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Moving Out of Career Slow Lane in Los Angeles: Guest Commentary

As with most of the country, wage employment in California suffered the deepest decline during the Great Recession; between 2007 and 2012, median annual earnings (adjusted for inflation) fell by 11.3 percent for those who work in the city of Los Angeles. However, while our local economy is on track for recovery, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that locally, wages and salaries advanced at a 1.2 percent pace for the 12-month period ending June 2014, while nationwide, wages and salaries by 1.9 percent over the same period. Slow job growth and sluggish payrolls mean that opportunities for upward job mobility are limited. Even those who were lucky enough to find jobs in the last seven years, in the midst of the Great Recession, find themselves stuck with few options to move up within their organization.

I believe business organizations, local large and small businesses and educators must start working in a concerted way to promote job mobility. The change in mindset has to shift to not only job creation, but also job mobility so that employees can move up the ladder and achieve greater responsibility and higher pay — which in turn will positively impact our local economy.

Here are three ways in which business groups, individual businesses and MBA universities, like ours at the Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, can address the career mobility problem in Los Angeles:

• Learn to lead. A recent study from the Center for Creative Leadership identified 10 skills valued by current leaders. There was a significant spread between the No. 1 skill, leading people (73 percent), and other skills such as strategic planning (64 percent), resourcefulness (64 percent), doing whatever it takes (64 percent) and composure (57 percent). Together, business interests and business educators can help professionals master leadership skills through co-sponsored global leadership trips, career counseling exercises and training sessions.

• Bring the benefits of the classroom to the boardroom. Professionals prepared to address finance, marketing, operations, and management challenges provide added value to their current employer and develop skills that can transfer to another position. For example, for MBA candidates who are fully employed while attending graduate school, consulting projects or class-based projects enable MBAs to bring skills and experience “back to the office.”

• Develop the skills that will be in demand in the future. By the year 2018, the U.S. will face a shortage of up to 1.5 million people who have analytic and data-proficiency skills. A recent analysis found that Los Angeles ranked seventh nationally in per capita job concentration requiring skills in “Big Data.” Learning these skills during MBA coursework and in a current position under employer direction represents an ROI insurance policy in terms of job mobility and career longevity as well as salary.

Without a doubt, graduate-level education such as an MBA plays an important role in helping professionals move up the ladder. According to the 2014 Graduate Management Admissions Council Prospective Students survey, the No. 1 reason people were considering an MBA was to “improve job opportunities.” In Los Angeles, 69 percent of those who took the GMAT entrance exam did so to “accelerate their career path.” Professional and executive education should aim to leverage what they are known for — however, top MBA programs especially have to adjust to meet the needs of professionals who seek the skills and network to more quickly ascend the ladder.

Despite the unique challenges of the Los Angeles employment market, opportunities for job progression do exist. After years of declines in wages, our local economy needs a steady influx of wage increases in order to fully recover from the recession. It is up to the business community and employers to turn their attention to creating opportunities for individuals who seek advancement. Those employees who combine MBAs with real-time workplace savvy will be best positioned to take advantage of those opportunities.

David M. Smith, Ph.D., is interim dean, associate professor of economics and a labor economist at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management