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Q & A

March 28, 1994|John O'Dell | Times staff writer

P. ANTHONY BURNHAM

President, ProActive Institute

Some by choice and others because of corporate downsizing, most U.S. workers change employers--and even careers--at least once during their working days. P. Anthony Burnham's previous position heading the reorganization of Carnation Co. ended in 1990 when his became one of the posts eliminated. So he started ProActive Institute in Costa Mesa to help people make the transition into a leaner job market. Burnham discussed the current employment situation in an interview last week with Times staff writer John O'Dell.

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Rockwell Space Systems in Seal Beach said last week it is going to an outside vendor for data processing and will lay off 70 people. Disneyland has changed its rules for retiree health benefits, and that could force scores of veteran employees to quit years earlier than they had planned. Northrop Corp. said it will lay off 3,000 workers, most of them in Los Angeles County. It doesn't seem to be a good time to be an employee.

It's the only time we've got and if you are prepared, it can be an exciting time. If someone suggested just three years ago that a company like Rockwell would hire out its data processing, they'd have been laughed at. That's letting outsiders deal with the lifeblood of a business. But that's where we're at now, and we are never going back.

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So where's the excitement? Aren't we talking about layoffs and a lack of job security?

We are really looking at a more secure future. In this new job market, the only important thing is results. You, as the employee, must be able to quantify the results you can obtain for an employer. The employer hires you to achieve those results, and you have a job until you no longer produce results or until the employer no longer needs the kinds of results you are capable of producing. Security comes from the results we accomplish and the knowledge that we really are working for ourselves.

We talk about the new workplace, but the truth is that there is nothing new. We are just going back to basics. The 1960s, '70s and '80s spoiled us because we got dependent on someone else--the employer, the corporation--to provide security for us. It was our tenure, not what we contributed on a daily basis, that determined our job security.

The only thing uncomfortable about the "new" employment market is that it puts responsibility and accountability back on the individual, and we're not used to that. But think about the pioneers, even our grandparents and great-grandparents. They struck out and did what they had to do, and nobody was holding their hands. They would be shocked at how spoiled we have become. And now we are going back to that kind of very basic approach. We're going back to reality, to our roots as individual entrepreneurs.

And when you understand that and understand that you really do work for yourself and are responsible for marketing yourself and training yourself, then you have gone a long way to being secure.

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Won't the continual turnover of employees cost employers more in training than they'll save on the payroll?

No. Changes in technology already mean that employers are offering constant training. The people taking advantage of it are the employees they want. And as we move forward, more and more employees are going to insist on training, maybe even if it means less direct pay, because the trade-off is they will be better prepared for the next generation of jobs, and that will make them more secure.

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How do we learn to shed our old habits?

The trend in Orange County, as in much of the country, is that business is moving from production jobs to service jobs. But whether you are an assembly line worker or an accountant or a middle manager, what you have got to be able to do today is to quantify your accomplishments.

You have got to be able to tell prospective employers how productive you are and how your productivity can transfer from one employment engagement to another.

The basic skills for this are the ability to communicate well, in writing and verbally. Workers are so bad at this these days that it can give you a big competitive edge just to be able to talk and think in terms of the results you have obtained in an old position and how you can apply them to a new position.

Time is money. That's a cliche, but it's never been truer. Companies are doing more with fewer people; that's the whole flattened organization concept. There are fewer people to focus on the same or even more projects, and the work's got to be done quickly, so you've got to have precise communications to make it work.

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What about actual job skills? Aren't they important?

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