The Rise of the Privileged Worker

This article was originally published here

10/20/2008 5:46:15 PM

Look around at the increasing rate of unemployment, and it may seem like an odd time to be talking about “privileged workers.” The conventional wisdom, of course, is that, other than overpaid CEOs, there are few people today who would qualify for such a title. And, I would respectfully suggest that exactly the opposite is true. At this very moment, U.S. employers are starved for certain kinds of talent, and their desperation has created a new class of workers in this country, a class that enjoys a uniquely privileged position in the workplace.

Who are these workers? This privileged class includes two kinds of people:

  • Those who have hard-to-find skills that are critical to the effective operation of either the modern enterprise or our modern society. These skills range from forensic accounting through engineering and nursing to java programming and veterinary medicine.


  • Those who are superior performers. These individuals can be counted on not only to sustain a high level of contribution in their own work, but also to encourage and often enable the same high level of output by their coworkers. Regardless of their profession, craft or trade, they bring excellence to the workplace every single day.

    These kinds of workers are so hard to find and, once hired, so challenging to retain, that employers are now giving them very special treatment. For example, privileged workers will often be offered sign-on bonuses. They will be paid above the market average for their field. They will be given the most interesting and challenging assignments. They will be encouraged to attend training courses and academic programs almost always at the employer’s expense. They will be allowed to work a flexible schedule or even to telecommute. And, they will be the very last identified for a staff reduction.

    These advantages of the privileged class would be unfair, except for one telling factor: Everyone in the workforce has the inherent capacity to acquire a hard-to-find skill, become an exceptional performer or both. In other words, in the 21st Century workplace, privilege among workers is not bestowed by society or even by an organization; it is acquired by the individual. Privilege is a distinction that each of us can decide to enjoy or not, depending on how we manage our own careers.

    Historically, of course, that wasn’t the case. Until the turn of this century, it was our employers that determined where and how far we went in our careers. We had no option but to scale career ladders they created and to receive only the privileges they pegged to each rung on those ladders. Whether it was the size of our office or our paycheck, whether it was the quality of our training opportunities at work or how near our parking space was to the door, we were only as privileged as our employers said we could be.

    They could get away with that kind of behavior because in the 20th Century:

  • there was much less technology and complexity in the workplace so they didn’t need a workforce with highly specialized skills; and
  • there was much less competition in the marketplace so they were able to succeed with a lower performing workforce.

    Today, however, neither of those situations still exists. In our current business environment, employers will fail and fail quickly without highly skilled and high performing workers. That reality alone, however, would not create a privileged class of worker. There is one other factor that transforms this demand shift among employers into a potential status shift for every single American worker. That factor is scarcity. There simply aren’t enough workers who have a hard-to-find skill and/or a commitment to excellence to go around. And it’s that demand-supply mismatch which creates today’s privileged worker.

    Think of it as a window of opportunity for every single person in the American workforce. Privileged workers are a special class, but that class is completely democratic. Each of us decides whether we want to be a privileged worker. The career ladder is gone. We will probably work for ten-to-twelve different employers and in fifteen-to-twenty different jobs during our careers. In fact, we may even work in two or three different careers.

    What’s replaced the ladder, therefore, is a career jungle gym. With that kind of structure, there is no one prescribed way to reach our destination and; indeed, there is no prescribed destination. We decide where we’re going, and we decide how we’re going to get there. The talent we demonstrate in accomplishing those two tasks will determine whether we will enjoy or miss out on the advantages of privilege.

    Thanks for reading,

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