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Three Ways For You To Stay Competitive In The New Economy

Leila Janah is a celebrated social entrepreneur who uses technology and lean business methods to promote social and economic justice. Named one of Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs” in 2013, Janah is the founder of the Sama Group, a family of impact enterprises that connect women, youth, and refugees living in poverty to microwork―small, computer-based tasks that build skills and generate life-changing income. Janah speaks with knowledge and passion on social entrepreneurship and how to harness the digital revolution to fight to end poverty. Janah recently shared her advice on rising to the challenges of the realities of the new economy in The Huffington Post:

Landing a 9-to-5 job with a pension is harder today than ever. In order to thrive in the 21st century, you have to be a savvy citizen of the digital economy or risk being left behind. At Samasource, a company I founded in 2008, we train people living in poverty from Kenya to California to develop and market 21st century digital skills to adapt to new economic realities.

We’ve learned three things that can help you stay competitive:

(1) Digital Agility is the New College Degree

Mary was a “million-miler.” She started driving trucks at the age of 50 and logged a million miles without an accident before she got lung cancer and could no longer drive. Her illness depleted her savings. Seeking money for treatment, she started taking computer classes at the local community college and learned about our program, SamaUSA.

At first, she thought we were a scam. We were promising to teach her how to make money online from the comfort of her home for free. (It does sound like a scam, doesn’t it?) But after 10 weeks in our program, Mary was working for a website, collecting data on the internet about trucking. In 10 weeks, we had helped her market her million miles on the road for the 21st century marketplace.

Mary is succeeding because, at the age of 69, she had the guts and grit and indomitable spirit to stay adaptable, learning new digital skills, which helped her capitalize on her many years of experience. Mary does not have a college degree, but she does have the resilience and agility it takes to succeed in today’s economy.

(2) Take a Portfolio Approach to Income

We often speak of having a portfolio approach to investing. Today’s workers need to have a portfolio approach to work. One of the fastest-growing marketplaces today is the online freelancer market. Companies are hiring for fewer full-time positions and more part-time, hourly positions; often, they are contracting the work out on websites like Elance and oDesk. Workers must capitalize on this market change and use it to their benefit.

One of our students, Brandy, makes a living selling her music online, running a program she started that teaches high school students how to produce and engineer their own records. She also does logo and graphic design as a freelancer on Elance. If, for instance, one of her income streams dried up, she would still be making a stable living because she has diversified her income stream, making her more resilient in a rapidly changing economy.

(3) Be a Generalist: The Specialist is Dead

This is the end of the specialist era. In today’s rapidly shifting and ever-fragmented economy, you need a broad knowledge base and a broad skill set to be prepared to jump into a new role or a new field quickly and expertly.

For instance, one of our students, Micah, came to us as a part-time basketball coach. He made a decent living during the season but found himself with very little income for the rest of the year.

In our class, Micah started working on TaskRabbit, an online platform where you contract out your to-do list (think grocery shopping or assembling an Ikea couch). At first, he did low-skills tasks such as laundry and cleaning. Then he got work as an events staffer and planner; his reviews were so positive he began to get steady work in this sector.

Some people might have stuck with coaching in the winter and event planning in the off-months, but Micah kept pushing himself out of his comfort zone, landing a job doing market research for a basketball quiz bowl.

Micah’s eagerness and ability to try new work in new fields matches the times we live in. He is a generalist, not relegated to any one field or job description, as fleet-footed in this volatile economy as he is on the basketball court.

Fifty years ago, you might spend your whole career in one city, at one company, working toward retirement with one pension. We were, in essence, citizens of a benevolent dictatorship. We gave our intellectual assets to big, supposedly foolproof companies that promised to take care of us for life.

Now, companies rise and fall in the time it took to get a promotion at General Motors in the ’60s. Now, we must take responsibility for our own careers just as we must take responsibility for our own investments and retirement. We must understand the rapidly shifting, fragmented nature of the economy and train ourselves to run at speed with it.

By Leila Janah/The Huffington Post/June, 2014