Several years ago, my husband and I visited Gettysburg National Military Park. As we were making our way around the battlefield on bicycle, we came across a marker indicating the place where three divisions of General James Longstreet’s corps set off on what has come to be known as Pickett’s Charge.
There we noticed that a wide path had been mowed through the tall grass to allow people to trace on foot the route of that ill-fated attack. We got off our bikes and walked them up the hill in reverent silence.
It was hard to believe that this beautiful spot, where we were surrounded by cornfields and gently swaying wildflowers and the hum of summer insects, could have been the scene of so much carnage.
The same is true today for people looking for work using job-search tactics from earlier times rather than adapting their tactics to current conditions. The result is still carnage—just carnage of a different kind.
It was even harder to believe that anyone would have left the safety of the trees on Seminary Ridge that midsummer afternoon a hundred and forty-one years ago and proceeded across more than a mile of open ground under constant artillery and rifle fire.
Yet it was a historical fact that on July 3, 1863, fifteen thousand men went up that hill and less than an hour later over sixty percent lay dead and wounded on the field and the rest returned to the woods in defeat.
One of the reasons Gettysburg was so bloody (51,112 casualties) was that, like most Civil War battles, it was fought with tactics which had been rendered obsolete by advances in technology and yet few field commanders were aware of it at the time.
Commanders on both sides had been trained in military theories based on the smoothbore musket, a weapon with not much range and even less accuracy. By the second year of the war, the smoothbore had been almost universally superseded by the rifled musket which had five times the firepower, and yet, amazingly, the tactics hadn’t changed at all!
In 1863, most commanders still thought that “the way to beat the enemy was to pile into him head on, and if a great many men were killed that way it could not be helped because to get killed was the soldier’s hard fate and it would never be any other way.” (Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, pp. 154-5).
Almost no one seemed to recognize that the advent of the rifled musket, a weapon which was five times more effective than the old smoothbore, meant that an attacking force could be broken up long before it could get close enough to be effective.
By the end of 1864, it was plain to just about everyone that well-entrenched troops with rifles could not be overcome by any frontal assault whatever, but no one seemed to understand how to apply that knowledge.
All anyone knew how to do was more and more of what wasn’t working.
The same is true today for people looking for work using job-search tactics from earlier times rather than adapting their tactics to current conditions. The result is still carnage—just carnage of a different kind. What’s being laid waste on today’s“battlefield” is talent, career goals, self-confidence, balanced lives and the hope for a better future.
In last month’s issue, I talked about a man I called John, a victim of the dot-com bust who has been looking for work for two years. John has been doing everything he’s been told to do by the experts and he’s been doing it very conscientiously. He’s been out there, week after week, sending out resumes, going to networking meetings, etc. etc.
John is like a well-trained, highly disciplined foot soldier led by commanders who think that because that’s how it was done in the last war, that’s how it ought to be done in this one.
Like most of the Civil War generals, many career “experts” haven’t caught up with the fact that rapid change in the world of work has rendered the old resume-plus-networking approach as obsolete as the smoothbore musket.Unfortunately, it’s John who’s paying the price and if he keeps going on this way, it’s possible that his self-confidence will become depleted to the point where he is no longer hirable at the level he was at before, if at all.
John is not alone. He is joined by ranks of middle-aged displaced workers, as well as a growing corps of unemployed or unhappily-employed college graduates, housewives who have gone back to work because they had to, and retirement-age boomers who need or want to continue working—not to mention those who are clinging desperately to their current jobs.
Like the soldiers on the third day at Gettysburg, John and legions of others like him are stepping out onto new and dangerous ground.
The battlefield they are now entering is completely different from the one they have been trained for and the objective they have been given to achieve—a “good job” with a “good company”—is unattainable. In an economy where whole employment categories are disappearing virtually overnight, this is no longer a safe strategy for career security.
Once it was enough to ”know your stuff“, but that’s no longer sufficient —today you need to know how to make your stuff, your value, known.Taking charge of your professional life is not just for those who want to advance in the ranks. It’s a necessity for survival for everyone.
In today’s world, John’s job-search approach is as outdated as a smoothbore musket. With his narrow, limited strategy of just getting a job, just like the one he had before, John is like one of George Pickett’s men, stepping out of the woods at Gettysburg setting off to take an entrenched position which can’t be taken the way they’ve taught him to do it.