PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Be as versatile as a Swiss Army knife
© 2010; 2019 Michael Turney Return to
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If you're a public relations student, now is a good time to ask yourself if you've been taking a broad enough range of classes. If you're over-specializing and/or taking too many communication courses, you may be seriously hurting your future prospects.

Many public relations and other professionally-oriented college communication programs, especially those accredited by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) or the PRSA, have long limited how many credit hours of communication courses students are allowed to earn. This policy is meant to ensure that these students obtain content knowledge in several disciplines instead of focusing solely on how-to-do-it communication skills courses. It was a good idea when it originated several decades ago; today, it's absolutely critical.

Flexibility is now paramount in almost all career fields.

In his landmark book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century Thomas Friedman warned that the best and most numerous employment opportunities in the future will go to "versatilists" who are able to easily switch gears and move into a number of different types of jobs rather than to specialists with advanced and well-developed skills but whose in-depth knowledge is limited to a single field.

Friedman was certainly not the first person to suggest this. -- But, he did receive much more attention than most of the others who made similar proclamations. -- By reaching and staying on the best-selling book lists with The World Is Flat, Friedman popularized the concept of employee "versatilism" far beyond previous levels and across many more job markets.

Worker versatility and adaptability.

Friedman has always acknowledged that the term "versatilist" was not original with him. He adopted it from a 2005 analysis of the IT job market prepared by Gartner, Inc., a Connecticut-based research and consulting firm within the IT industry. Friedman, however, expanded the term's use well beyond IT and successfully associated it with virtually all job markets, not just IT.

Citing the distinctions established in the Gartner study, he described three different types of workers and outlined their perceived value to others and their adapability to future job markets. Listed in order from the least adaptable to the most adaptable, and presumably also from the least employable to the most employable, they are:

The distinction between specialists and generalists is obvious and self-evident. It's also a well-known and widely accepted distinction that has been around for a long time. And, over the years, it has trended from one end of the spectrum to the other and has been debated and argued in many professions, including communication fields such as journalism, broadcasting, and public relations.

The notion of versatilists, however, doesn't have as much history or as much public acceptance as the notion of specialists. -- Everyone inherently understands the term "specialist" even if they can't describe exactly what a specialist does. -- The term "versatilist" is less-familiar, a bit more obscure, and perhaps even mysterious. It was "coined by Gartner ... to describe the trend in the information technology world away from specialization and toward employees who are more adaptable and versatile." (p. 291) In the wake of the Gartner report, there were other articles and presentations by IT and human resources professionals who talked about "versatilist employees" but, even then, the term really didn't gain much widespread cachet until Friedman began using and popularizing it.

But, once that happened, Friedman's popularity inspired hundreds of other articles and countless follow-up studies that focused on other, diverse industries. Soon, a wide spectrum of job markets and human resource "experts" adopted this terminology and began preaching essentially the same message: Jobs of the future will predominantly go to versatilists.

Now, progressive and forward-looking colleges have jumped on the bandwagon.

Historically, there has always been a certain tension within higher education between those who sought to train students for the job market and those who sought to educate them to be the most-intelligent, best-possible version of themselves they can be. -- I won't delve into that debate here. -- Suffice it to say: those who aimed to prepare students for future careers used to train them to be specialists because that's where the best and highest-paying jobs were, and well-trained specialsts could expect to spend their entire working lives performing essentially the same kinds of tasks.

That's no longer true. Well-trained specialists are still in demand, and they can still make good money, but they can only do so as long as their jobs exist in their current form, and that may not be long. Today's job markets are much more volatile than they used to be. New jobs and duties that didn't even exist a year ago constantly pop up and demand employees with new skills and abilities. At the same time, many old jobs completely disappear (And, the people who were in them become unemployed.) because no one needs to do them any more; the products or procedures they centered on have been discontinued or have been taken over by robots or other forms of remote-controlled automation.

The days when college graduates could expect to enter a well-defined career path upon graduation and stay on that path throughout their entire work life are long gone. They jobs they were trained for in college may not even exist by the time they retire. Experts now say that most college graduates will have to transition through three, four, or even more distinct "careers" during their work life. And, they also almost universally believe that the job seekers of the future will need to be highly adaptable and versatile if they wish to remain gainfully employed and be able to keep up with the rapid changes that will continue to sweep through the job market.

If you haven't already done so, it's time to ask yourself if you're taking the necessary steps to become a versatilist who will be able to adapt to this kind of world.

If you don't like the term "versatilist," how do you feel about "Swiss Army knife?"

Joe Santana, director of training for Siemans Business Services, used it as a clever and catchy alternative to versatilist. He said job-hunters who hope to be successful in the future will "need to become less like specialty tools and more like Swiss Army knives." (p. 292)

So, how many different blades do you have, and do you keep them well-honed?

"Public relations is not about writing press releases or writing speeches, or taking photos and creating slide shows, or making films, or any of dozens of other message construction tasks. Public relations is about helping people solve problems."    --   Robert Dillenschneider, Founder/CEO of the Dillenschneider Group (New York)


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