Today’s Column: “Invisible” Work

Nearly everyday, I receive an e-mail or two from complete strangers appealing for help to find a job. Forlornly waiting in my inbox are resumes attached to such pleadings, and my heart breaks at seeing them there, frozen in cyber time, awaiting a favorable response. How many of us columnists receive such letters? The rhetoric may differ – the ones I get sound increasingly desperate and sad.

Here is my advice to those jobless and hurting – assess your skills, re-tool them for possible freelance work, and persevere until your skills sets, references and track records earn for you both job and income security. When the pickings are slim, now is not the time to be choosy. Out there, nameless, faceless, dynamic young people have gone fishing in the sea of commerce for freelance work or self-employment. Not exactly entrepreneurs but certainly different from regular employees, these “e-lancers” and “skills or knowledge providers” look for niches in the economy that would allow them to grab customers and establish their credentials.

Let me cite an example. I know of an excellent young comic book writer named Elbert who has converted his drawing talents into a viable skills set. With a blog that doubles as his portfolio, Elbert meets up with prospective clients to present his work and negotiate for projects that keep him busy, productive, and financially independent. Does he show up in our employment figures? No. But he works hard for a living, with his drawing book and negotiating skills, and is able to carve out a niche for himself. His best friend, Marcelle, offers a different skill as a disc jockey and convivial emcee. Both make enough to sustain their needs, with a little extra for videoke sessions in between.

The new economy has re-defined the meaning of “job matching.” In the olden days, perhaps just a decade ago, degree holders are matched with jobs in specific fields. A commerce graduate ends up in marketing and sales; a communications graduate makes a beeline for tri-media establishments, advertising agencies or public relations firms; and all fall neatly into categories that have standard pay scales and predictable terms and lengths of employment.

Today, we have “invisible” work, dictated by the occupational and commercial needs “of the moment”, that are too fleeting to be captured, sealed and stamped with the usual nomenclatures. We don’t find this type of work in the classified ads. But it is there, for those with the courage and skills to set forth in search of it. This is far different from the one-sided nature of labor contract agreements which tends to exploit in the name of commercial viability.

There is a downside to “invisible” work. One, you are not plugged in to a money-making machine that offers incentives for growth, standard Christmas bonuses, paid leaves, and if one is lucky, medical benefits as well. Paid work is also lonely, competitive and stressful, and one usually works at odd hours, thus blurring the lines between home and career.

With cellphones and e-mails, an “e-lancer” or freelance worker find his home life interrupted by calls related to pending projects or urgent e-mails from clients beyond our borders. Yet, by the same token, because these “skills” and “knowledge” providers are able to define the parameters of their “work”, they have greater control over quality of life issues. For example, freelance writers decide on their own when would be the best time to write and where.

Unfortunately, a huge majority of Filipinos are not plugged into the same system. The e-mails that I receive from readers in dire need of a regular job come from fresh graduates who need advice on how to get that all-important first job, or from former OFWs and workers in their late thirties to mid-forties who find themselves in a professional rut, not because they are less competent, but because some companies prefer their employees to be wrinkle-free.

Author and former labor secretary, Robert Reich, writes about this phenomenon in his book, “The Future of Success,” thusly: “An inverse relationship between creativity and age has long been established, although most of us with graying heads would rather avoid the subject. The field of mathematics is built almost entirely on the creative breakthroughs of young mathematics whizzes; great musical compositions typically come from young composers; great research, from young scientists; great poetry, from younger muses. What older people lack in creativity, they make up for in experience, wisdom, and judgment – attributes that continue to be valued, although not to the same degree as creativity. As a consequence, more older and middle-aged workers are experiencing flat or declining earnings, and middle-aged people who lose their jobs have difficulty finding new ones, even when the overall rate of unemployment is low.”

How can government extend its helping hand to the jobless in this Age of Global Deal-making and Commerce at the Speed of Thought? Thinking out of the box would help. Traditional Job Fairs can morph into Jobs and Skills Fairs, where one has the option to bring a resume, a portfolio of freelance work, or both. Certainly, quality-of-life issues must be brought out into the open and discussed. How many workers are into contractual work agreements? What do such value-for-temporary work bring to them in terms of quality of life, actual job experience, income security? Is our government attuned to these seachanges in the world of work at the policy and program level? I hope so. Most people still need to rely on government’s missionary zeal and resources for new opportunities for decent work.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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