A Bi-Monthly Newsletter
Volume 6, Issue 3, May 2003
Careers & Education
The TechComm Job Market: Past, Present, Future
Before I launch into my opinions of trends for the technical communication field, I feel I should provide a bit of context for my comments. I entered the industry in the late 1980s, when the PC market was just taking off. In fact, I worked for a PC manufacturer, working on the documentation launching their line of 286 computers. I’ve worked in the field through the economic downturn of 1992, the boom years of the late 1990s, and the recent downturn of 2002. My experience has given me a long look at where we’ve been, which is important when looking at where we’re going.
The number of technical writers seemed to grow exponentially in the 1990s. It was the “weatherproof” profession that grew, first because of the proliferation of software programs being created for PCs, and later because the need for technical communicators grew as the presence of the Internet became as ubiquitous as the presence of the PC.
Four important shifts happened during that time. First, the vast numbers of technical communicators working in the software industry radically shifted the focus of the profession. New, exciting trends had the technical communication community exploring exciting new trends such as single sourcing, visual communication, and document design. Second, technical writers were expected to increase their depth of skills: learning word processing to input our own text, desktop publishing software to design our own documents, and even drawing our own graphics using graphic programs—we became technical communicators, with a wider skill set and a steep learning curve. Third, these changes brought new ways of working, shorter publication cycles, and a consolidation of tasks and increasing of breadth of skills. And fourth, many of us moved into spin-off professions and though we stayed under the STC umbrella, we became content developers, and translation coordinators, defining ourselves in broader terms.
In the early 2000s, the downturn began in the telecommunications industry; it seemed like it would never bottom out. Companies made deep cuts, and technical communicators moved into adjacent career spaces to continue working in the industry—marketing communication, instructional design—or into new work such as interaction design, usability analysis, or information architecture. The STC has twenty-one Special Interest Groups, reflecting the range of work done by people who identify with some variation of technical communication.
Today, the biggest single issue seems to be unemployment. Technical communicators are looking for jobs, but the jobs aren’t coming. They’re not being listed on the job banks, and they’re not being published in the newspapers. And though the job market in North America seems to have turned a corner, far too many technical communicators are still looking for jobs instead of working. So where is the disconnect?
One of the shifts I see in the marketplace is that while there is lots of work available, there are few jobs. Companies don’t want to post an ad on a job board and get bombarded with hundreds of resumes. Right now, they don’t even want to commit to having a job. The software industry tends to be a young industry. Some of the engineers I’ve worked with are younger than my own child; I’ve reported to Engineering Directors and VPs with children the same age as my grandchildren. These professionals may have their first economic downturn, and are still smarting from the heavy lay-offs of the past couple of years. They aren’t ready to commit to a new relationship, and their CFOs aren’t confident enough about the financial picture to commit to the expense of a salary. As well, the documentation has traditionally been seen as a burdensome expense, a cost center that takes away from profits, much like accounting and human resources.
To meet this new shift in perspective, we need to shift our perspectives. Technical communicators need to think more like entrepreneurs, think of ourselves as “free agents,” and prove how investing in us will bring a return on investment for the product. We need to prove this, not just in “soft and fuzzy” terms, but also in arguments that business people understand. We’re more likely to find freelance, contract, and consulting opportunities than we are to find a Job. We know that the users’ point of view is important, and that we can affect the quality of the entire product, not just the documentation. But we haven’t been very good at proving it in ways that can be quantified for the bean counters.
Control Shift: Practice Self-Marketing
I can hear the next question in your minds: Where are these opportunities, and how do I tap into them? Herein lies the conundrum. By nature, perhaps, and by numbers, certainly, technical communicators are introverts. On the Meyers-Briggs scale, the number one profession for INTPs is writer. This doesn’t mean that we’re shy or retiring, but it does mean that we tend not to like to engage in professional socializing. We shun small talk and would rather communicate by e-mail than by schmoozing with the executive crowd. In other words, we don’t like to network. Ah yes, there’s that word again, and here’s how it plays out in the marketplace today and in the future.
We need to be able to look at our offerings differently, explain what we can contribute, and show how we enhance the product. We need to become comfortable with volunteering the cost-benefit analysis that makes companies want to write out a contract on the spot. We need to rewrite our resumes as profiles, to highlight what we can bring to the table, instead of documenting where we’ve been. Once we’ve done that, we need to network with the people who can lead us to the opportunities that exist, and the opportunities that are still just a gleam in a software developer’s eye. I notice that we tend to organize get-togethers with our peers: other communicators and job seekers in technology professions. This is socializing, but it’s not networking. These encounters rarely lead to the decision-makers. We need to work our professional selves into the same rooms where arguments are made, and where decisions are made. We need to develop relationships with people who want to know more about what we do, not because they are doing something similar, but because they can assess whether their companies need our services.
Statistics put out by various governments continue to point to technical communication as a growth profession, and as the market becomes more stabilized, there will again be more jobs. But we’ll never return to the heyday of the 1990s, when employers faced such a shortage of professional staff that they wore their desperation on their sleeves. Meanwhile, we are in a perfect position to learn yet another a new skill: marketing ourselves like the professionals we are.
Free agents: <http://www.fastcompany.com>, Keywords: free agent, entrepreneurship.
Options in technical communication: STC has 21 special interest groups, which translates to 21 professions within the umbrella of technical communication. Find the home pages for these professions at http://www.stcsig.org.
Bailie, Rahel. “Networking or Notworking.” Online posting. 2000-2002. <http://www.bailie.com/archives.htm>.
Computerworld has an entire section of Return on Investment. Use their articles as inspiration to show you can increase RoI. http://www.computerworld.com/managementtopics/roi?from=left
Rahel Bailie has fifteen years of experience in the technical communication field and another fifteen years of business-to-business and management experience. She has many years of experience publishing a wide range of material, from innovative legal self-help material to user manuals to highly technical training material. She has developed information for various sectors, producing products such as such as print and online documentation, training material, Web and intranet sites, online help, and knowledge bases. She has won many awards for both her technical communications work and innovative technical communication solutions. Rahel sits on the board of the Society for Technical Communication as the Region 7 Director-Sponsor. She re-invents herself on a regular basis. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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