What is Your Market Value?

Illustration by REY RIVERA

Not long ago, I received a call from a distant and long-lost relative in the US. She wanted to talk about jobs and money.

She’s a high school graduate. Barely.  Single mom. Lots of different jobs in her life. Mostly menial roles.

She can’t find a job to earn enough. According to her calculations, she needs a job that earns more or less $60,000 per year to live the kind of life she wants. But all she can ever seem to get offered are jobs around minimum wage or slightly more, meaning she can only earn about half of what she truly feels she needs. She was desperate and despondent. She felt life had been unfair to her. Over and over she kept saying things like, “I am not a bad person” and “Why is this happening to me?”

To be frank, she did not like what I had to say. Not at all.

First of all, we have to discard the approach of the “absence of negatives” for asserting one’s value. This is useless. Saying, “I am not a bad person” is akin to a restaurant saying, “We don’t poison people with our food.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement!

The painful reality is, the job market is all about supply and demand. Do you have skills and talents that the market wants? It’s all about market value. Think about yourself as a commodity. What price will you and your skills bring in an open market?

Employers don’t pay for the absence of negatives. They want to know what you can bring to their operation. They want the skills and capabilities they need and they will pay for it. So the real question is, “What do you bring to the party?”

If, like my relative, a person has limited levels of education; has worked in varying jobs doing menial tasks and has not acquired any marketable skills, well, sorry to say it is going to be tough. Who is going to pay $60,000 per year for someone who brings little to the party, when they can hire someone of similar aptitude and skills for $25,000? She may want this kind of pay. She may truly need it. But who is going to pay her that?

This discrepancy is called the “market value gap,” when the market doesn’t value an individual’s skill sets and offerings at the level they need or desire. It’s a tough place to be in. One can argue, in fact, that the underlying driver of Brexit and the recent Trump election is primarily a group of voters suffering from MVG, or Market Value Gap.

It’s not bad luck. It’s not life being unfair. It’s not a rigged system. It’s not a question of whether party A or party B is in power.  It’s the way it is. It’s all about market value.

It’s about what each person brings to the party.

So, what drives market value? It’s all about the choices and decisions people make in life. How can a person increase their market value?

1. Invest in education. The data is clear. A 2012 US study based on census data found that the average high school dropout earned a median salary of $20,241 per year. Add in completing high school and this figure improved +50 percent to $30,627 per annum. Add in completing just a mere bachelor’s degree and this figure rose to $56,665. Now, these are averages and yes, there are exceptions to the rule. People who hate these facts always point out that neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates completed their college educations and “Look at them!” Well, yes, that’s true. But here is also another truth: the people I hear spouting these figures are simply not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or anything close to it. Shrewd advice is to play to the law of averages, and this means the more education one gets, the higher their earning potential.

2. Acquire skills. Think of education as laying a foundation. It’s the backbone of what one needs to know but alone is not enough. On top of this are skills, which are real, marketable assets. Knowing how to sell to key accounts. How to do international tax preparation. How to build a business in an emerging market. How to implement quality work systems in a factory. The list goes on and on. These are the skills, the specific talents employers look for. These come from practical work experiences that the market will value. One of the big reasons I have encouraged my children to start their careers first in leading, respected global companies is for this very reason. Before you run off and try your hand at running your own business, go somewhere and learn the real nuts and bolts of running a business. Go to the P&Gs, the BATs, the Unilevers and Nestlés of this world. Learn real skills and acquire real experiences others are willing to pay for. If all you have ever learned in the workplace is how to insert part A into part B, well, your market value will be limited to those companies — if they exist — that desire people who have this skill. Go for broad skill sets vs. repetitive tasks. Go where you will be forced to think, to problem-solve, to handle ambiguity.

3. Learn languages. While it can indeed be argued English is becoming a global language, it still isn’t enough. Not even close. And if this is the case, just imagine the limitations on those who cannot speak English. The world becomes an even smaller place. In today’s global world, speaking languages is becoming an entry to the party. I would suggest that any under-20-year-old today learn a minimum of two other languages on top of their mother tongue. This opens up doors for people.

I landed my first job in Africa in 1990 because I spoke French, and speaking French allows one to functionally operate in over a dozen African countries. I meet people all the time who have had amazing doors open for them because they spoke Polish at home as a child with their parents, or they learned Mandarin in school. Take languages. Learn languages. Embrace languages. English alone can lull a person into a false sense of security. All things being equal, the person who speaks three or four languages fluently will win out over the native English speaker any day.

4. Be mobile. The painful reality is, there is no such thing as a global job crisis. It doesn’t exist. What does exist are pockets of job scarcity in one area, and then a scarcity of labor in another area. This is again part of a global world. People move around. Jobs move around. People get into trouble when they become immobile and, even worse, start to believe they have some God-given right to “live in my town and have a great job that pays well.” Life is unfair. Sometimes you have to move. The factory in your hometown closed. It’s a tragedy. But life goes on and somewhere else there are plentiful jobs. But if you fail to be open to change, this will close down opportunities.

I was forced into the job market myself in 2009 during the global financial crisis. Everywhere I looked and everyone I called would say the same thing: “Sorry, but we don’t have anything.” Of course emotionally I wanted to stay home and remain in a city and place I loved. But the right job wasn’t there. So I was more or less forced to look around the world. And while the global crisis hit many parts of the world hard, it didn’t hit as hard in Africa. And I ended up taking a superb role in Nigeria with Coca-Cola. Yes, it was hard getting on that plane and leaving my family behind. It was hard to start over, learning a new company, city, country, continent, category and culture all at once! But I did it and I am better for it. And I was able to seamlessly provide for my family during the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Sometimes we have to go where the jobs and growth are. Yes, it is not easy. But nobody ever promised us an idyllic life staying in one place and never having to move!

In summary, be uncomfortable. All of these points go in the same direction. You have to keep yourself uncomfortable if you want to maintain market value in line with your dreams and aspirations. When we stay in one place, stay comfortable, we lose market value. We fail to grow. To acquire new skills. To take the right risks at the right time.

Looking in the mirror and acknowledging a market value gap can be a painful exercise. For my relative it has been very painful. For many people in many small towns around the world, in the US and UK and many others, losing the local factory and hence losing their jobs has been horrific. But the sad fact is, not Donald Trump nor any political leader is going to bring that factory back. Because it’s a simple matter of market value. If the skills required are limited, and someone else can and will do it cheaper, well, no company is going to relocate back to the US, pay $25/hour for labor when they can get it better and cheaper somewhere else. Politics didn’t make this happen. Market forces and market value did.

Many countries can learn from the Philippines in this regard. When Southeast Asia really started to boom in the 1990s, the Philippines saw a large chunk of its manufacturing base move to lower-cost nations nearby like Vietnam. Manufacturing is always the first to go because it requires limited skills and costs are a major driver. So the Philippines found itself with gaps in employment. So some smart people took a look at job retraining. They realized they had a labor force that was English language-fluent and embedded with cultural values of courtesy, respect, and kindness. This is a perfect combination for call centers! So a BPO industry was born and today the Philippines is the global leader. Over one million are gainfully employed in the service sector and it is a fast entry into an emerging middle class. If you live in the US and you call your bank’s 1-800 line, odds are you will end up talking to a polite and talented Filipino living and working in Asia! What did Filipinos do? They didn’t expect the factories to come back. They created new employment leveraging the skill sets of the population. This is the approach the US, the UK and others need to take. Because the factories aren’t coming back. The Donald won’t be able to deliver on this.

If you are suffering from a market value gap, you know what you have to do. Go back to school. Take a lower-paying job that will teach you some marketable skills. Take Spanish classes on the weekend. Look outside your own town and look beyond your comfort zone. Do all of this and pretty soon, someday in the future, suddenly you will find your market value gap has withered away. You will find you earn what you need.

And if you refuse any of this? You expect Donald Trump to fix it all? Or some other politician? Well, best of luck with that. You may not be very happy with how this all ends up. But there is an old saying that I have found proven to be true: “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.