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CUTTING-EDGE CAREERS

The New Way We Work : Rapidly changing technology is forcing individuals to alter the way they think about their careers and how to manage them.

February 26, 1996|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Arturo Salazar went to work as a Caltrans engineer straight out of USC in 1980, his tools were pen, ink and paper.

How times have changed.

Today Salazar lays out highway curves and calculates embankments exclusively on computers in his downtown Los Angeles office. And he sits on task forces aimed at helping California Department of Transportation civil engineers, many in their 50s, make the transition to using computer-aided design, or CAD.

"Sooner or later, computers catch up with people," Salazar said.

Indeed, computers have caught up with most working Americans in the last two decades. And with blinding speed they and other technological gadgets have profoundly changed where and how people work and even the way corporations are organized. As a result, individuals are being forced to adjust the way they think about their careers and how to manage them.

Gone are the days of the so-called corporate contract, when bright-eyed college graduates who worked hard and remained loyal to an employer could count on steadily climbing a prescribed corporate ladder, ending up in a snazzy corner office with view. To quote management guru Peter F. Drucker, from his new book, "Managing in a Time of Great Change": "The stepladder is gone, and there's not even the implied structure of an industry's rope ladder. It's more like vines, and you bring your own machete."

In many organizations, vertical ascents have been supplanted by lateral moves. Titles have become passe as companies responding to the lean-and-mean mandate have stripped away layers of middle managers. Increasingly, prospective employers ask candidates not for a list of their job titles but for descriptions of how they have used technology in creative ways to benefit the bottom line.

The era of the paternalistic boss who shepherded proteges through the corporate maze is over--probably for good. Waves of layoffs among major corporations in the last decade--a trend that appears to be intensifying after a period of decline--have spawned a fast-growing class of contract workers, entrepreneurs and self-employed consultants. These and other workers are finding that they must fend for themselves in directing their careers--and that technological skills are a must.

"In the final analysis, it's up to individuals to continue to reinvent themselves," said Sidney E. Harris, dean of the Peter F. Drucker graduate management center of the Claremont Graduate School. "That responsibility has never been greater."

The traditional pyramid structure of companies--thick at the bottom with blue-collar workers and narrow at the top with white-collar supervisors--has been replaced by what one consultant refers to as "the diamond"--thick in the middle with service providers and other self-supervising workers who produce revenue, and thin on support staff and executives.

Those folks in the middle advance their careers not by specializing, as in the old days, but by developing an array of technological and people-oriented skills--while remaining ever-cognizant of the increasingly global nature of business. A software engineer at a digital telecommunications company, for example, might find himself marketing the products he devises to clients overseas.

"You come in with a lead skill, but as your career develops you need to be open to other windows," said William A. Charland Jr., who wrote about the diamond configuration in his 1993 book "Career Shifting: Starting Over in a Changing Economy."

"If you keep growing on those paths, which I think makes for a more interesting career anyway, then your career is going to be more manageable," he added.

The challenge is keeping a daily workload under control while juggling instruction in new technologies.

"It is an ongoing struggle," said Susan Morris, a Phoenix consultant. "People are working 12-hour days to accomplish this."

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The nation's 1,200 community colleges, Charland said, are taking up the gauntlet. At those institutions, entering students commonly have a four-year degree or even a master's degree in business but turn to local schools for short courses in practical, technical skills.

"Sometimes," Charland said, "the first skill people need to learn is typing."

Steve Wade, 47, a certified public accountant in Fremont, Calif., found that out the hard way.

"When I started in business, the people who input the information were clerks," Wade said. "Today, we don't have input clerks. It's CPAs and MBAs who do their own inputting."

Five years ago, Wade, then the chief financial officer for a high-tech start-up company, did not know how to use a computer. When the company ran out of money, Wade began marketing himself as a CFO for hire and now does computerized spreadsheets for three fledgling technology companies.

"Start-ups today are flat [in structure], no doubt about it," he said. "If there are 30 employees, 28 are knowledge employees. Everyone does his own typing and financial analysis.

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