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What Color Is Your Future Job? Commodity Writer or Strategic Communicator?
2003, Q4 (March 03, 2007)
By Rahel Anne Bailie, Director-Sponsor for STC Region 7

This month, I attended the STC board meeting and the coincident Willamette Valley's season kick-off meeting in Portland, Oregon. The panel discussion about the future of technical communication included a workforce analyst, two STC board members, and two local technical communicators who weathered the turndown in the economy and embody the characteristics of career survivors.

Oregon has been hit very hard by the downturn in the economy. Many software development jobs have been sent offshore, and the technical communication jobs that accompanied those jobs dried up too. Even in companies retaining their North American-based staff, the continual effort to trim "waste" continues to erode jobs in departments seen as cost centers.

Commodity writing is characterized as the creation of formulaic documentation on demand, and is closely tied to writing code. Companies are increasingly comfortable outsourcing both commodity and code writing. There has been a surge in job openings on STC job boards in the Asia-Pacific countries.

Increasingly, the jobs that remain in the US are for "strategic contributors," technical communicators who can be entrusted to look beyond the pages of their manuals, beyond the help screens, beyond the department of documentation, and even beyond the GUI. These strategic contributors look at the product from a business point of view and ensure that they contribute to the bottom line through their contributions to the company's product. The actual contribution may be content, user-centered design, or specific communications products, but the content arises from a perspective of problem-solving. The successful strategic contributor is recognized by management as a valuable part of the team, and may be part of the management team. (See Andrea Ames' presentation slides at http://www.stcwvc.org.)

Some panelists really embodied the principles of strategic contribution. Sheila Reitz, a contractor for an Oregon power company, made a conscious choice to move from commodity work to strategic contribution. Using a performance-based rsumcoincidentally, I discuss these techniques in "Using a Rsum to Showcase Your Talents" in the September/October 2003 issue of Intercom — Reitz demonstrated her ability to contribute her analytical and communication skills documenting work flow processes. As a result, her first phone call to user-test the new rsum format resulted in her a landing a dream contract, when her tester exclaimed, "we need you!"

The landscape for technical communications has changed, and will continue to change. Whether you are a technical communicator outside of North America who is benefiting from the windfall of technical writing jobs coming to your area, or a technical communicator called upon to stretch your imagination, the quest is the same one posed by Dick Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?: Which of my skills fills the changing needs in the local market, and how can I market myself to meet those needs? End of article.

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