The New Boss in the New Workplace - It's You

Meet the self-managers, the newest breed of employees: a boon to the company that hires them and a potent threat to the executives who once supervised them.

They are the smart ones - those who survived the recent waves of downsizing both by seeking and capitalizing on new opportunities and by learning new skills.

And along with this new breed of employees comes a shift in management strategies. More executives and managers will find their jobs in jeopardy and considered redundant, while self-managing front-line workers become highly valued and virtually fireproof.

Self survivors

Self-managers are today's downsizing survivors because they know how to take care of business and protect their jobs.

Everyone should strive to become self-managed. It is clearly the direction business is taking.

Donald Ratajczak, director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center in Atlanta, concurs: "Employees today have better technological tools and better knowledge. With e-mail, a guy on the shop floor can talk with the company president. That kind of communication helps collapse layers of management."

Allan Csiky, director of communications at Raytheon in Lexington, Mass., works closely with human resource executives. "Certain layers of management do not add value; they add cost because they slow things down," he says.

"The trend toward more self-management is largely because workers are better educated than in the past," he adds. Even in manufacturing jobs, employees increasingly tackle responsibilities such as running operations, meeting company goals, and cutting costs.

A 1996 workplace survey by my firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, showed that employers want workers with more training and higher skill levels. For instance, a Virginia soft-goods plant plans to restaff with a work force that is 25 percent college educated.

Bethlehem Steel tests factory job applicants in literacy, math, and social skills. Of those who pass, only 20 percent are hired.

Today, 25 percent of the nation's 19 million factory workers have finished a year or two of college, up from 17 percent in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 19 percent have college diplomas today, versus 16 percent a decade ago.

Because employees increasingly possess the skills to supervise themselves, individually or in teams, they are eliminating the need for layers of management.

As a result, the number of discharged individuals who earned $60,000 or more in their previous jobs rose from 28 percent of job seekers in 1986 to 60 percent in 1996, according to another Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey.

After years of cutting rank-and-file positions, companies now possess a leaner, highly skilled core of front-line workers, many with the training to find solutions and initiate self-management.

Technology and education

At a California-based computer products company, a human resource executive notes that "technology gives workers access to more information, and they can use that information to chart their progress and supervise themselves. In many organizations, managers have become redundant."

The employee who can perform at peak levels while sharing some management responsibility stands to be highly valued and secure.

* John A. Challenger is executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago, an international outplacement consulting firm.

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