Monday, February 27, 2006

Jobs for the recently retired

I had a career in information technology that had started in Feb. 1970 and lasted until December 2001, after getting out of the Army after my two-year hitch as a pseudo “draftee”. I was laid off only once, in Feb. 1971, after my “first” job. I was continuously employed for almost thirty-two years without disruption. I was usually an individual contributor and worked largely on mainframe business application with conventional IBM skills, like COBOL, JCL, CICS, and databases like IMS, IDMS, and DB2. The last twelve years were spent in a life insurance and annuities company that got bought twice. I benefited from the first merger, but was laid off sixteen months after the second one.

For a variety of reasons I tended to eschew competing for conventional promotions, and that might be off the subject here. I did have direct reports once, in 1988.

I want to hit the point that jobs for individual contributors, which tend to appeal more to introverted souls like me, have become more vulnerable to offshoring than jobs that place a heavy emphasis on interpersonal interaction and direct salesmanship. It’s easy to see why. Contributor jobs tend to become more automatable. Sales jobs only pay when the person sells, so they are easier to create.

So you can see the kinds of jobs that conventional wisdom might have encouraged me to pursue. Here are some examples:

(1) Become a financial planner or life insurance agent. That would be related to the fact that during my last job I did obtain a FLMI certificate from LOMA, the Life Office Management Association, by passing ten multiple choice exams. Then why not take advantage of this? I have been contacted by three companies, and one of them would have paid for all training (life insurance licenses are relatively quick to get, but selling other financial services requires a long commitment to training and many SEC licenses), and even offered training bonuses for a commission-only job.

What’s wrong will all of this? Some of the business would consist of trying to encourage a lot of people holding whole or universal life insurance policies to convert to term, and there is a big push in the life business now for this. Now doing something like this requires a lot of socialiability and social networking that typically comes from marriage and family, something that as a gay person in thirty year urban exile is inappropriate for me. In fact, one of the companies had a project where the trainee has to generate two hundred sales leads! I also have philosophical bias against making a living by peddling or hucksterizing other people’s products when I had nothing to do with them.

Furthermore, some life companies prohibit agents from having any outside income during their first few years. They say this is a legal requirement to prevent conflicts of interest and comply with new SEC rules. I have some doubts about this. Remember, until you sell, you earn zero when you have a commission-only job.

Consumers can certainly execute some simpler financial services transactions, especially term life insurance purchases, on their own without paying extra money to agents. There are plenty of websites offering comparisons. A family provider may save some money by doing his own Web research. As in many fields, the Web is certainly changing the business models for agents and requiring them to become more focused.

There are some niche markets in financial planning, however, that can be interesting, such as estate planning for same-sex couples, as recently outlined in the Feb, 2006 Robb Report Worth in an article by Frederick P. Garbiel-Deveau.

(2) Sell software. I did have a lot of experience toward the end with National Change of Address, so why not try to switch over to a sales career with a company that specializes in mailing software? Again, I’m not a peddler. That’s a whole lifestyle.

(3) Sell other things. We all know that a lot of people have tried career changes to real estate, for example, given the hot market. That’s not so bad. But I got burned by a condo in Texas in the late 1980s and have never returned to home ownership. That may have been a mistake.

(4) Teach. I did some substitute teaching in northern Virginia school systems in for eighteen months. I enjoyed many of the more mature (advanced placement and honors) high school classes in subjects like calculus, chemistry, English and social studies. I think it is useful for high school students to have some exposure to persons from the "real world" of work so that they get a more balanced view of the workplace that they will soon enter. I do believe that my mathematics background is in demand and I did pass the dreaded Praxis II exam given by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). There is, however, a big caveat for me. The greatest demand for career teachers (particularly from "career switcher" programs) is in working with younger and with disadvantaged students, particularly in special education. The job requires building appropriate emotional bonds with kids. It also requires a $4000 investment in 180 clock hours of education courses, in a state (Virginia) known to be hostile to gays and lesbians around children. This is problematical for someone who spent thirty years outside the social world of marriage and kids. This may sound like a brutal thing to say, but it is the truth.

Another variation of this could be writing examination multiple-choice questions (I have already done this once), probably this time in mathematics, or even grading free response answers.

(5) Homework ("les devoirs; la tarea"). We all know that a lot of these things are scams. Many of them require a sizable cash investments for materials and “classes” in various local hotels. One good example could be the cash flow business. This could be OK if checked out carefully enough.

(6)Keep on as an individual contributor in information technology. This is very difficult for older IT persons. You have to specialize in some very specific areas and keep up. There is a small market demand for mainframe professionals with some very specific skills, including extensive DB2 experience with certain utilities, Case tools, IMS/DC, and particularly Medicaid MMIS systems (which saw a sudden increase in 2002/2003 because of HIPAA), as well as data warehousing. Typically one needs a minimum number of years in specific skill sets. One paradoxical reason for this market is that programmers abandoned these skills and moved on, leaving a small niche for those "committed" professionals who remained. Many older professionals made an incomplete transition to client-server and were not able to get enough specialized experience (with various modern technologies like various OOP issues and Microsoft SQL Server and Visual Studio .NET) quickly enough to remain markeable in a very "pragmatic," numbers-driven gloabl job market. Many older individual contributor mainframe jobs went off-shore to places like India. An interesting situation could arise if companies decide to take mainframe operations and maintenance back, because then many of the people with available skills would be in their 50s and 60s. I don't see real evidence (in talking to recuiters) that this is likely, but it can't be ruled out. If it did happen, the length of time that former mainframe professionals had been out of the market would become an issue. But history can surprise us.

(7) Headhunt. With thirty-plus years in information technology, this would be a logical idea, to recruit employees, particularly for short-term W-2 contracts with mainframe emphasis. Recruiters do call and pressure for immediate resumes, but the openings never work out because they are not exact matches. I do think I could bring more sanity and professionalism to the information technology "headhunting" business. Doing more pre-testing and technical assessment (maybe with the help of companies like Brainbench) sounds like a good idea.

(8) Write and blog your way out. Elsewhere on links I give you can check out my books and story, and my involvement with several hot button issues such as the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for the military. All of this material suggests adaptation for motion picture screenplays, and that is an opportunity that I am pursuing. But the other major opportunity would be to become a player in solving some of the subtle problems that have occurred as newbies like me try to take advantage of the “self-promotional” opportunities offered by the Internet. The possibility of future regulation to address such issues as spam, viruses, copyright infringement, trademark, and particularly unwanted publicity for others (associated with search engines) spurs the need for large corporate players to look for individuals like me to help them figure out how to reign in on these problems and limit future regulation. This ties back to education, because one large customer of a safer Internet would be school systems and universities. That is an area that I am actively pursuing.

The perception of aging and retirement is changing. Throughout the last three decades of the Twentieth Century, the media provided increasing reports of companies encouraging people in their fifties to take early retirement, as companies did not want to bear the risk of health care costs and as they perceived older works as too inflexible and not agile enough to maintain competitiveness. That tide is certainly changing. As people live longer it is no longer economically feasible to expect them to stop earning wages in their fifties or even sixties. Furthermore, globalization and huge paradigm shifts in business associated with technology (centering around the Internet, to an extent probably not anticipated even fifteen years ago) requires workers and professionals with a wide range of life experiences associated with older ways of relating and doing business. Considerable social and practical judgment, as well as hard technical skills so much the rage ten years ago, are required to deal with the subtle problems that companies face today.

My own resume (under revision) is at this link, as well as on Dice.

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