Commodity or Contributor?

STEM workers must be prepared for ‘the project economy’

by Rosemarie Christopher

According to Gallup, 70% of us are disengaged at work, costing U.S. organizations half a trillion (not a typo) dollars a year.1

If you are reading this column, you are most likely one of the 30% of U.S. workers who are proactively engaged in their work.

You are the one who will be retained and promoted by your employer, or you are the one actively recruited by former bosses or in-house or agency recruiters. Odds are, you are not looking to make a job change.

This column is addressed to you, because while you are busy making the bottom line of your organization robust, there are forces that will ultimately catch up with you.

Being unprepared for what is being called "the project economy"—with its project-by-project work and just-in-time hiring—could radically affect your career progress.

These changes are the result of rapidly maturing global markets, exploding technology, pressures of volatility in the economy and the impact of having almost five generations in the workforce.

Three of these generations are and will continue to demand adjustments and new work delivery formats that reflect movement from outdated industrial-age, hierarchical work models to ones that reflect, adjust to and respect the new project economy’s knowledge workers.

The project economy

Pieces of the perfect storm that led to the new project economy include:

  • A stubbornly stagnant economy since 2008, which is finally showing signs of recovery.
  • C-suite pressure to comply with competitive market demands with far fewer human resources.
  • General corporate inability to manage a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent shortage.
  • Globalization.
  • The cost of full-time equivalency (FTE) employment created by the Affordable Care Act, 401K and pension plans.
  • High-tech, work-anywhere 24/7 employment models made possible by technology.

What is the project economy?

In this new project economy, face time is overrated. Flex time and flex place are attractive to knowledge workers because just-in-time hiring and project-by-project work make complete sense to them.

At the same time, there is a not-so-obvious but real effort on the part of some entities to commoditize STEM professionals.

The result of making professional knowledge workers mere commodities will exert downward pressure on wages and cause subsequent shrinking of the middle class.

All these factors offer knowledge workers a brand new way to be engaged, work fairly independently, enjoy a high quality of life and add significant value through increased creative productivity.

What is important for knowledge workers of the 21st century is to use creative consciousness to plan their careers.

Leadership and teamwork

Regardless of whether you work in a bricks and mortar establishment or work remotely as an FTE, contract worker or consultant, 77.8% of employers participating in the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2015 survey chose leadership and the ability to work in a team structure as the main attributes they look for most in a candidate’s résumé.2

This is not surprising when considering more flat organizational structures, project-by-project work assignments and generational differences in work style—all characteristics of the project economy.

FTE, part-time and contract STEM-educated and experienced professionals are key to the success of any project, not because of their job titles or seniority but because more can be expected of tech savvy subject matter experts holding higher-skills jobs.

So the takeaways for knowledge workers in the new project economy are that they must consciously and continuously improve their career plan trajectories so that, one professional at a time, they prevent themselves and their profession from being commoditized.

Today’s desirable attributes

In résumés or in references, whether they work as FTEs or as contracted remote workers, bosses, peers, direct reports or clients can count them among the 30% of engaged workers for having the following attributes:

  • Critical thinking. Streamlines work; active contributor to problem solving.
  • Is proactive. Determines how the project or task at hand fits into the bigger picture.
  • Is a confident communicator. Checks in with peers and teammates often, regardless of whether that is a preferred work style.
  • Is accountable. Earns the department and organization’s trust, and that trust is returned by the department and organization.
  • Shows good judgment. Values compliance, but is not afraid of disruption when change is necessary.
  • Possesses work-life balance. Respects their own and others’ quality of life and knows taking time off and pacing can unleash real creativity and productivity in oneself and others.
  • Demonstrates a positive attitude. Understands what is meant by servant leadership; expresses gratitude for the opportunity to contribute and work with talented team members.
  • Listens. Being present to others means being open, flexible, approachable and willing to really hear others.

We have reached the enviable position where an engaged knowledge worker, who builds relationships based on trust, can have a meaningful impact on his or her career progression while simultaneously inspiring project teammates to swell the ranks of the 30% of engaged workers.


  1. Gallup, State of the American Workplace Report 2014, www.gallup.com/services/178514/state-american-workplace.aspx.
  2. National Association of Colleges and Employers, Job Outlook 2015, www.naceweb.org/surveys/job-outlook.aspx.

Rosemarie Christopher is an organizational communications consultant and the president and CEO of MEIRxRS, a family of science, technology, engineering and math recruitment and staffing organizations in Glendale, CA. Christopher also consults organizations on effective communication within their workforce. She has a master’s degree in communication management from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Christopher is an ASQ member and chair of the ASQ Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division.

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