesn’t just refer to the creative or theatrical.
Art in this context requires something more than a manual. It requires you to be human. In a world that is becoming more machinelike what’s really needed is more humanity. Ironic but true.
Do you see your work as your canvas?
When confronted with a problem do you brainstorm creative solutions or just let your boss figure it out?
That presentation deck you worked on, is it just a boring powerpoint or is it a medium to make the audience feel something important?
You always have a choice. You can do work that is important or work that is just a means to pay the bills. How you choose determines your job security, your pay and your overall satisfaction.
Conclusion: Provide more value than has been asked from you
I wasn’t didn’t go to school for computer science. In fact, I never took a programming class before I started my career as a developer.
Everything I learned was outside of school. I did not spend years freelancing or training before my first job. I don’t consider myself a great programmer by any means even today. There are plenty of people I have worked with that have far more education, experience and technical skill. Yet, my career has progressed significantly in comparison to theirs. In fact, many of them look to me for leadership.
The thing that I realized that makes me better than them is not technical skill or anything that can be easily quantified. It’s everything else. I other words – Art.
For instance I write better emails.
Most people don’t put a lot of thought into their emails like I do. I see an email as an opportunity to create value.
I take complex problems and break them down into explanations that even the most non-technical audience can understand. I use images to illustrate my points. I copy and paste samples of code and result sets. I provide detailed solutions.
These emails help bridge the gap between all stakeholders on the project. They provide reference material that can be shared by others indefinitely. I have sent emails 2 years ago that people still use and ask me questions on when they run into an issue.
The emails also have the pleasant side effect of illustrating my communication skills to senior leadership. People view me as a subject matter expert because these emails give me a certain level of authority.
I took something everyone does every hour of every day in most organizations and transformed it into a medium that enables me to tell my story. No one asked me to do this or taught me how. There was no rule book that I followed.
Art is valuable because there are no rules. This is what makes the artist and his art valuable.
Do more than what is asked.
Put yourself into it.
Share your story.
Make your work yours.
This way your work will have your essence which makes it one of a kind -irreplaceable.
Programmers, writers, engineers etc can be replaced but YOU can’t.
On the other hand if you find yourself in a place that punishes your for making art, that discourages you from doing things differently, that wants you to only follow instructions and any deviation is frowned upon – Leave.
If you don’t then you will be forced to sooner or later. That, I can almost guarantee.