Unemployment at the Movies

If you haven't yet seen "The Company Men" with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner and don't need a lot of laughs, it's a worthwhile flick about the U.S. economic problems of late. The plot centers on a successful sales executive who gets the boot from a Massachusetts conglomerate that started out as a manufacturer of ships. A wholesale layoff of otherwise talented professionals still leaves the company exposed to a hostile takeover so another round or two ensues, with Affleck's boss ultimately getting the pink slip from his lover, played by a glamourous Maria Bello. (Hey, it's the Hollywood version of Corporate America.)

Similar to "Up In The Air" with George Clooney, this film's message seems to be that management is bad, labor is good and that family is what really counts. While I wholeheartedly endorse the message about counting one's blessings in the form of loved ones, friends and colleagues, I'm agnostic about the general "we versus them" theme and prefer to consider one company at a time.

If we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that production is increasingly mobile across borders. Beyond that, C-level leaders in the United States have a legal duty to their shareholders to create wealth (which is not necessarily the same thing as boosting the bottom line but that's a topic for another day). While I am not alone in opining that well-run companies recognize the importance of human capital (employees, clients, vendors) and that is why they can generate healthy returns for their investors, it is also important that individuals retool as often as is necessary to remain competitive.

In 2002, Daniel H. Pink extolled the virtues of independence in his best selling book entitled Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself. The numbers speak for themselves with a continued increase in freelancers, temps, affiliated parties and smaller consulting networks that work from home or close by, create their own revenue path and are happy campers. However, for those who desire more stability and structure by working for larger employers, the concept of free agent is still worth pondering. Specifically, if your industry is changing around you, maybe it's time to take stock of how you stack up against others. My dad, now a retired engineer, went through this process about fifteen years ago when he took it upon himself to study computer assisted design at night since younger hires were facile with the newer technology tools and he was not.

As a young banker, I had a boss who urged me to think of myself as a box of raisin bran. Every year, he told me to figure out how to be "new and improved." I would complete a skills inventory checklist and then commit to improve as needed.

"The Company Men" was an enjoyable cinematic outing and a great reminder that dues paying never stops. Learning and career development is a lifetime endeavor, especially now. With longer lifespans and, for millions of people, the need and/or desire to work beyond 65 years of age, it is critical to stay current with requisite skills and experience.