Fields Of Dreams

Geoffrey Hunt does a lousy impression of Mr. McGuire, the character in "The Graduate" who doles out cinema's most famous piece of career counsel ("Just one word... 'Plastics' "). But after 22 years at Osram Sylvania, the lighting company where Hunt is human-resources vice president, he's seen enough career faddism to know that good advice can't be reduced to a single buzzword. He remembers the oil crisis of the late '70s, when petroleum engineering took a turn as the hot specialty. And he recalls the '80s and '90s, when companies lusted after an ever-changing lineup of high-tech specialties from Java to SAP. He's glad to see that notions of a ballyhooed "free agent'' work force that hopped between jobs like itinerant tradesmen have faded as quickly as the Pets.com sock puppet. Hunt is hoping his future hires stick around. "We're looking for people who want to make a career with us for 20 or 25 years, who are prepared to reinvent themselves many times over that career,'' he says.

Technology itself is going through a reinvention these days. The word no longer causes fireworks in the NASDAQ. But it has many new faces. It's the science and the innovation that are creating growth and opportunities in diverse fields like nanotechnology, biometrics, solar energy and biotech. And it's the behind-the-scenes wizardry that is developing devices to help the elderly maintain their independence longer. While these industries aren't immune to the effects of a sluggish economy, their long-term growth potential seems strong enough to offer opportunities for job seekers.

This seems an unlikely time for workers to be taking that long view. Regardless of whether the sputtering economy is still in recession, poised for a "double dip" or just mired in a "jobless recovery," many workers are too busy holding onto the jobs they have to lay elaborate plans for their next one. Indeed, most of the folks plotting career changes today probably didn't volunteer; they're among the 1 million-plus people who've lost their jobs since the economy began its slowdown two years ago. They have their work cut out for them. The nation's unemployment rate stood at 5.7 percent in August, and outplacement experts expect to be busy through the end of the year. Some economists believe it could be a year before companies begin large-scale hiring again.

Despite the dearth of help-wanted ads, this is no time to stop thinking strategically about your career. Even as they manage through a moribund economy, good chief executives are laying the groundwork for their companies to prosper when things pick up. Smart employees and job seekers are doing the same. Today that's likely to mean acquiring more high-tech skills; among career experts, the new mantra is that "every job is a high-tech job." That's even true on the factory floor at Osram Sylvania plants, where workers are spending less time driving forklifts and more time implementing statistical programs to improve quality. "People tend to think hourly workers don't need computer literacy because they don't have a desk or a PC plugged into the network," Hunt says. "But they spend most of their day looking at a screen using an engineering application," which can require more training than using a word-processing program. White-collar types will need to be open to learning technologies that may not exist these days.

Many job seekers are trying to stay a step ahead of employers' heightened expectations for richly varied resumes. After graduating with a B.A. in applied mathematics from Berkeley eight years ago, Cord Hedegard spent six years at Merrill Lynch in New York, managing Sybase databases. When Sybase fell in popularity, he returned to California to learn to run Oracle databases. But in this job market, companies are looking for three to five years of experience on top of that certification, so Hedegard, 31, has started preparing for the CPA exam with the hope that a combination of technical and accounting skills will help him stand out from the crowd.

For Hedegard and the millions of others left looking for the right opportunity, there's hope in the long view. Lots of experts foresee structural shifts in the work force that will once again give skilled labor new leverage in hunting for the perfect job. Listen to Jeff Taylor, founder of the employment firm Monster.com, do the math: 70 million baby boomers will retire in the next 15 years, with only 40 million workers ready to replace them. Despite the soft labor markets, shortages are already showing up in fields like teaching and nursing, which are themselves requiring aspirants to be more technologically adept than ever. "If you broaden beyond technology to look at all knowledge workers, there are going to be massive shortages, the worst labor shortages in our history," Taylor says. While causing headaches for employers, that situation could raise wages, reduce unemployment and give skilled workers another taste of the power they enjoyed during the "talent wars" of the '90s. Economic predictions don't always pan out, and this nirvana may not materialize. But amid layoffs and salary freezes, isn't it nice to contemplate?