I’ve been meaning to write a posting on this for a while now — and I think it’s time to do so, since I’ve had three clients call me today with questions/concerns that relate closely to this issue.

Basically, here’s what’s on the table.  Millions of Americans have been thrust out of work over this past year and have been profoundly frustrated to discover that the typical job search process isn’t working very well right now.  Despite years of documented career success, and little or no trouble in the past at finding employment, many of the folks I encounter (mostly white-collar, middle-aged professionals) are finding it extremely difficult to land a decent interview these days, much less snag themselves a viable job offer.  But to be fair, it’s not like there’s zero hiring going on right now.  As bleak as the picture may be, compared to historical hiring levels, there ARE still people getting jobs out there.  I’ve had several clients land opportunities just this past week alone, in fact, which has been wonderful to see.  On the whole, though, there’s no question about it: things are tighter than they’ve ever been and there are tons of worried souls out there trying to figure out how they’re going to weather this recession in one piece, both emotionally and financially.

So where are these current conditions leading some folks?  To the idea of career change.  I’m getting an increased number of calls from people who have convinced themselves that the best avenue to getting hired is to break completely from the past and re-invent themselves into a new occupational niche.  And many of these people are channeling week or months of time into taking assessment tests, hiring coaches, reading books, and “following their passions” in the hopes that this is going to lead them to the promised land of a new job.  While these introspective activities can be valuable, however, I honestly believe they represent only half of the equation.  To me, the solution for many individuals in transition is to not think so much about jobs, careers, or transferable skills, but to think in terms of MARKETS.

What’s a market, exactly?  A layman’s definition might be something along the lines of “Markets represent things (products or services) people are willing to pay money for in the hopes of achieving want/need satisfaction.”  Some markets have existed since the dawn of time and will always be around to a healthy degree, such as the market for food, clothing, or housing.   Or even sex, since I’d imagine the pornography industry is holding steady and raking in billions of dollars, as always.   Other markets are extremely fleeting — such as the market for pet rocks or the short-lived demand for the musical stylings of William Hung, if you recall that former contestant on American Idol whose version of the song “She Bang” could curdle milk.

At the end of the day, however, everything that is bought or sold, including employee talent, is subject to the laws of supply and demand.  It’s a job MARKET, after all.  And right now, with both companies and consumers hoarding their cash, employers are only willing to fork out funds (i.e. extend job offers) to those candidates who are able to satisfy their non-negotiable needs, versus their nice-to-have wants.  This is the critical factor that one should consider in evaluating a new career direction, in my opinion, especially if your focus needs to be on the short-term.  You can’t just rely on your internal compass to guide you.  You have to look externally, as well, and scout for pockets of market demand.  It’s not all about you.

For example, if you’re contemplating a new career direction or some fresh possibilities, make sure to ask questions like these:

•  What critical problems are companies experiencing right now or will they likely experience one, three, or five years from now?
•  What pain points are hiring managers feeling as a result of this economy?  What would “pain relief” to these people look like?
•  What new markets are being created as a result of the recession and the ways the business world has changed in recent years?
•  What’s the supply/demand curve for your current career path?  Are there occupational niches out there right now that offer a more promising ratio of openings to available candidates?
•  Are the jobs you want adequately available in your local market or are there “greener pastures” in other locations you should consider?
•  Are consumers or businesses facing any new problems or challenges that you could address in a self-employment capacity?
•  And most importantly, do you have ACTUAL EVIDENCE to support your answers to each question above, or are you just guessing?

Sounds like a lot of hard work, I know, but this kind of focused research is the only way I know to make a smart choice (i.e. remove risk from the equation) whether you’re a potential career-changer or a budding entrepreneur.  You need to exhibit fierce curiosity about the problems companies are facing these days.  You need to talk to as many business owners and executive decision-makers as possible to ask them “what’s not working?” and find out what they’re willing to pay for right now.  These are your customers.  And as much as we might wish otherwise, uncovering something you really WANT to do doesn’t automatically solve your problem — unless you can find somebody willing to pay you for it.  Hopefully, though, your research leads you down a productive path and you discover an exciting market niche (there are thousands of them out there) that works well on BOTH sides of the equation, both internal and external.

One other thought, too.  If you’re creative enough to envision a market for something that doesn’t really seem to exist, right now, this might be a rich vein of inspiration to follow, as well.  Many of the greatest companies in history, in fact, were started during recessionary times by people who spotted a consumer itch that wasn’t effectively being scratched.  If you want to read an inspiring book on this subject, discussing companies that created entirely new markets that didn’t exist before, check out Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.   And if you want to know (drum roll please!) what sectors of the labor market are red-hot, and what jobs are in MOST demand right now, I posted a LinkedIn question up a few days ago to this effect.  I’ll confess, I wasn’t terribly satisfied with the answers that have been posted so far, but it’s an interesting thread of dialogue, if nothing else.  You’ll find it here.