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The Boston Globe
View from the Cube

Feel obsolete? Rule out a career as a buzzle buffer

By Jim Simons, Globe Correspondent, 1/11/04

Dearly beloved, we have gathered to note the passing of some 369 jobs in the past year. That's the number that fell off the Department of Labor's radar in 2003 and are no longer considered ''active'' in the work force. They were important once but as necessary today as a buggy whip.

These jobs were not exported; they're simply no more. Their passing is recorded with a dry eye in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, or eDOT. The eDOT lists job titles of the new, the old, and the extinct - a state that is declared when no more than 15 people in the United States answer to a particular job title. The eDOT concludes the status of all known jobs after reviewing commercial salary surveys, job postings, Internet job boards, workers' compensation claims records, Internet inquiries, field job analysts' reviews, and online surveys.

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Visit the eDOT library sometime to see the rich variety of jobs on the books. Troll through some 95,000 titles including descriptions and the aptitude and demands required by each position. To be sure your job still exists, visit www.eri-edot.com and click on the ''ERI Vanished Job Hall of Fame'' (the Log of Disappeared American Jobs). It reads something like an obituary column of obsolete jobs, including the month and day they officially expired.

Of course, many job titles have stood the test of the time, and eDOT lists them, too. It's good to know that able bodied seamen, night auditors, bomb loaders, and bon bon cream warmers are still among us. Nothing inflated about these.

Here are just a few of the occupations that vanished in 2003: banana ripening room supervisor, bone crusher, brain picker, buzzle buffer, cookie breaker, ear muff assembler, fire eater, and foot straightener. Farewell to mogul feeder, muck boss, mutton puncher, singing messenger, straw hat presser, and typesetter apprentice.

Two jobs have already bit the dust in the New Year: Pearl diver and pilling machine operator.

Don't know what that old job was all about? You might infer something from the title because many of these, particularly those in manufacturing, described narrow, mind-numbing tasks.

I do like how honest and exact these old titles sound. Today's job titles sound more expert and show great imagination. But they can't be understood as literally as their older siblings for a variety of reasons, say specialists.

''We see a trend away from specific, well-defined job titles and toward titles that cover wider responsibilities and indicate the broader skill sets required,'' says Mary Lowe, business services manager for William M. Mercer Inc., a human resource consulting firm.

Paul M. Swiercz, associate professor of employment relations policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., agrees.

''New job titles reflect a broader expectation as employers redefine the employment relationship and focus on workplace teams,'' Swiercz says. ''More titles incorporate team concepts.''

Jobs also get retooled to reflect new expectations after a restructuring, merger or downsizing. And in an economic environment where salary increases are hard to come by, managers think about how to get more money to deserving employees. Improving a job title may be a back door to a promotion and a salary boost. If the company has no firm criteria distinguishing job levels, there's not much standing in the way, is there? And a loose promotion policy has a way of rippling through the rest of the organization.

We wear titles a bit like pedigrees. They become part of our image. Nobody ever says, ''I've got great news. The boss just named me low man on the totem pole.'' So when the opportunity presents itself in the recruiting process, job seekers will often negotiate better titles for themselves.

Companies seem more willing today than a decade ago to give this instant gratification because it's free and they don't want it to stand in the way of making a hire that will add value to the business.

''Companies are being more flexible about titles if they think you'll bring more to the bottom line,'' notes Dave Tamaras, a vice president at Wilmott and Associates, a human resources placement and search company based in Lexington.

Job titles are getting a face-lift as well, says Alan Cooper in a recent edition of Visual Studio.com. ''Today, Web designers are called programmers, programmers are called engineers, engineers are called architects - and architects never get called.''

Titles also reflect the times. Looking for a Web savvy librarian? One such opening was filled with the title ''Cybrarian.'' And there are lots of new chiefs: chief talent officer, chief imaginative officer, chief knowledge officer, chief experience officer.

''The explosion in creative titles was tied to the ego requirements of people who wanted to be chief,'' says Marc Lewis, managing director of executive recruiter Christian & Timbers' technology and venture practice. ''Everyone wanted to be a general with an army.''

If your title needs a makeover, try the job title generator on www.ninthhouse.com/elearning/tools/. Punch in your career-limiting title and a fresh alternative will be created. For example, I entered sales manager and got back ''flesh pressing herder;'' legal executive returned ''facts brahmin.'' I feel more important already.

Jim Simons is principal of Compensation and Benefit Solutions, a human resources consulting firm in Newton. Reach him at www.cabsolutions.com.

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