Younger people who are looking for a sure-fire way to build their wealth steadily ask me for advice. They are often surprised when I tell them to invest more time and money in themselves.
People who do this are likely to create significantly more wealth over their lifetimes than those who don’t. It’s obvious that you need to accumulate investment assets, but you also need to ensure that your income increases over the course of your career. The best way to do this is to invest in yourself.
Human capital is the combination of skills, knowledge and abilities that enable you to generate income over your working life. Nearly all of us have an ability to generate some income, but very few people consistently invest in themselves so that they can increase their earning potential over time. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, university graduates generate R16 million more income over their careers than non-graduates. This might give some context to the #feesmustfall campaign in South Africa.
If you invest in yourself, you need to ensure that your skills and knowledge remain relevant and can be adapted to suit changing economic conditions and an evolving business environment. You should regularly review whether you need to add to your skills or knowledge. Additionally, you need to be honest enough with yourself to be able to change careers if you are in a dead-end street. For instance, I would not consider newspaper printing as a long-term career option.
Some careers reward those who specialise, but you should be careful of becoming too narrowly focused. For example, an academic career that involves researching the mating habits of albino penguins in the Southern Cape might not ensure a long-term income. However, there might be less risk in being an orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in shoulder surgery.
Many young people strive to be a manager in a large corporation. This might be the most risky career you can choose. Managers are essentially generalists and are often the first people to be fired after a merger or during downsizing. If you plan to work in a corporation, you might do better focusing on being a generator of revenue or a product specialist.
If you are not academically inclined or have no interest in technology, you could consider specialising in “old world” industries. There is a massive shortage of plumbers, electricians and general handymen. Now that more people work in service industries, there are fewer people who can work with their hands. This provides an ideal opportunity for reskilling.
In the age of mass production and “mass specialisation” provided by the internet of things, it should not be surprising that there is a major shortage of people who can build or create objects. I believe that craftsmen who make items such as furniture by hand and master builders are in demand. It does not surprise me that craft beer, artisanal baking and coffee are becoming major industries. More people are becoming interested in where their food and beverages are made and this includes where the ingredients are sourced. This trend is likely to suit those with “old world” skills, and when skills are limited and demand is increasing, your earning ability increases rapidly.
It does not matter what you do today; you need to be conscious of how you can grow yourself and possibly change course when required. Viewing yourself as an income-generating asset that requires work and maintenance is probably your best investment.
American businessman Charlie Munger said of his business partner: “Warren Buffett has become one hell of a lot better investor since the day I met him, and so have I. If we had been frozen at any given stage with the knowledge we had, the record would have been much worse than it is. So the game is to keep learning, and I don’t think people are going to keep learning [if they] don’t like the learning process.”
• Warren Ingram is Executive Director of Galileo Capital (2011 Financial Planner of the Year)