Feeling spooked?

Have you been experiencing what economists call a "state of disequilibrium" lately?

Feeling spooked by the endless rounds of layoffs?

Join the club. Everyone is having trouble understanding an economy that supposedly is on the road to recovery, yet keeps destroying jobs. Since March, 2001, 2.1 million jobs have been lost in the U.S. New work, meanwhile, can be hard to find. In the past year, almost 2.8 million people have run through their unemployment benefits. And educated employees, such as environmental health and safety managers, are having a tough go of it. Of almost two million workers who have been unemployed for at least half a year, one in five is a former executive, manager, or professional, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project.

Specific technical expertise can be something of an albatross in this economy, limiting job choices. Compounding the challenge, some technical work has become a commodity, courtesy of technological advances that have dumbed down jobs like air sampling. "The art has gone out of industrial hygiene," says one IH.

That chill wind you feel has a name. It is the gale of "creative destruction." Joseph Schumpeter, a Vienna-born, Harvard-educated economist coined the term in the 1930s. He's all the rage in Washington these days. Capitalism, said Schumpeter, needs destruction in order to sustain itself. A never-ending cleansing process of sifting out loser companies and industries and reallocating resources to the winners.

Everyone from Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan to the warring parties in the Microsoft antitrust case is quoting Schumpeter. "The economy of the future is likely to be 'Schumpeterian'," observed former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers. Creative destruction will be the norm. Innovation - especially products based on ideas like music, film, software and pharmaceuticals - will drive wealth, and drain capital from stagnating old-line industries.

This is true of the safety and health field, too. Most of the popular, and profitable, developments in this mature field in recent years have been based on ideas: behavior-based certified by auditors, Internet-based "distance learning" courses, electronic networks of specialized consultants, web-based MSDS libraries, downloadable safety programs and "e-tools", Intranet-based corporate safety communications and reporting, electronic data collection, wireless hand-held auditing devices and monitoring instrument networks…

Professional mutation

An industrial hygienist in his 40s, who shall remain nameless for the sake of his privacy, is at this moment taking stock after the recent mega-merger between his employer, for whom he's worked most of his adult life, and a competitor. "It's good for shareholders in the long run, lousy for employees," he says. "For every winner, there will be ten losers, some who will lose their jobs, be transferred or retooled.

"I feel a chapter is ending and beginning in my life with the passing of this deal. I'm carefully weighing my options and opportunities in this new world." The Wall Street Journal calls it "a new economic order."

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