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20 Years Ago Today (And 20 Years In The Future)

January 27, 2017

Photo courtesy of Nate Steiner

On January 27, 1997, I decided to take a marketing job at one of the oldest companies in the United States, AT&T. I remember walking with a crowd of my co-workers into an elevator that day, hearing its doors close, and thinking, “This is going to be hell.”

And it was — at least for me. Some people belonged there and were perfectly happy with it.

If you’re somebody who likes clear boundaries and knowing where you stand, a company like AT&T is for you. You show up at 9am and not a minute later. Your lunch break is 60 minutes, not 61 minutes. And if you’re a union employee, you get raises based on “credited service,” not skills.

Guaranteed raises and benefits via a great labor contract has its benefits. The main downside for a lot of the union guys working under contracts was that they were eventually replaced via technology.

As an example, I met a woman who was an “operator.” More or less, for 20 years, she’d sat in a cubicle and looked up phone numbers for the people who dialed her.

That was it. People would call her at 411, she’d answer the calls with, “What listing please?”, and give callers the phone numbers they were looking for.

Then technology happened, like one that took customer requests via recordings, similar to leaving a voice mail, and basically turned her into a voice-recognition service who would patch them through without talking to them at all.

And the Internet. It’s much quicker to look up phone numbers online than call somebody.

They were trying to retrain her, but she lacked the skills to do anything the company currently needed. Even basic computer skills were beyond where she was at the time.

It Happens Everywhere (And It’s Happening Now)

This has happened in every industry I’ve worked it. It happened (and continues to happen) in the music business, it’s happening in film and television businesses, and it’s happening in marketing.

What used to work no longer works.

“Manufacturing” isn’t coming back to the United States. Coal mining can’t compete with renewable (and cleaner) energy sources. The glory days of video arcades, record stores, and film processing are behind us.

Change is happening everywhere and the only thing we can do is change with it. Even AT&T, a well-established and “too big to fail” company is embracing it.

What are you doing to keep your skill set relevant? Would love to hear from you via Twitter.

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