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

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Three Kinds of Green Jobs

You've probably been hearing people tossing around the term "green jobs." This can be a slippery term, so in my forthcoming book Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career I make a point of explaining what a green job is. It's important to understand that the term applies to a lot more jobs than just installing solar panels.

Every big shift in the economy creates many new job opportunities. Think about what happened when computers arrived. They created many new occupations, such as computer programmers and computer systems analysts. But more important was the way technology changed existing occupations. By 2001, 56 percent of all workers were using computers, but only a small fraction of these workers had the word “computer” in their job title.

Something very similar is expected to happen to careers as we shift to a green economy. The U.S. Department of Labor identifies three kinds of occupations that will contribute to the green economy:

Green Increased-Demand Occupations: These existing jobs will take on many new workers as green practices and technologies expand. The work itself and the skill requirements will not change much. Examples: Boilermakers, Chemists, Electricians, Forest and Conservation Workers, Locomotive Engineers, Power Distributors and Dispatchers, Rough Carpenters, Structural Metal Fabricators and Fitters, Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists.

Green Enhanced-Skills Occupations: These existing jobs will experience changes in work tasks and skill requirements as we shift to a green economy. They may or may not see increases in employment. Examples: Aerospace Engineers, Construction Managers, Financial Analysts, Geological Sample Test Technicians, Landscape Architects, Machinists, Marketing Managers, Plumbers, Storage and Distribution Managers, Urban and Regional Planners.

Green New and Emerging Occupations: These jobs are being created to do new kinds of work or meet new skill requirements. Examples: Biofuels Processing Technicians, Biomass Production Managers, Chief Sustainability Officers, Energy Auditors, Fuel Cell Engineers, Logistics Managers, Methane/Landfill Gas Generation System Technicians, Precision Agriculture Technicians, Solar Photovoltaic Installers, Weatherization Installers and Technicians.

These definitions point to an important truth: Most green work opportunities will be in existing occupations. That’s why it's important to become informed about green jobs even though the green economy has not fully emerged yet.

To see the information the Department of Labor has about green jobs, go to the O*NET site at http://www.onetcenter.org/green.html.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Recession Has Ended?

By now you’ve probably heard the news that the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. That’s the verdict of the economists on the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research. This means we have already been in a recovery for 15 months. Why doesn’t it feel like that? And what does this mean for your job prospects?

Many of the indicators of recovery that the economists examined show that this recovery is weak. For example, the gross domestic product in the second quarter of this year advanced only 1.6 percent, a slowdown from the 3.7 percent of the first quarter. In July, existing home sales were at their lowest level in a decade.

But not all indicators show weaknesses. To me, the most startling figure is that corporate profits last quarter ($1639.3 billion) were only 1 percent lower than they were at their pre-recession peak ($1655.1 billion). They have risen steadily for the past six quarters. In other words, companies are sitting on a mountain of cash.

That’s why it’s all the more startling that job creation has been so dismal. In fact, we have actually lost more jobs than we have gained since the recovery began.

You may be wondering how corporations can be making such big profits while economic growth is tepid and so many people aren’t working. The reason is productivity gains. American workers who are still employed keep on producing more output relative to what they’re paid. It’s important to understand why this is happening. Some of it is because the workers are putting in longer hours. Some of it is because businesses have invested in machinery and computers that increase workers’ output. And much of it is because we have a leaner, meaner workforce. So many low-skill workers have been laid off. The work that they used to do has either been shipped overseas or is being done by machinery and computers operated by high-skill workers.

Here’s an indication of how lean and mean our workforce has become: Workers over 25 who have a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent in August, while those with only a high school diploma had a rate of 10.3 percent. Compare that gap of 5.7 percent to the gap of only 2.6 percent when the recession began. Figures for the duration of unemployment tell a similar story. In August, the median duration of unemployment for the college grads was 18.4 weeks, compared to 27.5 weeks for the high school grads. Three years ago, there was only about one unemployed day of difference between the two groups.

There’s little reason to think that this lean, mean workforce will be able to get fat and lazy anytime soon. A report this week from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco says that "capital utilization" (i.e., investment in machinery and computers) has been one of the main drivers of recent productivity growth but notes that the level of investment has been below historical averages. The report concludes that businesses will be able to squeeze still more productivity out of the employed workforce through increased capital utilization rather than through increased hiring.

What is the implication for your job prospects? To be part of the leaner workforce, you need to be meaner. By “meaner,” I don’t mean more ruthless (although you do need to be aggressive in your job-hunting), but rather that you need to be one of the high-skill workers. You need to aim for the highest-skill work that you’re capable of and--better yet--you should plan to upgrade your skills. If you’re still in school, plan to get a higher-level degree than you might have had in mind originally. If you’re out of school, think about formal or informal training to upgrade your skills. And be sure to do more than thinking and planning. Commit to some specific action.

This is the central theme of my latest book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, and it’s why I take a rather pushy tone in that book. It’s also why so many of my recent blogs have been about the theme of improving your skills. Your job survival in this economy depends on taking action to be one of the highly skilled workers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 4: The Bachelor's Degree

In my book Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Career Entry Route That’s Right for You, coming out in October, I discuss various ways people can improve their skills through education and training. I cover many kinds of formal and informal training, including apprenticeship, military training, and self-instruction, among others.

Although I do not, by any means, single out the bachelor's degree as the best kind of preparation, I make a good case for it. I point out that a bachelor’s degree can provide you with many advantages in the job market. In fact, some jobs require it. For example, to become licensed as a professional engineer or a public school teacher, you generally need to have a bachelor’s degree from an approved program. In many other occupations, there is no legal requirement, but employers will not consider job candidates who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree, sometimes in a specific major. Accountants, foresters, and financial analysts are examples of careers where a specialized bachelor’s is expected. In still other careers, a bachelor’s is not required but preferred.

Then I give specific reasons why a bachelor’s degree is such a valuable credential:
  • It gives you broad and deep knowledge of the field. A bachelor’s degree program has requirements that ensure that you will learn more than you could in a two-year program or from on-the-job experiences. It helps you understand theoretical issues that are the basis of problem-solving techniques and creative thinking.
  • It gives you a foundation for further learning. Our economy is changing so rapidly that workers need to continue learning throughout their careers. Even if they do not pursue higher-level degrees that require the bachelor’s as a foundation, they will need to take courses or pursue informal learning to remain productive as their jobs evolve. But continuous learning requires skills that go beyond the immediate demands of the job—skills in critical thinking, writing, math, and research methods. That’s another reason why employers prefer bachelor’s degree holders over people who have taken courses related only to the entry-level job.
  • It represents a commitment of time and energy. Four years is a long time to devote to any effort, and employers appreciate people who have made that commitment and have seen it through to completion.
  • It gives you knowledge beyond your major. Students often wonder why bachelor’s degree programs include requirements for courses in departments outside their major--such as literature, philosophy, history, public speaking, political science, the arts, or science. A bachelor’s degree is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen, not a robotic worker. Employers believe that bachelor’s degree holders have a broad understanding of the society in which business is conducted. People with the degree have explored enough different subjects to be fully committed to their career specialization yet have the flexibility to adapt as their career undergoes change. For example, if your job should open to an international market--as happens so often these days--knowledge of geography, history, comparative religion, and foreign language can be very useful.
  • On average, it leads to better-paying and more secure jobs. Bachelor's degree holders averaged $53,300 per year in earnings in 2009, an advantage of $26,692 over high school dropouts. Their unemployment rate was 5.2% in 2009, compared to 14.6% for high school dropouts. These advantages are actually growing over time.
  • It enriches your life beyond your job. The same breadth of learning that will make you a better learner and a more flexible employee also will help you to appreciate all aspects of life. It will give you a context in which to get more out of experiences such as a nature walk, a conversation with a person much older than you, a movie, a visit to a foreign country, a political speech, or a news article about an emerging technology.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 3

In two previous blog postings, I wrote about getting ahead in your career through informal learning. This kind of learning is a frequent method for advancing a career, and so I cover it in some detail in my new book, 2011 Career Plan. But, in the same book, I also discuss formal coursework. This does not always have to mean earning a college or graduate degree. It can consist of a single course.

About 15 years ago, I was fortunate to get my employer to pay for me to be trained in Microsoft Access. I had three days of training in the basics and, later, two days covering intermediate topics. What I learned in these two courses I now use on the job virtually every day.

Here are some of the features of a formal class or program that differentiate it from informal learning:
  • The learning goals are clearly spelled out.
  • The instructor (whether it’s a human, a computer program, or a booklet) has a reputation for knowing the subject and being able to teach it.
  • There’s some way to measure how much you learn.
  • When you’re finished, you get some kind of recognition for what you’ve learned—for example, a piece of paper or a mention on your performance appraisal.
The last bulleted item is what makes this form of learning especially valuable to you.

However, some courses are a better choice for your career than others. Following is a checklist that I developed for the 2011 Career Plan to help you assemble the facts about a course or workshop and decide whether or not it’s a good choice.

Facts to Know Before Signing Up for a Course or Workshop

__ The expected learning outcomes of the course are clear to me.
__ The learning outcomes match the skill needs of a current or potential employer.
__ The learning outcomes contribute to a skill I want to develop.
__ The learning outcomes do not repeat what I already know.
__ The course has no prerequisites I can’t meet.
__ I have evidence that the course provider can teach me successfully. (Examples: reputation of provider; testimonial of a course completer; demonstrated skill of a course completer; recommendation by my employer.)
__ I will learn more or better than I could by teaching myself instead.
__ I will be able to show evidence of how the course has improved my skills. (Examples: certificate of completion; documentation of a completed project.)
__ The course is offered at a time convenient for me.
__ The course is offered at a place convenient for me.
__ I can afford the cost of the course (perhaps by getting my employer to pay).

Note that you don’t have to check off every statement, but the more you agree with, the better. If several of the statements are not checked, maybe this course is not a good move for your career.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Importance of Outlook Information

In my new book 2011 Career Plan, which comes out this month, I focus on industries and occupations that are projected to have high growth. This week, I fielded an inquiry from a journalist who wanted to know whether growth projections are actually useful in career advice. Read on to see what I told him.

First of all, to understand the outlook for an occupation you’re considering, you have to be careful not to go solely by the figure for growth. You also need to pay attention to the projected number of job openings. Growth and openings are not the same thing. Consider the occupation Hydrologists, which is projected to grow at the outstanding rate of 31.6 percent. There should be lots of opportunities in such a fast-growing job, right? Not exactly. This is a tiny occupation, with only about 8,000 people currently employed, so although it is growing rapidly, it will not create many new jobs (about 1,000 per year). Now consider Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Vocational Education. This occupation is growing at the sluggish rate of 5.6 percent. Nevertheless, this is a huge occupation that employs more than one million workers, so although its growth rate is unimpressive, it is expected to take on more than 93,000 new workers each year as existing workers retire, die, or move on to other jobs.

In fact, some very large occupations have so much job turnover that they provide tens of thousands of job openings even though they’re shrinking in size. Size of the workforce is not the only cause. Occupations that are easy to get into and/or low-paying are also easy to walk away from, so Home Health Aides, for example, has huge turnover. Contemplating such career options, you have to ask yourself whether you’re looking for a long-term career or a job where most people sojourn only briefly.

Next, consider the possibility of local variation. A national boom in an occupation may bypass your region. You really need to check with local employers to get a sense of the local outlook, unless you’re planning to cast a nationwide net in your job search. Something similar applies to variation by occupational .specialization. Here again, it helps to talk to employers in the specialization that interests you.

Then there’s the question of personal satisfactions. It’s true that you won’t get any satisfactions (earnings, working in your interest field, leadership, helping others, prestige--you name it) from work if you don’t have work. This is one reason why job opportunity is so important. However, if your personality is comfortable with taking risks, you may strive for an occupation with a somewhat poorer-than-average outlook because of the potential for a high payoff in satisfactions.

When I write my books, I don’t encourage people to defy the odds, because the books are aimed to do the most good for the greatest number of readers. However, there are always people who are the exceptions to the rule, who beat all the competition and get the job even though only a handful of openings are available. (Maybe you saw the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.”) These people either are risk-takers or they have extraordinary abilities or credentials. They are uncommon enough that I don’t usually address them in my books. If they do read one of my books, they probably have enough well-earned self-confidence to be able to ignore my warnings about limited job opportunities.

Another minority of readers whom I choose to neglect are those interested in doing work that almost nobody else wants to do. They may be willing to pursue a highly specialized occupation, such as repairing antique clocks and watches, or an occupation with work conditions that almost everyone else finds repulsive, such as cleaning up houses where obsessive cat collectors have lived and died. The job outlook for such occupations is actually good because there is almost zero competition for job openings, but the number of job openings is so minuscule that the occupations are not worth including in a book of general interest. Like the ├╝bermenschen I discussed in the previous paragraph, these uncommon people probably will find their way to their obscure career goal without needing my help.

So, in conclusion, outlook figures are very useful, but be aware of figures for both growth and openings, verify them as they apply to your region and specialization, decide how much risk you’re willing to undertake, and weigh how much you’re willing to do the unconventional.