Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Three-Angle View on Your Career

When you think about how to improve your career, it helps to view it from several different angles. I find it useful to employ the approach called tagmemics. Please let me define this term for you before it scares you away, and then you’ll start to see its usefulness.

The idea of tagmemics is that any unit of human experience can be viewed in three forms: as a particle, as a wave, and as a field. This approach was originated by a linguist, Kenneth Pike, so it may or may not be very sound as physics, but I find it very useful for achieving insights into ideas such as the one I’m discussing here: improving your career.

First, let’s look at your career as a particle—as a static entity. To do that, you need to move away from the word career (which implies development over time) and focus instead on the word job. (If you’re still in school, consider that your job.) Ask yourself these questions about your job as it is right now:

  • Does your job have a title that you’re happy with?
  • During the workday, do you find the work tasks interesting and engaging, or do they involve knowledge or tasks that don’t interest you?
  • Are your skills a good match for the job, or do you feel overwhelmed (or unchallenged)?
  • Is the stress level one that is comfortable to you?
  • Are you satisfied with the physical requirements of your job?
  • Is the amount of structure in your job too loose or too confining?
  • Do you enjoy the level of creativity in your work?
  • At the end of a typical workday, do you have a feeling of satisfaction?
  • Do you have a way of assessing your work and therefore taking pride in what you have accomplished?
  • When you’re not working, is your job providing a sufficiently comfortable lifestyle and amount of leisure?
If some of your answers indicate a situation that is not totally satisfactory, this may be an indication that you need to make some changes to your job. But first, you need to consider the wave and field perspectives on your career.

Your career is a wave in that it is a dynamic process. It is unfolding over time; it has a past and a future. Here are some questions that reflect on this dynamic nature:

  • Over the course of time—whether it’s a day or a year of work—does your job offer a level of variety in tasks, locations, or people that you find satisfactory?
  • Do you make career choices by planning, by seizing opportunities, or by following the path of least resistance?
  • Are your past career preparation and experiences a good match for your present job, or would they be a better match for something else?
  • Does your job provide opportunities for advancement?
  • Are you knowledgeable about future developments in your career field and the job opportunities (or threats to job security) that they will create?
  • What have you done or are willing to do to prepare for these job opportunities or to counteract any threats?
  • Will your career allow you to deal adequately with future changes in your lifestyle, such as marriage, child-rearing, or retirement?
  • If you’re still in school, will you be able to get through the program?
Your answers to this second set of questions (wave-based) may help you plan for ways to remedy shortcomings revealed by your answers to the first set (particle-based). But you should also consider the field aspect of your career, which has implications for both your current situation and your plans.

Your career is a field in that it involves relationships. It occurs in a spatial and interpersonal context. Answer these questions:

  • Is your job allowing you to live in a community that satisfies you?
  • How do you feel about your workday commute and the amount of travel?
  • Do you enjoy the physical setting of your work?
  • How comfortable are you with your boss, your co-workers, and members of the public whom you deal with?
  • Are you satisfied with the job’s ratio of solitary work to working with or dealing with other people?
  • Do you desire more or fewer opportunities for leadership in your job?
  • Are you knowledgeable about your industry, not just your job?
  • Do you have credentials that have value in your industry (or another industry)?
  • Are you known to people in your industry (or another industry) and, if not, do you know how to make yourself known?
  • Do you feel good about the extent to which your work contributes to the well-being of other people, of animals, or of the natural environment?
  • Do you worry about the possible impact of an on-the-job error on your organization or on other people?
  • Does your work create stress between you and your family or community?
  • Are you satisfied with the level of prestige that your work confers on you?
If you have read this far, I hope that you understand that you usually need to consider all three aspects of your career to solve any problems that you have detected in it. For example, if your work is too stressful (a particle issue), you need to think about what is causing this stress. It might be another particle issue, such as the necessity of following a restrictive rulebook, but it could also be a wave issue, such as a feeling of being in a dead-end job or worry about future threats to job security. It could also be a field issue, such as concern about making decisions that could bankrupt your employer or the perception that your long hours at work are making you lose touch with your family.

When you evaluate a possible change to your career, be sure to consider the change from the perspectives of all three aspects. For example, if you decide to get a degree or certification to improve your future employability (which you may think of as a wave-related change because it happens over time), consider the particle issues that this will raise, such as how well your skills and aptitudes will match the demands of the program. Consider also such wave issues as how the program’s demands on your time will affect your family relationships or how you can leverage your new credentials to achieve greater recognition in your industry.

Your career affects so many aspects of your life that you need to be multidimensional in your thinking when you assess your satisfaction or make plans for improving your situation. Tagmemics can provide a structure to help you expand your thinking.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is the World of Work Really Hexagonal?

The Holland hexagon is perhaps the best-known schematic representation of people's work-related interests. This interest scheme is used with the understanding that interests on adjacent angles of the hexagon are more closely related--i.e., more likely for people to share--than interests on more widely separated angles. For example, people are thought to be more likely to have the profile RI than RS. A lot of research has been done to confirm or refute this layout, based on how people have responded to interest inventories that report out the RIASEC Holland codes. For example, I might examine people's scores to see whether their I scores indeed correlate more strongly with their R and A scores than they do with their E scores. Several researchers have done this; a good bibliography of these studies may be found in "The Structure of Vocational Interests," by Itamar Gati.

Keep in mind, however, that the Holland theory is based on the principle of congruence: that people should seek types of work that are good fits for their interests--in terms of tasks, settings, and the personalities of co-workers. Congruence makes sense as a goal only if the world of work can be described in the same terms as people's interests. With regard to the Holland scheme, this means that the opportunities for satisfaction of interests that exist in the world of work should also be describable by the same hexagon.

But are they? I'm not aware of any studies that have tested this hypothesis. To do so, one needs a data set that describes the world of work--that is, it describes a comprehensive set of occupations--in RIASEC terms. Then one can see whether the occupations really do distribute themselves around a hexagonal shape.

Most data sets of this kind provide one-, two-, and three-letter RIASEC codes for occupations. For example, one might consult the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes, co-authored by Holland himself. I decided instead to use data from the O*NET database, which rates 974 occupations on the RIASEC interests. This data set is not only more readily available at no cost, but it also provides numerical ratings that represent differences among occupations that are more nuanced than just permutations of six letters. In the O*NET database, two occupations that have the same Holland code might have somewhat different numerical ratings. For example, take Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors and Recreation and Fitness Studies Teachers, Postsecondary, both of which are coded S. In the O*NET database, the former has an S rating of 7, while the latter's S rating is only 6.67. In each case, the S rating is so much higher than the ratings for the other five Holland types that the occupation is given only the single S code; nevertheless, the ratings indicate that one occupation is a bit more Social than the other.

I used the numerical ratings from the most recent release of the O*NET database (20.3). When I ran correlations between occupations' ratings on the six RIASEC interests, I found the figures illustrated on the hexagon below:

Among five of the interests--IASEC--the correlations support the prediction that interests will have a positive correlation with interests on adjacent angles and a negative or negligible positive correlation with interests at a distance of two angles--and, furthermore, that correlations between interests at opposite angles will be more strongly negative. But the sixth interest, Realistic, is anomalous; it shows only a negligible (and negative) correlation with the two interests (C and I) that are supposed to be adjacent. To be sure, it shows negative correlations with the opposite interest (S) and the two-angles-away interests (E and A). In any diagram, it should be placed distant from them; but it should also be placed farther from C and I than any other pairs of adjacent angles are distant from each other.

Because Realistic shows no positive correlation with any other interest, a hexagon does not adequately describe its relationship to the other interests. I suggest that if we must use a geometrical shape to describe the layout of the six interests, we need one that allows Realistic to sit away from the others. Perhaps this is best shown as a diagram resembling a frying pan:

On the other hand, there is a good argument for using a hierarchical arrangement of the six types, as Gati has proposed in the article cited above. A hierarchical model is based on the assumption that people make a first-cut decision between one group of interests and all other groups, and then make a second-cut decision between one interest and all others within that first-choice group. Gati created groups by observing that certain pairs of RIASEC codes had the highest correlations (in score data from assessments). Here is his hierarchical diagram:
My analysis of data from the world of work (specifically, O*NET data) suggests a somewhat different hierarchy: 


The first cut consists of choosing between R and everything else. The second cut recognizes two clusters (A and S, with a correlation of 0.31; and E and C, with a correlation of 0.27), and I standing off by itself because its best correlation (0.20, with A), is as weak as the E-S correlation.

The frying pan model has one advantage over the hierarchical model: It makes clear that diametrically opposed interests are more distant from each other than interests that are closer on the circumference.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Reduced Prospects for Young Saudis

Last week, The New York Times reported that young people in Saudi Arabia are having a tough time finding jobs. The Saudi government has long been a major employer of its citizens but now is forced to spend less lavishly as the price of oil declines. I had a foretaste of this situation 15 years ago, when I was doing research in the Kingdom.

In 1999, I was engaged by King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals to develop a computer-based system for career assessment and information. Eight years before, Saudi Arabia had financed the first Gulf War to the tune of $50 billion. But the Kingdom was not recouping its investment, because the price of oil had been on a generally downward slope ever since the end of that war, and in the previous year the inflation-adjusted price had reached an all-time low. Students at the technology-oriented college paid no tuition and were actually receiving stipends. Therefore, the government was eager to find a way to get students to declare a major that they could complete reasonably fast rather than change majors several times and delay graduation.

I drew on my experience as one of the developers of the SIGI PLUS system at Educational Testing Service in writing my proposal for the system.  Like SIGI PLUS, the Career Oasis system would use work-related values as one of the ways students could identify potentially suitable occupations. But it seemed likely that the SIGI PLUS set of work-related values, which had worked well with American and Australian students, might not be a good fit in the Kingdom. So, as part of the development plans, I included on-site research into the values of Saudi students.

With a committee of faculty and staff, I worked out a set of values to test, based mostly on the content model of O*NET, the career information database developed for the U.S. Department of Labor. For these values, the O*NET database provided ratings for hundreds of occupations. But we decided to add a value that might be important to people growing up in the conservative Islamic culture of the Kingdom. After some discussion we defined the value as “not being in situations that break with norms, customs, or traditions,” and eventually we settled on the name “Conventionality.”

I had a very lively discussion with the committee about whether, in the Saudi context, the value “Conventionality” occupied a conceptual space different from the O*NET-derived “Moral Values.” The latter was defined by O*NET as “not being pressured to do things that go against your sense of right and wrong.” Contributing to the controversy was the fact that the only Arabic words we could settle on to translate “right” and “wrong” were the religious terms “halal” and “haram.” In the end, we decided to let my research clarify whether students perceived a difference, and in fact they did give different levels of support to these two values. On questionnaires that asked the students to weight the importance of the values, they gave Moral Values considerably higher weightings than Conventionality.

What is particularly interesting, however, in light of last week’s Times article, is what the students’ highest-weighted values said about their career ambitions. I surveyed two types of students: those in the orientation year at the (all-male) university, and the children of faculty and staff in the (all-male) high school within the university compound. Here are the top 10 values of the high school students:

Rank
Value
Mean
Weight
Standard
Deviation
1
Social Status
4.8
1.0
2
Achievement
4.7
1.0
3
Advancement
4.6
0.9
4
High Income
4.6
0.8
5
Moral Values
4.5
1.2
6
Security
4.5
1.0
7
Co-workers
4.2
1.2
8
Creativity
4.1
1.3
9
Social Service
4.1
1.5
10
Conventionality
4.1
1.6


And here are the top 10 of the orientation-year college students:
Rank
Value
Mean
Weight
Standard
Deviation
1
Moral Values
4.6
0.9
2
Achievement
4.6
0.8
3
Social Status
4.6
0.9
4
Security
4.5
0.9
5
Creativity
4.4
0.9
6
Advancement
4.4
1.1
7
High Income
4.3
1.0
8
On-the-job Training
4.0
1.0
8
Working Conditions
4.0
1.4
10
Conventionality
3.9
1.3

What I concluded from these responses was that—apart from the fairly high ranking of Creativity for both groups—the job that seemed to best fit their preferences was the well-paid, not-very-demanding job of a government functionary. “All they want is a diploma and a job in government,” comments a political science professor at King Saud University quoted in Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--and Future, by Karen Elliott House (Vintage, 2012).

At the time, I had doubts about how well the students’ values could be satisfied by the opportunities available to them. Now, 15 years after I completed my research, one of the main points of the Times article is that although “70 percent of working Saudis are employed by the government,” this kind of job is now much less available to young people than it has been in the past. “With oil revenues crashing and the numbers of young people reaching the work force growing by the day, those jobs have become harder to get as the government cuts costs and pushes Saudis toward the private sector, where job security and salaries are lower on average.”

This economic trend raises troubling questions about the future stability of the Kingdom. Seventy percent of the population is under age 30, and 250,000 reach working age each year. Some workplace conventions are changing–it is now easier for women to enter the work force—but at the same time, it is questionable whether young people have developed a better work ethic than the older generation. As a result, some private-sector employers have resisted the government’s pressure to hire Saudis rather than guest workers.

The social contract that underpins the Kingdom is that the rule of the royal family will not be questioned so long as they enforce a very conservative strain of Islam and keep the citizenry economically secure. The Islamic State now holds out an example of a different model for an Islamic society, and the Kingdom now is draining its deep reserves of cash to prop up the economy. If the values of young Saudis increasingly go unfulfilled, what will become of this key American ally?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My Generic Career Decision-Making Advice

Every so often, I get an unsolicited e-mail from a total stranger, asking me for advice with career decision making.  Following is my response to such messages. If you know someone who is facing a career decision (maybe you), the following suggestions may be helpful:

Thank you for your interest in my work. I’m not a counselor, but I can recommend the exercise that I personally used 35+ years ago when I needed to make a career change. (The exercise is modified from one that was in What Color Is Your Parachute? in the late 1970s.) Set aside about an hour for this exercise.

On a piece of lined paper, draw three vertical lines to create three columns. In the leftmost column, list any role you have played that is at all like work. This can include academic programs and hobbies, because they involve some work tasks. In the middle column, list the major tasks for each role that you played. Put a star next to each task that you enjoyed and were good at. Then, in the rightmost column, try to identify the skills that were required for each starred task. You should start to see patterns emerging: skills that you’ll want to use in your work.

This list of skills may already suggest certain occupations that are worth investigating. But you may also want to visit http://www.myskillsmyfuture.org/. Although it asks you to enter an occupation name, it also works well if you enter the name of a skill. It will suggest occupations to explore. On the other hand, you may want to keep your options open and not narrow down your thinking to an occupation title. Perhaps there’s a niche job out there that isn’t listed in any reference book. I didn’t know there was such a thing as occupational information expert, but that’s what I became.

There are many excellent books and websites, such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook, for exploring occupations and for learning where the economy is growing. However, once you start getting a clearer idea of your goals, there is no substitute for speaking with actual working people. Ask them what a good day is like on the job and what a bad day is like. Ask them how they got into their field and what they would recommend for someone starting now. Ask them where their field is offering the best opportunities.

A lot of career advice also is available from education and training providers, but you must be wary of recruitment pitches, which may be deceptive. Working people can steer you toward the best entry routes and away from the programs that run up debt with little payoff.

If you are shy or introverted, it can be difficult to do the networking that I am suggesting, but you must force yourself to overcome your hesitation. Set a goal of x number of contacts per day. If you make it clear that you are only after information, not a job opening, people will usually be very open and helpful.

Good luck with your career decision making. I hope you’ll write back sometime in the future, when you have made some progress.

Cheers,
Laurence Shatkin, PhD

Thursday, January 14, 2016

This Year’s Biggest Changes in Outlook

Early last month, the Employment Projections office at the Department of Labor released its projections for the decade from 2014 to 2024. Later in the same month, the BLS released the text of the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which was based in part on those projections. Both of these resources are updated every two years, and I thought you’d be as interested as I am in seeing which occupations have the forecasts that are the most greatly revised from the previous update.

The economic models that BLS uses are not foolproof. Sometimes new data comes in that makes the economists at BLS realize they have significantly overestimated or underestimated the growth an occupation can expect. The outlook may change for many reasons, such as new developments in technology, international trade, consumer tastes, or the formulas Medicare uses in reimbursing health-care providers. For an understanding of what may have changed, I find it useful to look at the “Job Outlook” section text of the OOH statement (article) about an occupation, comparing the wording in the previous edition to the wording that appears there now. (You can make the same comparisons by looking at the previous OOH edition stored in the Wayback Machine site.) But often it’s hard to find a good explanation of what accounts for the revised forecast.

A useful example is Wind Turbine Technicians. This is the occupation with the greatest increase in its projected growth: from a formidable 24 percent growth projected for 2012–2022 to an amazing 108 percent projected for 2014–2024. However, the OOH outlook wording has changed very little between the previous edition’s statement and the current edition’s. The major difference is that only the previous edition has this wording: “In addition, the Renewable Electricity Standard calls for 25 percent of U.S. electric power generation to come from renewable sources by 2025, which should further drive employment growth.” Although the new edition doesn’t mention the Renewable Electricity Standard, presumably this commitment is continuing to drive growth, but it’s interesting to note that the number of states with this standard in place has not increased over the past three years—both then and now, it came to 29 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories. A change that may be more relevant to the revised forecast appears in the wording regarding offshore wind turbines. The current edition lacks a cautionary sentence that appears in the previous edition: “However, the high cost of building wind towers in the ocean may inhibit new offshore projects from being approved.” Still, I wonder whether the cost of building offshore turbines has fallen enough to make this sentence no longer necessary.

I don’t want to make too much of this apparent disconnect between the greatly changed numbers and the mostly unchanged prose. The outlook section notes that this is a very small occupation (in fact, employing only 4,400 workers in 2014), so the sextupling of projected new job openings, from 800 to 4,800, still does not represent a large number of new opportunities.

Something similar seems to have happened with another small occupation, Forensic Science Technicians. In the past two years, its ten-year job-growth projection has soared upward from 6 percent to 27 percent. However, the OOH outlook section has changed little from the previous edition. In fact, the main difference is that only the latest edition offers this advisory sentence: “Larger police departments will be more able to staff full-time forensic science technicians, but they, too, may face budget constraints.” Again, both editions note that this is a very small occupation (with 14,400 workers in 2014), so relatively small changes in the economy can cause a large change in outlook without actually creating a comparably large number of new jobs.

Not all the occupations with greatly changed forecasts were those with small workforces. For example, Personal Care Aides (1.8 million workers) had its growth projection cut almost by half: from 49 percent to 26 percent. Yet, again, the text of the OOH outlook section shows almost no revision, except for the removal of the word “companionship” (as one of the functions of the occupation) in two places and the removal of this paragraph: “Clients often prefer to be cared for in their own homes, rather than a home care facility or hospital. Studies have found that home treatment is frequently more effective than care in a nursing home or hospital.”

Another large occupation with a big change in forecast is Market Research Analysts, which was projected to grow by 32 percent for 2012–2022 but only by 19 percent for 2014–2024. In the wording of the OOH outlook section, there is one hint of a reason for this change. The following sentence was cut from the current OOH: “Rapid employment growth in most industries means good job opportunities should be available.” This deletion reflects the overall downward forecast for job growth: The projection for all occupations changed from 10.8 percent to 6.5 percent. I compared the old projections with the new ones and found a mean (unweighted) change of -5.5 percentage points.

Nevertheless, for occupations that had greatly changed forecasts, I would appreciate a better indication in the OOH outlook section of what factors have changed expectations.

Here is a list of the 20 OOH occupations that had the greatest revisions (either upward or downward) in their projections for job growth.

Occupation
Projection for 
Job Growth
(Percent)
2012–
2022
2014–
2024
Wind Turbine Technicians
24.5
108
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers 
and Cardiovascular Technologists 
and Technicians, Including Vascular 
Technologists
38.8
0.2
Market Research Analysts
31.6
0.2
Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, 
and Nurse Practitioners
31.4
0.3
Geographers
29
-1.6
Mental Health Counselors and 
Marriage and Family Therapists
29.1
0.2
Skincare Specialists
39.8
12.1
Insulation Workers
37.6
13.3
Medical Equipment Repairers
30.3
6.1
Political Scientists
21.3
-2.3
Meeting, Convention, and Event Planners
33.2
9.9
Personal Care Aides
48.8
25.9
Software Developers
21.9
0.2
Health Educators and Community 
Health Workers
21.5
0.1
Surveying and Mapping Technicians
13.5
-7.6
Radiologic and MRI Technologists
21.2
0.1
Pest Control Workers
19.7
-1.2
Forensic Science Technicians
5.8
26.6
Nursing Assistants and Orderlies
20.9
0.2
Bill and Account Collectors
14.7
-5.6