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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : HAPPINESS AT WORK : Like a Good Marriage, It Requires Real Effort

Rosanne Keynan is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

Career satisfaction, like marital bliss, needs nurturing, according to top career counselors. If you want happiness for years to come, don’t take your career for granted, any more than you would your mate. Even before the romance of an initial career choice dulls, they advise, prepare to work on the relationship.

How can you keep your career from becoming boring--or slipping away altogether during hard times? Have realistic expectations, they say. Plan for continual growth and change.

Realistically assess the job market and where you fit into it. Take into account a changing economy. Says Iris Morgan, career counselor at UCLA’s Placement and Career Planning Center: “Even once the recession is officially over, competition in all fields will remain stiff.”

Jerry Houser, director of the University of Southern California Career Development Center, concurs. “I always tell everyone: ‘Whether you have a college degree, keep on learning at whatever level--including adult ed classes to develop skills marketable in the new economy.’ ”

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The new economy Houser refers to is technology- and service-based, and will increasingly offer the greatest opportunity to workers with education or practical training.

David Heer, associate director of USC’s Population Research Laboratory, notes that “if you don’t have much education, all the trends are that your wages will decline. What’s been happening in the U.S. is that uneducated blue-collar workers are not keeping up with the cost of living. Skilled professionals are, if not advancing themselves.”

Even allowing for inflation, Heer calculates that the median income of male year-round workers 25 and older with one to three years of high school dropped from $27,300 in 1973 to $21,100 in 1989.

“If you’re a high school drop-out, your chances of getting even a good blue-collar job are very small,” he says. “You’re not going to be an airplane mechanic.”

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One way to increase your chances of career satisfaction is to pick a growing field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some areas that will show the fastest growth between 1988 and 2000 are:

* Health-related jobs, such as physical therapist and medical secretary. There will be 11.3 million of these by the turn of the century--including 3 million for nurses.

* Computer and data processing services. These will provide 1.2 million jobs.

* Technicians and related support positions--such as draftsmen and paralegals. This is the fastest-growing occupational group and will provide more than 5 million jobs.

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These are only projections. For example, sweeping reforms of the U.S. health-insurance system could seriously affect future employment in health-related fields.

But whatever happens, education will remain crucial. The three major occupational groups requiring the most education are: executive, managerial and administrative; professional specialties such as engineers, schoolteachers, lawyers and judicial workers, and technicians and related support occupations. These groups will provide a total of 38 million jobs.

The largest number of new jobs will be for retail sales people; almost 23 million people will work in retail trades. This is followed by registered nurses, janitors and maids, waiters and waitresses, and top executives. Eating and drinking establishments will rank among the fastest-growing industries.

On the bleaker side, the bureau estimates that about 700,000 jobs will be eliminated for machine operators, fabricators and laborers--the greatest occupational growth change in the economy. Other areas of shrinking opportunity are fishing, forestry and agriculture--especially farm work.

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Other job categories that will decline, or grow slower than in the past, are: packers and packagers, secretaries (except legal and medical), electronic equipment assemblers, freight, stock and material movers, private-household child-care workers, welders and bookkeeping clerks.

But once a bookkeeping clerk does not necessarily mean always a bookkeeping clerk. Houser says career paths are less linear than a generation ago. Young job searchers will probably experience three or four career changes over their working lives and hold an average of 10 different jobs.

For that reason, he explains, it is important to develop transferable skills. Chief among these is communication, especially to groups.

Another is the ability to assimilate and use data. “A person who can pick up a survey and present it in an intelligent way has a place in most industries,” he says.

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UCLA’s Morgan also stresses the importance of “having Plan A and Plan B.”

Increasingly, she cautions, “it is going to be the responsibility of workers to continually reassess their own skills and spot the next position.” Because of frequent corporate downsizing, workers should think of lateral moves as well as upward ones, she says. And don’t wait for layoffs to consider a change.

One employee who has begun such a process is Valerie Sayles (not her real name), who embarked on a career as a technical writer with a local aerospace firm nine years ago “because they offered me more money than somebody else and we were about to take on a mortgage.” She eventually grew bored editing proposals for government contracts. Moreover, she says, “engineers don’t understand the importance of communications.”

After listing her skills and priorities, Sayles began volunteering to take on assignments in employee communications, which utilized her language skills but distanced her from engineering. She discovered that she has a penchant for the work and enjoys it. Soon she will have a portfolio of samples and will seek full-time employment in the employee communications department of her firm or another.

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Not only corporate employees are forced to consider a Plan B. At 32, Mark Firestone was a CPA earning more than $100,000 managing money with a partner for 100 clients, including several Hollywood celebrities. But, he says, “when you manage somebody’s money, you are on call 18 hours a day. I wanted more flexibility, more control over my destiny. A human being needs a life.”

Just as burdensome, he says, was what he described as deteriorating ethics in the entertainment industry: “I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”

Two years ago, he used his financial acumen and people skills to form another partnership, an insurance agency in Beverly Hills. “It was a quality of life decision,” he says, adding: “About a third of my day is now devoted to charitable work. In the CPA business, you can’t really do that. You’re selling your hours.”

Though his family had to adjust to 15% less income the first year, Firestone says he expects to equal his previous income by the end of 1992.

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Even professionals in such exclusive fields as medicine and law are not immune from second thoughts about their careers. Obstetrician-gynecologist Jane Bening questioned the toll her professional life was exacting on her family. After six years at a health maintenance organization, she realized that “waking up at 2 in the morning to deliver other people’s babies, rather than being around my own home to take care of my own kids, just wasn’t rewarding enough.

“It was a distressing thought after 10 years of training and six years of practice to discover that I was burned out,” she says.

Bening augmented her skills by completing a certification program in sex therapy at UCLA. She recently opened a private gynecology and sex-therapy practice in Newport Beach and has a long-range goal of discussing women’s health on radio or television.

It took attorney Karen Lash less than two years at a downtown law firm to realize that she was not cut out for private practice.

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“I worked with brilliant, ethical people,” she says. “But I’ve never seen such an unhappy group as the ones who feel stuck because their mortgages and lifestyle prevent them from being able to choose an alternative.”

Lash, 30, previously clerked for a federal judge and then represented poor clients for a legal-aid service. But the low pay and grueling hours got to her.

Although she tripled her salary in private practice, Lash says, “the day-to-day satisfaction of representing anonymous corporations in business disputes couldn’t compare with the work I used to do helping real people, who otherwise would receive no assistance and stood to lose their houses or their incomes.”

Lash took stock and recently became assistant dean of the USC Law Center.

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“I took a pay cut--not as dramatic as a public-interest job would have been, but I now oversee the clinical program that involves students in poverty law and government agencies and I get to encourage law students to get involved in public service,” she says.

Are these stories too good to be true? In a tight economy, can one afford to take personal preferences or passions into account?

“Definitely,” experts say.

Says Houser: “Find something you’re interested in--even if it’s acting or the arts. Make that a part of your life, and find (another) way of earning income for now that is enjoyable, or at least not painful.”

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Morgan suggests that the first question in a career evaluation should be, “What in your job makes you happy?”

And she proposes a simple test for identifying job skills that offer fulfillment: “What takes 10 cups of coffee in the morning before you can do it versus what do you just get up and do?”


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