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Skills, sustainability, security

Scrambling to keep up:
New media careerists

iconOften thought of as the new aristocracy of future-work, the "IT Napoleons," according to a new study from Cornell and the Employment Policy Foundation, aren't all on a royal roll. See all those books? Where do you think these careerists get their training for what they do? Click here and we'll show you.  

February 22, 2001
Web posted at: 8:52 a.m. EST (1352 GMT)

In this story:

Urban renewal

Higher education

Familiar territory

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(CNN) -- "What I found is that among this group, what it takes to be successful is enormous -- in terms of hours of work, keeping up with your skills. They reported, for example, that they do 13.5 hours of unpaid work time each week for training. You have to work that hard to keep up."

What Rosemary Batt is talking about is a type worker many of us see as standing on top of the world -- the "new media" worker in New York's "Silicon Alley." You've met this person before in artist Olafur Petursson's "IT Napoleon" caricatures. Our caped little prince is usually thought to be the conquering keyboardist, a careerist with no worries for the future. Today, he's swamped by books -- the manuals of new and constantly updating technologies piling up around him.

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Batt and Susan Christopherson, who teach at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, paint a picture some will find surprising. They and two colleagues, Ned Rightor and Danielle van Jaarsveld, have led the research on a study just published by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

"There's this idea of employment security" among careerists who work in CD-ROMs, Web design, the Internet, Batt says. "These people are doing really well," although with a gender discrepancy in pay -- men making an average some $56 per hour, women about $43 per hour.

"And yet there's a constant undercurrent of worry about 'where's the next job?' This is a growth industry. And yet because this is also a project-based industry, there's this scramble to constantly have your eye out for the next job.

"Only about half these people's time is devoted to productive, creative work. The other half is devoted to looking for new work, managing relationships with clients -- so that next work will come their way -- or administrative things."


Urban renewal

"Net Working -- Work Patterns and Work Force Policies for the New Media Industry" is a report that sorts into three "challenges" the struggles faced by workers in these digital fields.

The skills challenge, the report's summary says, recognizes that "new media workers are largely self-taught and invest a significant amount of learning and upgrading their skills. " So informal an approach, the report says, can make it hard for employers to assess skills. and it can mean the most successful new media worker is a "hybrid professional" who can deploy both technical (IT, or information technology) skills and more traditional business approaches.

graphic After reading about the findings of the Cornell study on new media workers, are you surprised at its findings about conditions in the field?

Yeah, I'd thought these gigs were cushier than this study makes them seem.
I'm not shocked, but some details -- maybe the job-loss fears among folks who usually look like surefire hires -- are pretty sobering.
No. Anybody close to "Net working," as this report calls it, knows the glamour has outstripped the truth for a few years. Now reality is catching up, that's all.
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The sustainability challenge is defined by the study as recognition of the project-by-project basis for new media workers' employment. Not unlike stage actors whose jobs terminate when shows close, new media workers' tenure is up when the work is done. And "full time does not mean long term," says the report's summary. Even these independent contractors who are given full-time gigs will discover that those jobs last an average of only six months.

And the security challenge has to do with the question not only of job security but also of widespread dissatisfaction with pay rates and benefits. Among those studied, only 77 percent of full-time professionals said they receive basic health insurance from their employers; only 63 percent said they have some kind of retirement plan from the primary employer; 55 percent have a deferred income plan -- profit sharing or stock options.

Here's the collapse of another asset many people may say is enjoyed by careerists in new media: mobility.

"There's a very strong reason," says Susan Christopherson, "for these workers to be concentrated in certain cities and not be spaceless and placeless, as the industry is typically portrayed." Christopherson directs Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning.

graphic Will the world beat that proverbial path to your door if you build some better software? Design a better Web site? Get into digital moviemaking? Have a look at what respondents told Cornell researchers they're doing to find jobs in new media. Hint: They're not waiting for the phone to ring.

"In New York, it's financial services and marketing and advertising. In L.A., it's motion pictures. In San Francisco, software. What happens is that the work forces in these cities develop industry-specific skills. They also develop industry knowledge and they know their customers. They tend to want to stay in their regions.

"Employers want to hire in those regions, so they can avoid paying moving expenses for workers they'll keep only for about six months. So most of the work is project-based and very regional."

Not quite the "you can go anywhere you want to" image of happy cyber-nomads telecommuting their way across the countryside.


Higher education

Batt, who teaches in Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School, focused in the research on the statistical side of the report. "You don't feel sorry for people making $100,000." And by comparison to most workers in the United States, "these people are doing well. And yet the very nature of the way the industry is structured creates ongoing uncertainty about employment and growth."

Christopherson is working on a book tentatively titled, "The Geography of the New Economy." Its central concept, she says, "is the rise of the city because of the need for people to interact in this information economy."

graphic Some may think of new media workers as careerists who walk out of an intense training program and into a computer lab. In truth, the training might be a lot less structured than that.

And the special perspective the book project provides has led Christopherson to think about the place of networking in the careers of new media workers.

"As people move up their careers," she says, "they go from longer-term jobs to being an independent contractor." And this is the de facto American dream of the new media worker: "The ideal is to be an independent contractor with such good ties that you're stable and can depend on it."

The key to this, she says, is networking as the workers move from project to project. "Most successful people in this (new media) and other industries are independent contractors -- like actors in a theater ensemble, changing roles from job to job."

In networking, Christopherson says, women in new media careers "are more reliant on professional associations. The established men and women are dependent on personal networks. But professional associations help people make those professional networks.

"But you see men rise to the top of the profession -- they're better connected, have better personal networks, don't take time out for families as much as women do."


Familiar territory

"This seems to be," says Batt, "an environment that's biased toward youth. And yet in our research, we found our study group was divided into thirds -- a third in their 20s, a third in their 30s, a third in their 40s. Only 20 percent had dependents.

"This suggests to me that new media workers are in an environment in which it's difficult to have a family. The people we surveyed seem to love their jobs. But the number of tradeoffs" like putting your child-bearing years into the job -- "surprised us."

graphic The bell rings -- and you're on your own. One of the most striking findings of the Cornell study on new media workers is how thoroughly their training depends on their own initiative and outlays of personal time.Have a look.

"Very often," Christopherson says, "this industry is stereotyped as being pierced and tattooed and wearing Mohawks. In truth, there's tremendous variety, including people strongly attached to traditional media -- graphics artists, one of whom called going into new media 'like going from 2-D to 3-D.'"

As for job availability -- even in a market slammed by anti-tech sentiment on Wall Street -- "sales-and-tech or marketing-and-tech people, the 'hybrid professionals,'" Christopherson says, "can still find work, there's no danger of being unemployed. And the people who are established independent contractors, working for large clients and firms, they're in good shape," even if they tend to wake up in the cold sweats of job-loss nightmares.

"The group that has the problem," she says, "is people working for small dot-com startups and those with limited skills.

"The future of this industry," Christopherson says, "in the long term is very positive. But it's going to be in larger firms. And a lot of employment will be connected to the B-to-B sector" of business-to-business services."


Digital dauphins: Youth vs. age in tech
January 30, 2001
Seniors at work: What retirement?
January 23, 2001
IT grads in play: Primed, picky, patient
January 19, 2001
Crowning careers: IT workers still rule
December 26, 2000
Employers harvest the dot-com discontent
November 1, 2000
Supreme Court debates whether states subject to law banning age bias
October 13, 1999

Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning
Employment Policy Foundation

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