Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli is director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The field of human resources, including job seekers and the people doing the hiring, has been in a shake up – rattled to the core by a deep and wide global recession. Cappelli offers his outlook for the job market and careers, as well as his advice for trying a profession on for size. Experience, he says, will help you inform your career choices.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: What is going to happen with unemployment in the U.S. and other countries that were [hit] by the recession and how will that affect students who are entering the work force?
Peter Cappelli: The thing we know about periods like this where unemployment is high and persists is that it changes. It has always gotten better so far and we expect with high probability that it will get better again. It may take a couple of years. For high school students, it is largely irrelevant; the labor market will be so different when you get out of college that it is unlikely to matter very much. For people who are entering the labor market in the next year or so, it is pretty tough. If you can stay out of the labor market, it is a great time to remain in school to get additional education. Then enter the labor market when things improve.
KWHS: What careers have more opportunities in the next few years, and how can we prepare ourselves for those careers?
Cappelli: One of the developments in the last couple of decades is that the labor market changes pretty fast, and things that are in tight supply change over the space of a few years. For example, in the 1980s the IT field was quite hot. [That lasted] until about 1991, when there was a bad recession in IT. It was a bad place to be for the early 1990s, then it was a booming place to be a few years later and then it cooled off again. It goes up and down and is hard to predict.
For high school students in particular, it is not that useful to pick a career yet. Get a broad education and some expertise in the areas that you feel comfortable in. [Ask yourselves,] “What interests me personally? What do I think I am good at?” As you get closer to graduation, you can start to pick your specialties. You also have to be prepared to retool yourselves in the future. The degree [you earn] and the field you go into when you leave college may not be the field you end up in five or 10 years later. That is a different expectation than we saw a generation ago.
KWHS: Do high school students who have a college education in first-world countries have an advantage finding a job over those who have a college education in emerging economies?
Cappelli: Yes. Let’s say you are in an economy that is booming right now — Brazil, India or China, [for example]. There are certainly more opportunities there than in the U.S. or in Europe. The advantage of a first-world education, though, is enormous because it is recognized in developing countries as well as the developed world as being something that is quite credible. That is less the case in the developing world. Unless you are at the very top universities in India, China, Brazil – the BRIC countries – the sense is [that] you are better off with a degree from a U.S. or European school or first world university. If you are at a first world university, you should also be willing to think about opportunities for jobs in the developing world. Should you go to China even if you are not Chinese? Should you go to India? Should you go to Brazil? Those countries offer great opportunities to pursue jobs.
KWHS: What advice would you give 18-year-old students about the tools they could use to experience different professions?
Cappelli: It is a good question how you can actually learn what these careers are like because you can’t just try them all out. You can’t become an engineer just to see what an engineer is like or become a doctor just to see what that is like. A great thing to do is to see if somebody will let you tag along for a day as they do their work [so you can] get a feel for what these jobs are like. It is often very surprising for people to see how similar jobs are that they would think would be quite different. For example, you would think engineers and lawyers are quite different jobs. But they spend an awful lot of their time negotiating with people — negotiating with clients and negotiating with the opposite side if you are a lawyer. If you are an engineer working on a project, you are negotiating with other parts of the organization or with your colleagues. You can get some of this information by reading. But [one of] the best things to do is to shadow somebody and see what the job is like.
KWHS: When you were 18, do you remember what led you to choose the path you wanted to take in life?
Cappelli: Most of us who are far away from 18 and looking back on it would say the thing that is most striking is how little we knew. How could you know much about what the opportunities would be like 10 years later partly because the world [changes] so much — and partly because you change as you get different experiences. I thought I was going to be a lawyer; a large percentage of Wharton faculty thought they were going to be lawyers. Most of us frankly are glad we didn’t go down that track. I wanted to be a lawyer because my father was a lawyer. That was the world that I knew the most about. I thought I was going to be a lawyer until I got close to graduating from college. I went to graduate school for something different still thinking I was going to become a lawyer.
The more I learned about the opportunities in the academic world, the more attractive that sounded and the less attractive other things sounded. I don’t think I was particularly well informed. I didn’t know about all the other opportunities out there, and I stumbled a bit into what I ended up doing. Most adults will tell you honestly that’s what happened to them as well. There was some serendipity, some luck, and not a lot of information or conscious choices. You are much better off with more information. You are much better off with more experience and making choices that reflect what you know and what you have experienced.