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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Career News from 2011: The Year in Review

For my final blog of 2011, I decided to repeat last year’s idea of looking back at the tweets I’ve issued on Twitter in order to follow up on some and comment on the significance of others. (If you’re not already following me, my handle is @LaurenceShatkin.)

Green career issues have been a frequent theme in 2011. In January, I linked to “Top 10 greentech predictions for 2011.” Now, looking back, you’ll find that most of these predictions have come true. (This was actually a retweet from @CarolMcClelland, whom you should follow if you’re interested in green careers.) Another tweet on this subject, in October, was about the Bureau of Labor Statistics page for Green Career Information. In March, I linked to survey results from the Solar Energy Industries Association, which projected 26 percent growth in solar jobs from 2010 to 2011, with a net of 24,000 new jobs. Among the jobs they reported on, the best combination of fast growth and low competition was for solar photovoltaic installers and technicians.

Another frequent topic has been recovery from the Great Recession. The news in 2011 has been mixed. In February, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that for the first time since 2008, a college class was beginning the year with average starting salary offers higher than the previous year.
One interesting feature of this recession was its uneven impact on different age groups. In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that 34 percent of men in their 60s were holding paying jobs, compared with fewer than 15 percent of males ages 16 and 17. I blogged on this same subject in July and speculated that perhaps Congress has been doing so little to create jobs because the most reliable voters have the lowest rate of job loss. This doesn’t mean, however, that job loss is not a problem for older workers. As reported on the Economix blog of The New York Times (a must-read site for anyone interested in the economy), the small percentage of older workers who do lose a job subsequently endure the longest stretch of unemployment. In fact, the graph that accompanies the blog posting shows that the close correlation between age and duration of unemployment covers the full spectrum of ages.

An important milestone in the recovery was the rebound experienced by the automobile industry, thanks to oft-maligned federal intervention. In February, General Motors reported its biggest profit in a decade and said it would give 45,000 union workers a profit-sharing check for $4,300. In May, GM announced that it had seen its earnings triple in the first quarter and reported that it would invest $2 billion in 17 automobile plants across 8 states, saving or creating 4,200 jobs. In September, a deal between GM and the United Auto Workers union saved or created 6,400 jobs. The deal was especially aimed at accelerating the hiring of entry-level workers and at reducing the leakage of jobs to Mexico.

Despite these positive developments for the auto industry, this has been largely a jobless recovery so far. In March, the Commerce Department reported (PDF) that corporate profits had increased 29.2 percent in 2010, the fastest growth they have experienced in more than 60 years. But a July report from JP Morgan (PDF) revealed that the main force driving the rebound in profits was decreases in employees’ earnings and benefits, thanks to an oversupply of workers and offshoring. This is not how a middle class recovers from a recession. Jobs in construction and manufacturing seem particularly stuck in a post-bubble slump.

The Occupy Wall Street movement drew a lot of attention to income disparities that have come into high relief as the well-off have shrugged off the recession while most of the rest of the nation continue to suffer either unemployment or wage stagnation. Just last week, I tweeted about a study by historians that demonstrates that the Roman Empire had more equal distribution of income than United States does now. A graph posted by New York Times columnist and blogger Paul Krugman shows the dramatic difference between the after-tax income growth of the top 1 percent of earners versus everybody else. Another graph in that same blog post points out the earnings advantage of higher education but also shows its limitations. The hourly wages of college graduates have increased substantially since 1980, in contrast to the flat or declining hourly wages of people with less education. However, those wage increases for college graduates stopped at 2000, and the gains by those with advanced degrees have slowed to a trickle over the past decade. It seems even the upper middle class is not served well by the economy we now have.

I don't want to end on a down note, and it’s always good to have a laugh, so if you missed Stephen Colbert on “The Audacity Of Hopelessness,” enjoy it now. He explains how the Department of Labor computes unemployment figures and why giving up your job search actually helps the economy.

I hope the coming year is a good one for you and for your career.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Time to Quit?

Maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to quit your job.

During this past recession, those of us who were lucky enough to still have a job tended to hang onto them. Now that the nation is officially in a recovery, albeit a slow one, a sign of the upward trend is that workers are starting quit their jobs. The resignations are not coming in huge numbers, but the Labor Department reports that 1.9 million workers quit in October. This continues a trend that has been visible for much of 2011, as the number of resignations climbs slowly upward from its low point in late 2009 and early 2010.

In my career, I have quit only one job, but I have lost several for various reasons. In retrospect, I can see several occasions when it probably would have served me better to quit. Here are some signs that it’s time for you to start looking for a new job:

Your work has minimal impact on the business
. Specifically, you may notice that your ideas get no traction in meetings or when expressed in memos. (It doesn’t matter that your ideas may be good ones if nobody heeds them.) Although you may be busy, you cannot identify any specific achievements that made or saved money for the company or otherwise helped its reputation. I once had a job in product development at a company where this function was peripheral to the company’s mission and didn’t fit into the corporate culture. It was only a matter of time before a budget crunch would come and make them realize that I was expendable.

You have almost nothing in common with your coworkers.
Their lunchtime talk leaves you cold. Their life goals and values are very different from yours. Maybe you feel uncomfortable about their moral standards (either too shady or too prudish).

The core mission of the business doesn’t match your goals and values. This often accompanies the previous item, because organizations tend to attract and retain workers who fit in.

You resent the low level of pay (or benefits) you’re getting and see no likelihood of improvement if you stay.

You resent the low level of autonomy you have and see no likelihood of improvement if you stay. This may result from having either a control freak for a boss or a rulebook that hogties you.

The hours at work or on the road are eroding your family life. Some people thrive on work or business travel and either don’t have a family or don’t need a lot of contact with it. But others find their job draining away one of their main satisfactions in life.

Your heart is not in what you’re doing. You find it difficult to concentrate on your work. You wing it much of the time. You no longer try to improve your work.

You realize that the industry or the employer’s business is doomed. Market forces or technology may be sending your industry into obsolescence. Superior competition may be stealing market share from your enterprise. Inept leadership may be making bad decisions that will send the business into decline.

In some of these situations, you are not under immediate threat of a layoff, but because it’s usually easier to get a job when you have a job, it’s advisable to plan your escape before you’re laid off. In situations where the problem is your rising level of dissatisfaction, it’s better to look for a new job before you gain a reputation as a malcontent or a slacker.

If your resume is out of date, fix it up. Make efforts to build your network or refresh your contacts with people already in your network. (The holidays provide you with the perfect reason and medium for doing that.) Start working on your elevator speech, focusing on your desire for new challenges rather than the negative aspects of your situation.

When you get a job offer, it may possibly provide enough leverage to convince your current employer to remedy what you don’t like about your job. But if the problem is something inherent in the nature of your current job--for example, it doesn’t fit into the corporate culture and mission, or heavy travel is inescapable--then it really is time to move on.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Values of Men and Women, Part 2

Last week I blogged about differences between the career-related values of men and women. I used data from the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, which was conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Science Foundation. Respondents were asked about the importance of various factors (which may as well be called values) that they consider when they think about a job.

Last week I looked at which values male and female respondents most often identified as very important. This week, I’m looking at what the different college major choices of men and women indicate about their value differences.

Of course, the values that the survey covers are not necessarily the only considerations that men and women bear in mind when they make the choice of a major. Some of these values, such as salary and job location, are expressed in job-related terms and therefore can influence the choice of a major only insofar as students consider the relationship between their prospective major and their future job. On the other hand, the job-major relationship is a very significant (often paramount) influence on many students’ major decisions, so it’s understandable that men’s and women’s feelings about careers would be related to their preferences for certain majors. Furthermore, some of these values, especially intellectual challenge, apply equally well to a major as to a job. Therefore, it seems likely that any male-female differences choosing between these values will be reflected in their choices of majors.

I thought it would be useful to look at the correlation between (a) the percentage of graduates of a major who say a value is very important and (b) the percentage of male and female graduates of a major. In other words, I’m asking which values tend to be rated highest by graduates of the majors with the most female graduates and lowest by graduates of the majors wit the least female graduates (and the same question for men). This is another way of getting at the question of which values characterize each sex. It may even be more meaningful than the results I looked at last week, which were based solely on professed preferences. This time, I’m also looking at behaviors--the college majors that were chosen and completed.

Here are the results for women, in descending order. Keep in mind that a score of 1.0 would mean a perfect correlation.
  • Contribution to Society: 0.60
  • Benefits: 0.17
  • Location: 0.12
  • Security: 0.11
  • Responsibility: 0.05
  • Challenge: –0.01
  • Independence: –0.20
  • Advancement: –0.53
  • Salary: –0.59

Now, compare this to the very different order I found last week, looking only at expressed opinions:
  • Benefits: 64%
  • Security: 62%
  • Challenge: 59%
  • Independence: 59%
  • Location: 59%
  • Salary: 54%
  • Contribution to Society: 53%
  • Responsibility: 43%
  • Advancement: 37%

Next, here are the correlations for men. These are actually the same as for the women but in the opposite order. That is, the minus signs change to plus signs and vice versa.
  • Salary: 0.59
  • Advancement: 0.53
  • Independence: 0.20
  • Challenge: 0.01
  • Responsibility: –0.05
  • Security: –0.11
  • Location: –0.12
  • Benefits: –0.17
  • Contribution to Society: –0.60

Finally here are last week’s very different results for men, in descending order:
  • Benefits: 65%
  • Security: 61%
  • Independence: 59%
  • Salary: 58%
  • Challenge: 55%
  • Location: 48%
  • Advancement: 45%
  • Responsibility: 44%
  • Contribution to Society: 38%

What strikes me is that when the two sexes are compared, the rankings I compiled last week (the percentages saying a value is very important) are a lot more similar than the rankings I compiled this week (the correlations). Specifically, the values associated with the majors that the men and women chose (and completed) adhere much more closely to the stereotypes of women as nurturers and men as strivers.

What explains these different findings? Last week, I created only two pools of graduates, one male and one female. Taking the averages of the two pools, as I did last week, washed out a lot of the differences that were present among subpopulations within each pool. But I was able to tease out some of these hidden differences by breaking up these large pools into smaller sets based on their past behaviors--the majors that they chose and completed. In addition, using correlations allowed me to detect the values profiles of those graduates who had gravitated toward majors that were dominated by one sex or the other. These grads may have been a minority--their opinions are hard to detect when you look at overall averages--but they show that the sex-stereotypical values profiles remain a reality for a significant group of people.

The larger lesson to take away is that the simple percentages one sees in many survey results (for example, what percentage of voters is currently backing a certain candidate) can disguise some information that would valuable to know about subpopulations in the sample.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Work-Related Values of Men and Women

One topic that never gets stale is the difference between the career-related values of men and women. The group that I worked in at Educational Testing Service had done some research on that topic in the 1970s, before I arrived, and a graduate student intern did some further research while I was there in the 1990s. Each time this was studied, the general finding was that, on average, men tend to be strivers and women tend to be nurturers.

I recently became acquainted with a dataset that has the potential of providing another look at this question. Ever since late July I have been working on creating the third edition of  College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs. I turned in the manuscript this week. The book is based on the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, which was conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Science Foundation.

One set of questions on the survey form asks respondents, “When thinking about a job, how important is each of the following factors to you….” The values (factors) are the following:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Job Security
  • Job Location
  • Opportunities for Advancement
  • Intellectual Challenge
  • Level of Responsibility
  • Degree of Independence
  • Contribution to Society

Respondents are asked to score each value as very important, somewhat important, somewhat unimportant, or not important at all.

I thought it would be interesting to see how men and women scored these values differently, so I looked at what percentage of each sex scored each value very important.

Here are the results for women, in descending order:

  • Benefits--64%
  • Security--62%
  • Challenge--59%
  • Independence--59%
  • Location--59%
  • Salary--54%
  • Contribution to Society--53%
  • Responsibility--43%
  • Advancement--37%

And the results for men, in descending order:

  • Benefits--65%
  • Security--61%
  • Independence--59%
  • Salary--58%
  • Challenge--55%
  • Location--48%
  • Advancement--45%
  • Responsibility--44%
  • Contribution to Society--38%

You won’t notice a great amount of difference between the two sexes, but a few things stand out. The biggest difference is their attitude toward Contribution to Society; 15 percent more women than men rated this as very important. Another large difference applies to Job Location; 10 percent more women than men rated this as very important. The priorities of the sexes are notably reversed regarding Opportunities for Advancement, which 7 percent more men than women rated as very important.

You can find slight differences in their attitudes toward Salary and Intellectual Challenge. The former was very important to more men than women by a margin of 4 percent, and the latter more important to women than men by the same margin.

All other differences were trivial--1 percent or less.

These results largely confirm the traditional images (confirmed by the ETS research) of men as strivers and women as nurturers, although the difference of opinion on Salary is not as great as I expected from the ETS research. It may be that women in 2003 perceived themselves as playing a more vital role as wage-earners than they did at the time the ETS research was conducted in the 1970s and 1990s.

The difference in the ratings for Job Location may have a connection to the nurturing role; women may place more importance on working near home so they can more easily respond to family emergencies. However, that’s just speculation on my part. Location may be a stand-in for some other need, popular among women, that I don’t recognize.

Let me stress that these are averages and don’t describe every man or woman. In fact, the ETS research found that in each sex, there was a subset of respondents whose constellation of top values closely matched the one that was characteristic of the opposite sex.

If this general topic interests you, you may want to see what I learned from my research on the work-related values of male students in Saudi Arabia in 2002.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Job-Hunting Tactics to Match Your Personality, Part 2

In my previous blog, I explained how your personality type can be the key to job-hunting tactics that will be effective for you. I gave examples of tactics appropriate for Realistic, Investigative, and Artistic types. This time, I’d like to consider the other three types in the Holland taxonomy.

If you’re a Social type, you want to make the most out of personal interactions, because you’re good at them and enjoy them. It’s clear that you should join one or more organizations related to your job target. Find a role that is not being filled; communications roles are particularly valuable, because they put you in touch with the largest cross-section of members. For example, you might offer to start a Twitter feed for the organization and encourage members to come to you with news. Also, be sure to leverage your existing social contacts. Make sure that all of them know about your job hunt and have several copies of your JIST card.

Enterprising types may find it useful to start a small business related to the career goal. For example, find out what low-price consumables your targeted industry uses and start selling them on eBay. A sandwich route can get you past the front door of a business and into the offices of people who will be useful contacts. Develop a brief business plan for a small project related to your targeted industry and be ready to explain it. Along with your resume, carry this plan with you, so people who are interested in the former can learn more about your skills from the latter.

Conventional jobs often depend on demonstrating a particular competence, such as typing speed or accuracy with figures. Volunteer work, such as keeping the books for a club, can give you opportunities to develop and document your competencies. Also consider that Conventional types tend to be highly organized and methodical, so you should bring these strengths to your job hunt. Study and follow techniques that are recommended for scheduling your job-seeking efforts, compiling lists of contacts, tracking the progress of the job hunt, and following up on contacts. Conventional-minded people in your network will be impressed with your organizational skills.

Keep in mind that Holland himself emphasized that most of us are not purely of one personality type. Your job-hunting efforts should not and probably cannot conform to the skills and work habits of any one personality type. Artistic types need to impose some organization on their tasks, Enterprising types need to use creativity in their tactics, and Realistic types need to use social skills to build their network. Nevertheless, by paying special attention to the tactics that are best suited to your personality type, you can mount a job-hunting campaign that minimizes discouraging situations and is more effective.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Job-Hunting Tactics to Match Your Personality, Part 1

People making career decisions often find it useful to think in terms of personality types. I have written two books about this: 50 Best Jobs for Your Personality and 10 Best College Majors for Your Personality. In additional to these two, several of my other books also use the Holland taxonomy of personality types (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, Conventional) as an introduction to career exploration.

But personality types are helpful for more than just making a career decision. They can also guide you much later in the career development process, by suggesting strategies for the job hunt.

One reason your personality type is relevant to your job hunt techniques is that you probably are looking for a job in an occupation that is related to your personality type, and different kinds of jobs demand different job-hunting strategies. For example, in a job-hunting process with an Artistic job as the target, a portfolio showing examples of creative work is almost always required. Although portfolios are being employed in job campaigns aimed at other kinds of jobs, such as Enterprising jobs, the people who do the hiring for those jobs tend not to expect them.

There’s something to be said for running counter to expectations—for example, using a portfolio when seeking an Enterprising job precisely because it will set you apart from other job-seekers. However, your job-hunting activities should be the kinds of tasks that best suit your personality. If you’re a Social type, you’ll be more skilled at using strategies that maximize your personal contacts with others. If you’re an Investigative type, you’ll be more comfortable emphasizing research techniques that uncover job openings.

Here are some ideas for how to match your job-hunting tactics to your personality. At their foundation, all of them share the highly effective strategy of networking, but they go about the network-building process in different ways.

If you’re a Realistic personality type, you like hands-on involvement. You should visit workplaces related to your career goal or perhaps an eatery where the workers can be found, so you can interact firsthand. Dress accordingly; you may not need to wear steel-toed boots, but you should avoid wearing an expensive suit. You may want to bring a model or sketch or photograph of an idea you have for how to do the work better or how you have done it in a previous job or school project. Use this as a prop when you start up a conversation with a worker. A related strategy is to do volunteer work of a kind that is related to your career goal and that, ideally, allows you to work alongside people who do that kind of work for a living.

If you’re an Investigative type, you probably have good research skills. Use them to identify important employers for your career goal and compile a list of people who work there with whom you can make contact through intermediaries. Savvy users of LinkedIn and Twitter can search these databases to identify potential contacts. Another tactic is to find the blog where people in your targeted industry exchange news and ideas. (Every industry has at least one.) Become a conspicuous presence there; if you can’t contribute useful comments, at least ask intelligent questions. When you eventually get a chance to meet with a useful contact, bring a chart or diagram that analyzes an industry issue or a plan for solving a problem.

Artistic types, as I noted earlier, will certainly want to develop a portfolio and bring it to any meeting with a contact. You may want to brainstorm and develop an original, media-based way of representing the industry or an industry-related issue, such as an animation, a collage, or a Web page. This representation of your ideas may be easier to distribute than a traditional portfolio. The kind of job you’re aiming for may be more open than most to gimmicky methods of making cold contacts, such as printing your resume on a piece of paper shaped like a shoe and sending it attached to a sticky note saying that you’re trying to get your foot in the door.

In my next blog, I’ll cover the remaining three Holland types.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

STEM Careers--and STEM Skills in Other Careers

One indication that an idea is catching on is that the President of the United States refers to it frequently. In recent remarks by President Obama, I’ve been pleased to hear mentions of STEM careers and STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Two recent articles have pointed out the rewards of STEM careers and the barriers to them.

Last month, my former ETS colleague Anthony Carnevale and his research team at Georgetown University released a report about the career experiences of people who majored in STEM subjects. Analyzing Census data, they found that, on average, 65 percent of those holding a bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject out-earn those with a master’s degree in a non-STEM subject. And an associate degree in a STEM subject brings in a higher income than a non-STEM bachelor’s for 63 percent of those surveyed.

The Georgetown researchers also found that STEM degrees are excellent on-ramps for careers in medicine and in management, career changes that can lead to higher income than staying in a STEM work role. They note that although the traditional STEM career fields employ only 5 percent of the workforce, the need for STEM competencies keeps increasing in other fields. For example, along with the rapid growth in the number of technology products, there’s a growing need for an appropriately skilled sales workforce. So, even though the STEM career field is growing at a pace exceeded only by health-care careers, the careers that are competing for STEM-competent workers (including many health-care occupations) are among the fastest-growing and highest-paid in the economy.

Given this growing need for STEM-skilled workers in a broad range of occupations, it is not necessarily alarming that (as Carnevale et al. found) 43 percent of STEM grads immediately go off to work in non-STEM careers. To be sure, I’d rather see engineering graduates go on to engineer bridges instead of financial derivatives. Nevertheless, market forces will divert STEM talent to many non-STEM work roles, and many of those roles will benefit our economy.

What is alarming, however, is how many young people don’t even get as far as the initial STEM degree. Carnevale and his team estimate that our K–12 educational system turns out enough students with initial STEM skills to fill the labor market’s need for STEM-skilled workers, but more than 75 percent of them do not go on to develop their potential by majoring in STEM subjects. Furthermore, of those who do major in STEM subjects, 38 percent switch to another subject or drop out of college. This is twice the combined attrition rate for all other subjects.

An article last week in The New York Times investigated the reasons for this massive leak in the collegiate STEM pipeline. The main reason seems to be the inherent difficulty of the STEM curriculums. This is not helped by the high level of competition often found there. It’s significant that the highly selective colleges, which get the best students, also have higher STEM attrition rates. Evidently, the problem is not that the students are poorly prepared or lack good work habits.

GPAs tend to be lower in the STEM majors, and grade inflation in the non-STEM majors may be part of the reason. Another factor discouraging STEM majors may be the emphasis on theory, especially in the lower-division courses. Some STEM faculty members are experimenting with using project-centered curriculums to sustain the interest of the students. The traditional engineering major leads to a senior design thesis, but for many students this opportunity to turn STEM skills to practical applications comes too late.

It’s important to understand that a specific college degree, while it provides useful quantitative evidence for researchers, does not tell the whole story about the skills a young person acquires. A friend of mine dropped out of the engineering curriculum at a highly competitive engineering school and graduated with a degree in a humanities field. He would be considered a STEM dropout, but the STEM skills he acquired in high school and during the two years of engineering curriculum that he completed served as the foundation for a very successful career in technical sales.

You may also consider me a STEM dropout. Although I gave up on a STEM career goal well before entering college, I have had a lifelong interest in science and managed to acquire enough STEM skills to hold my present job, in which I spend a lot of time (sometimes days on end) working in databases and spreadsheets, even occasionally writing programs.

As Carnevale and his team found, the need for STEM skills in non-STEM occupations (even writing!) keeps growing. Educational policymakers need to do more than just encourage students to get STEM degrees. They need to ensure that the curriculum of everyone in high school and college includes STEM subjects and imparts STEM skills.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Who Pays the Price for Globalization?

Along with automation, the force that has caused the largest number of U.S. job losses is globalization. Jobs that used to be done by American workers are being shipped overseas, in a never-ending quest for lower-paid workers. But some American workers are being hurt by this more than others.

To understand who is suffering the most from globalization, it helps to consider what makes this economic environment possible. A major reason is free trade agreements with foreign countries, removing tariffs that used to shelter American industries. The argument for international trade is that it lowers costs for everyone, and I must agree that much (though not all) of the Chinese-made merchandise that fills the shelves at WalMart is priced lower than equivalent American-made goods.

On the other hand, even if you set aside the arguments against globalization (for example, the problem of China’s manipulation of its currency to depress the dollar cost of its goods), you cannot pretend that globalization has no adverse effects within the United States. Even if it’s too late to reverse globalization, policy-makers must recognize whom it damages and take appropriate measures to mitigate the damage.

Therefore it’s significant that last week Congress issued a little-noticed report (PDF here) on this topic, called “Nowhere to Go: Geographic and Occupational Immobility and Free Trade.” The report was written by the staff of Sen. Bob Casey for his role as chairman of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

The report notes that the chief American victims of free trade are older workers and those with less education. These two groups are concentrated in the manufacturing sector of the economy, the sector that has been undermined the most by competition from foreign countries.

These older workers are closer to retirement and therefore may be reluctant or unable to invest the time required to acquire the new skill sets needed for the industries that remain in the U.S., such as high technology, finance, and health care.

Occupational mobility often requires physical mobility: the ability to relocate to find work. Physical mobility also can allow workers to find new jobs in the same occupation as the job that was eliminated. But older workers are the least likely to move, both locally and over long distances. One important reason for this is that older workers are more likely to be homeowners and therefore may be tied down by the slow-moving real estate market we have been experiencing for several years now. Many are stuck with a mortgage that exceeds the market value of their house. And although older workers tend to have better-developed networks than younger workers, useful for finding work, the networks usually are anchored in the workers’ local community. If the community has few jobs, the network is of little help, but the displaced worker is reluctant to attempt to find a job in another location where he or she has no network in place.

The congressional report outlines the problem well but gives short shrift to solutions. I would suggest the following:
  • Education has to be made more affordable, especially at community colleges. During the Cold War, aid to education was considered a matter of national defense. That has not really changed.
  • We need to invest more in our infrastructure, which supports manufacturing (and, for that matter, all aspects of the economy)
  • We need to run our manufacturing sector more on the German model, as I wrote in a blog a few weeks ago.
  • We need to require that banks renegotiate mortgages for properties that are underwater. Most of these homeowners did not take on mortgages larger than they could afford but rather are victims of a general decline in real estate values. If homeowners can pay off their mortgages, they can relocate to where the jobs are.
Will Congress move on any of these measures? That seems unlikely, but it’s worth remembering that older workers are also the most likely voters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs and American Jobs (part II)

Last week I used the iPod as an example of how innovation creates jobs, some of them offshore, but many of them--especially those that pay well--here in the United States. Steve Jobs, who died last week, was one of America’s greatest innovators, and we may well wonder where the next innovator of his caliber will come from. But another question is how and where that person’s skills for innovation will be refined and implemented.

We hear a lot of talk these days that the key to job creation is getting out of the way of the private sector. Tax it less, regulate it less, and it will nourish innovation and create the jobs that our economy so desperately needs right now. Let the marketplace discover and reward breakthrough technologies.

But there’s also a case to be made for the role of the public sector, especially at a time when the private sector is unwilling to invest in jobs and in basic research. I was impressed by the video of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren that recently went viral, in which she says, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you, but I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” It’s useful to remember that Steve Jobs was the product of a public school education.

Political demonstrators who invoke an earlier era by wearing three-cornered hats seem to forget that this country has a long legacy of innovation that was fostered by the public sector. Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph in response to a prize that Congress offered for a better form of long-distance communication than the semaphore signals that were in use at that time. His first demonstration of long-distance telegraph transmission, from Baltimore to Washington, was financed by a federal grant.

At last night’s Republican debate, one of the questioners asked, “From the Erie Canal to the Internet, . . . innovation is what’s always fueled economic recovery.  So shouldn’t the focus now be on trying to create the innovative jobs of tomorrow?” None of the candidates present commented that the Erie Canal, which transformed New York City into the paramount port on the East Coast, was financed entirely by the public sector. So was the development of the Internet, by what’s now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The integrated circuit, which made all of Steve Jobs’s products possible, was invented by Jack Kilby, also the product of a public school education. He was working at Texas Instruments, a private-sector company, but TI morphed from a company that served the oil industry to an electronics powerhouse because of contracts from the Signal Corps and the Navy. Development of the computer chip got a massive boost from the space program.

In fact, the Cold War and the space race that grew out of it were responsible for a wide range of innovations that continue to shape our economy. This push also resulted in federally funded improvements to the infrastructure, notably the interstate highway system (which is officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), along which Steve Jobs’s products were shipped to your door. This effort also expanded federal funding of education through the National Defense Education Act. The accelerated academic program that I was enrolled in while in (public) junior high school was initiated in direct response to Sputnik. And the fathers of many of my classmates had gone to college on the GI Bill and were working at a federally funded New Jersey laboratory that supported the work of the Signal Corps.

The recent collapse of the Solyndra company, recipient of a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee, has been used by some as evidence that government support of innovation is misguided at best and corrupt at worst. But when private-sector investment is focused on complex derivatives and arbitrage rather than on basic research and infrastructure, the government becomes the innovation investor of last resort. The money that the treasury lost on Solyndra is miniscule compared to the funds that the private sector lost investing in subprime mortgages.

It will never be cheaper to borrow money than now. We can find workers more easily and hire them for less money than in normal times. What are we waiting for?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs and American Jobs

As the nation mourns the death of Steve Jobs, it’s interesting to look at the role that his company plays in job creation, because Apple is one of the highest-achieving firms in one of the outstanding American industries: high tech. I came upon a fascinating analysis of the employment impact of just one Apple product, a device that Steve Jobs essentially invented: the iPod. An article in the Journal of International Commerce and Economics (PDF) looks at how many jobs were directly created by the iPod.

It’s well known that the device is assembled offshore, mostly of foreign-made components, and the authors of the study estimate that the number of foreign jobs in the iPod value chain outnumbered domestic jobs in 2006 by 27,000 to 14,000. In fact, they estimate that only 30 production jobs and a similar number of professional jobs are created by the manufacture of a few iPod chips here in the U.S. However, in 2006 the iPod also accounted for “7,789 nonprofessional jobs (primarily in retail and distribution) and 6,101 professional jobs (primarily at Apple’s headquarters), including management, engineering, computer support, and a variety of other categories.”

More important, in their analysis of the earnings of the 41,000 iPod workers, the authors estimate that here the balance tilts decidedly toward the United States, where the workers earned nearly $750 million in 2006, compared to only about $320 million earned by the foreign workers. “Over two-thirds ($525 million) of the earnings in the United States went to professional workers, and an additional $220 million to nonprofessional workers. While most of the nonprofessional jobs were relatively low-paying retail positions, we estimated that nearly $50 million went to administrative jobs at Apple for which we used the national average wage of $38,000 a year; actual Silicon Valley wages were probably even higher.”

In drawing conclusions, they hold up the iPod as an example of the opportunities and risks that globalization has created. “Apple’s tremendous success with the iPod and other innovative products in recent years has driven growth in U.S. employment, even though these products are made offshore. These jobs pay well and employ people with college degrees. They are at the high end of what might be considered middle-class jobs and appear to be less at risk of vanishing from the United States than production jobs.”

However, these high-value jobs require that future workers coming out of U.S. schools get a really good education. In addition, there is the risk that creative jobs, such as engineers and designers, will be taken by overseas workers as foreign governments and even American companies invest offshore in education and in cultivating creative industries.

The authors of this study don’t address the question of how many jobs the iPod indirectly created--or destroyed. The invention of the iPod set off a revolution in the way music is distributed. As people shifted to buying music on the Web in the form of MP3s, many record stores had to close, and as pirated MP3s circulated widely, record companies suffered declining sales even as the amount of music being consumed probably continued to rise. Although the shift to MP3s probably caused a net loss of jobs, the iPod also sparked the invention of the podcast, which created many jobs, not only for podcasters themselves, but also for the sound engineers who are involved in production of the glossier podcasts. Radio broadcasting has been consolidating into a few megacorporations, such as Clear Channel, but podcasting has helped keep many local sound-production businesses afloat.

Of course, the iPod is only one Apple product that sprang from the fertile imagination of Steve Jobs. The iPhone created a whole new platform for which creative programmers could devise new applications. Many of Steve Jobs’s other inventions will continue to create employment for American and foreign workers who are still to be born.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Use Common Sense with Assessments

I worked for 19 years at the nation’s premier testing company, and one thing I learned was not to be dogmatic about assessments. Even the makers of the mighty SAT exam freely admit that their scores do not predict college achievement as well as high school grades do. The SAT scores still have value, however, because when combined with high school grades, they give a better prediction than the grades could alone.

Something similar can be said about assessments that are designed to help you with career choice: Alone, they probably are not the best way to identify a promising career. But combined with other sources of information, they can be very helpful.

Incautious assessment users sometimes forget that psychological instruments are not as precise as a yardstick. Every assessment has a certain margin of error, meaning that although its scores put you into category x, there is a chance that you really belong in the neighboring category y. In baseball games, it’s usually pretty obvious whether a ball has landed in fair or foul territory. But imagine what accuracy would be possible if the ball were ten times as big as a beach ball and even more squishy: Even the instant replay would not resolve a borderline hit.

In baseball, it’s also helpful that the foul lines are at the edges of the area that the batter is aiming for. Now imagine what the game would be like if a line ran right down the middle of the field, and the score of the game depended on which side of the line the enormous beach ball fell on. For good measure, imagine that both right-handed and left-handed batters tended to hit the ball towards the middle. Now you have an idea why I’m reluctant to use the Myers-Briggs assessment. It attempts to place you on one side or the other of a bipolar range (e.g., introvert or extravert), although the normal distribution that is so typical of psychological characteristics clusters most people near the middle. There’s a very high likelihood that your actual location on this continuum is close enough to the middle that the inevitably imprecise measurement of the instrument will assign you to the wrong side of the middle.

Although I prefer to use assessments based on the Holland types, I have to caution that they also are unable to achieve a pinpoint focus. For the Holland types, let me change the metaphor from baseball to hopscotch, where a lot depends on which square your marker lands in. On the playgrounds where I grew up, the squares tended to be at least 10 inches across, but imagine how the game would be if they were only 3 inches across and your marker were a beanbag the size of a dinner plate. Fortunately, the Holland rationale is conceptually more forgiving of ambiguity than is the Myers-Briggs rationale, because it is not bipolar and accepts the notion that bordering types (for example, Realistic and Investigative) share some characteristics. If I can’t tell for certain whether my beanbag fell in the Realistic of Investigative square, I probably would not err greatly by favoring occupations coded RI, IR, or even just R or I.

But the really big mistake would be to rely solely on the assessment, whatever its rationale. Here are some other indicators of your interests and preferences that you should consider:
  • In what school subjects did I get the most enjoyment and the best grades?
  • What activities am I reluctant to drop at dinnertime?
  • What are my favorite sections of the newspaper or of news websites?
  • At a party, what kind of people would I be able to sustain a conversation with?
  • If you could meet the world’s greatest ____________ and get that person to share his or her secrets of success, what field would that person’s achievement be in? (Romance doesn’t count.)
Still another indicator is the opinion of a family member or of a friend who knows you very well. Explain the concepts that the assessment is designed to measure and ask this person which characteristics describe you best.

Making decisions is hard. People naturally tend to seek the quickest and easiest way to decide between x and y. This is one reason why people often perceive an assessment as the beginning and ending of the decision-making process. Instead, use an assessment as the start of a gradual process of self-discovery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Manufacturing and the German Model

I’m writing this blog two days after Labor Day and one day before President Obama’s job-focused speech to a joint session of Congress, so I’m thinking a lot about the problem of high unemployment and underemployment. But the job-related story that caught my eye in today’s paper was the obituary of someone you’ve probably never heard of: Keith Tantlinger.

Tantlinger, who died on August 27 at age 92, was the engineer who designed the modern shipping container in the 1950s. His crucial innovation was a locking mechanism on the corners of the containers that allowed them to be stacked on ships, trains, and trucks. He also designed the corners to be easily grasped by cranes. I once watched a ship being loaded in the port of Hamilton, Bermuda, and marveled at the way the containers were being piled high on the deck rather than just being lowered into the hold, as I thought cargo was supposed to be stowed.

So what did this innovation have to do with jobs? It drastically reduced the costs of shipping goods by simplifying the process of transferring the goods from one carrier to another. Specifically, it reduced the costs of labor, damage, and pilferage. Cheaper shipping made it possible for us to stock our WalMarts with Chinese-manufactured goods and thus was one of the key factors causing the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States. In 1969, about one-quarter of U.S. jobs were in manufacturing, but that number is now down at around 9 percent. It contributes to about 11 percent of our economy now.

But it’s important to understand that manufacturing doesn’t have to be a dead industry in the United States. In Germany, it accounts for about 25 percent of the economy and helps Germany’s keep trade balance second only to China’s. What can explain the difference?

One factor is the German emphasis on vocational education, including widespread apprenticeship, even for white-collar jobs.

Another is Kurzarbeit, which allows companies to cut workers’ hours while keeping them on the payroll, with the government making up a portion of the lost wages. Companies thus don’t lose their skilled workers during temporary downturns, and employees don’t lose good work habits and their relationships with bosses and coworkers.

Still another factor is the German banking system, which includes Sparkasse banks owned by local governments rather than private investors and functioning like savings and loans to provide funding for local businesses and homeowners. Their high collateral requirements (at least 20 percent for a mortgage) prevented these banks from engaging in the risky home loans that American lending institutions still have not recovered from.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the role of workers in the management of German companies. This takes three forms. First, unionization is high, at about 20 percent, compared to our rate of less than 7 percent. Labor unions in Germany tend to influence policy at the industrywide level. At individual worksites, workers influence decisions about wages, hiring, and work conditions through “works councils,” which consist of employees (not necessarily union members) elected for four-year terms. Finally, under the policy of codetermination (Mitbestimmungs), corporate boards are required to include representatives of workers as well as representatives of shareholders. At corporations with 500 to 2000 employees, one-third of the board represents the workers; at larger companies, it’s half of the board.

Although low-skill American manufacturing jobs continue to be lost to overseas workers, advanced manufacturing processes are creating high-skill jobs. I detail some of these jobs in 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America. But manufacturing could regain even more of its lost role in our economy if we borrowed some ideas from the German model.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Teach in a Department of Defense School

In my new book, 150 Best Federal Jobs, I focus mostly on jobs in the 50 states. I did this so that I could combine data from the Office of Personnel Management--which covers all federal employees, foreign and domestic--with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics--which covers only employment on these shores.

However, I knew there would be interest in overseas federal jobs, so I included an appendix about two important offshore federal employers: Department of Defense schools and the United States Peace Corps. It’s the former that I want to discuss in this week’s blog, partly because a lot of American teachers have lost their jobs recently and may be looking for opportunities elsewhere.

The federal job with the largest civilian foreign workforce is teachers, covering some 8,000 workers in September 2010. Most of these workers (and a few thousand in other occupations) are employed by the Department of Defense in schools that DoD operates overseas for minor dependents of active-duty military and civilian personnel. The schools enroll students from kindergarten through grade 12 and are modeled on American public schools.

Some of these workers are spouses of military or civilian DoD employees stationed overseas; typically they begin in time-limited appointments and may be able to move to a permanent position with experience and appropriate teaching licensure. Others have no marital connection to a DoD employee and apply from the United States.

To qualify for one of these positions, you need a teaching license from one of the 50 states. The DoD certifies you in a field and level that match the certification in your original state as closely as possible. You usually need to sign a mobility agreement that says you are willing to work wherever the DoD needs you. To apply for a teaching position that starts with the following school year, you generally begin the process between September and January 15.

If you are an education major at a college that has an agreement with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS), you may be able to do your student teaching as a federal employee. Some students majoring in school psychology, counseling, nursing, library media, vocational education, or school administration are also eligible for student teaching for DoDDS. Ask your academic advisor about such opportunities. If you apply for spring placement, the deadline is October 31st; for fall placement, April 30th.

For further information about opportunities at DoD Dependents’ Schools, visit the DoDEA Recruitment website or phone DoDEA’s Recruitment Center at (703) 588-3983.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Does the U.S. Face a Skills Shortage?

One subject currently being disputed by economists and educational planners is whether or not the American workforce will possess the skills required for the economy of the future. I’ve been particularly interested in the subject of skills, having recently finished the manuscript for the second edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills, so I have been intrigued to find so much disagreement on this question of America’s future skills readiness.

One of the leading pessimistic analyses can be found in Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, by Anthony Carnevale (a former colleague of mine at Educational Testing Service) and others at Georgetown University. These researchers predict that “by 2018, we will need 22 million new workers with college degrees--but will fall short of that number by at least 3 million postsecondary degrees.”

In a critique of this analysis, Paul Harrington (a fellow JIST author) and Andrew M. Sum argue that this predicted skills shortage is illusory. They point out that the Georgetown researchers predict the need for college-educated workers by looking at the number of college graduates in each occupation, with the assumption that these college grads in the workforce will need to be replaced by a new cohort of college grads as the occupations expand or lose workers through turnover. Harrington and Sum prefer to look at the actual skill requirements of each occupation. They maintain that college-educated bartenders and other misplaced college graduates in low-skill occupations will not need to be replaced by similarly high-skilled workers because the nature of the occupation does not require college-level skills.

But perhaps it’s a mistake to focus only on the requirements of occupations; another factor is the rewards of occupations. Additional education produces additional pay, on average, even in low-skill occupations. For example, a bartender does not need a college degree, but survey data shows that a bartender who holds such a degree earns more. As a result, college grads will continue to be diverted from high-skill occupations as effectively as if they will actually be needed in low-skill occupations, creating the potential for skill shortages in high-skill occupations. Such is the argument in still another analysis, by three California economists, David Neumark, Hans Johnson, and Marisol Cuellar Mejia.

However, these three economists do not expect actual skill shortages in the high-skill occupations within the 2018 horizon of the current Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. Compared to the Georgetown team, they count far fewer college grads in the workforce. The California economists base their projections on data from the American Community Survey (ACS), whereas the Georgetown researchers base theirs on the Current Population Survey (CPS). As the California team point out, the CPS overstates the number of people who hold associate degrees by including everyone who gets any kind of postsecondary training short of a bachelor’s. The Georgetown researchers also base their estimates of the mix of college grads in various occupations by looking at figures from 2000 to 2008; the Californians observe that the educational mix of workers in 2008 was anomalous (because of the onset of the recession?) and use the period from 2000 to 2007 instead.

The California researchers are less sanguine about trends beyond 2018, however. By 2030, all the baby boomers will have passed 65. They predict that if high-skill occupational growth and the college graduation rate continue along their current lines, we will face a shortage of appropriately skilled workers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Employee or Contractor?

In June, I blogged about the theory that the employer-employee relationship is being replaced by a relationship in which workers are hired guns. I argued that the “Hollywood model,” much hyped in the 1990s, still has not caught on and is unlikely to because workers value the security and the continued health insurance they get from regular employment and employers value the creative workers they have identified and cultivated.

On the other hand, there is a definite trend toward the pretense of this arrangement--that is, a relationship in which the employee acts like a salaried worker but contractually is a hired gun. The workers behave exactly like salaried employees, putting in the same 40-hour weeks, working at the same site, answerable to the same supervisors, maybe even wearing a uniform with the company logo, but on paper they are independent contractors. As I acknowledged in the earlier blog, this arrangement helps employers avoid carrying the overhead of a large staff of salaried employees. The company also can prevent its workers from unionizing by arguing that most are independent contractors who have no right to collective bargaining. This actually happened last summer at an Ohio company, Baker Communications.

The Government Accountability Office reported in 2007 that 10 million workers were classified as independent contractors, an increase of more than 2 million in just six years, and certainly many of these new contracts were phony. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that the number of workers misclassified as independent contractors is as high as 30 percent in some states. One reason the government is concerned about this trend is that it cheats the tax collector of funds that normally would go to the accounts of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.

Therefore, the IRS is scrutinizing the tax returns of people who file as independent contractors to make sure that the employment relationship is legitimate. If you are an independent contractor, you need to be sure that your work relationship meets the legal requirements. For example, you can’t be working for the same employer and doing the same work you did on payroll or doing the same work under the same conditions as people who are on payroll.

Ironically, one industry has recently begun to attempt the opposite pretense: that independent contractors were actually regular employees. There’s an obscure provision in United States copyright law, effective this year, that allows musicians to regain control of their work 35 years later, provided they have applied for such control at least two years in advance. You may or may not remember the music of 1978, but it was a very fruitful year for American musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and the record companies stand to lose a lot of revenue if they lose the rights to the masters of these performers’ songs.

Therefore, the record companies are arguing that the musicians who recorded for them were not independent contractors and that the recordings were “work for hire,” like the books that I write for JIST as a salaried employee. I don’t know whether there are any other industries that face a similar hazard from using independent contractors. It’s likely that most of them write contracts with explicit work-for-hire terms, as I have sometimes signed in my days as a contractor, so this situation is probably uncommon.

On the other hand, even when contractors are unable to carry away the output of their labors, employers need to consider that the contractors may take their talents and work experience to a competitor. Some employers of contractors attempt to prevent this by inserting noncompetition clauses into contracts, but a contractor with very valuable skills may be able to have such clauses removed. (I was able to do so with a former employer, something that I was unable to do while still a salaried employee of the same company.) Furthermore, noncompetition clauses sometimes don’t hold up in court, or the employer sometimes is reluctant to attempt enforcement, because such a clause undermines the pretense that the employee is a hired gun.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

High-Skill Cities

I just sent my editors the manuscript of the second edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills, and the research I did for the book turned up some interesting information about cities. Specifically, I identified several metropolitan areas where high-skill jobs are particularly concentrated.

Let me explain a little about my research methodology. I started by collapsing the 35 skills used in the O*NET database into 9 large skills, based on the correlations between the ratings of occupations in the database. For example, I was able to collapse Reading Comprehension, Writing, Active Listening, and Speaking into one skill called Communication Skills because no two of them had a correlation lower than 0.89.

Next, I looked at the range of ratings that O*NET gives to occupations on each of these skills. For each skill, I divided this range into five equal zones and identified the occupations with ratings that caused them to fall within each zone. Then I took the occupations in the two highest zones (the high-skilled occupations) and computed the total number of workers in each of 300 metropolitan areas. I divided this figure by the total workforce within each metro area to find, for each skill, a percentage figure for the high-skilled occupations in that metro area.

So, for example, here are the top 10 metropolitan areas for occupations with a high level of Communication Skills. The percentage of workers in these high-communication occupations ranges from a high of 39.1% to a low of 28.7%:

1. Durham, NC
2. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
3. Trenton-Ewing, NJ
4. San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara, CA
5. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH
6. Hartford–West Hartford–East Hartford, CT
7. Gainesville, FL
8. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT
9. San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont, CA
10. Rochester, MN

In the book, I offer the top 20 metro areas for each skill. And I notice that certain metro areas come up repeatedly in the top-20 lists.

Most frequent of all is Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH, appearing on 7 of the 9 lists. Everyone knows that this metro area is home to a thriving high-tech industry, plus numerous world-class universities. The two lists where I don’t find this metro area among the top 20 are the lists for what I call Equipment Use/Maintenance Skills and Installation Skills, which tend to characterize blue-collar jobs.

Another high-skill metro area is Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, the seat of government and host of many companies that serve defense and other government interests. It also encompasses several universities. This metro area appears on 6 lists.

Also appearing on 6 lists are two metro areas in North Carolina, Raleigh-Cary and Durham. Not long ago, these neighboring districts were actually counted as parts of a single metro area. Together, they contain many prominent universities, plus the Research Triangle, famous for its high-tech and bioscience industries.

On 5 lists, you can find the neighboring California metros San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont and San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara. This region is well known for the Silicon Valley and for the world’s highest concentration of start-up companies.

But you’ll also find 5 lists with the metro area where I live, Trenton-Ewing, NJ. New Haven, CT, also appears on 5 lists. Both of these regions are home to outstanding universities (Princeton and Yale) and many research companies that feed on the brainpower that these universities foster. Also, they are both state capitals (as are Raleigh and Boston).

Probably the most important lesson to take away from this analysis is that high-skill jobs tend to cluster around university towns, and therefore one of our national priorities should be to encourage higher education. Although all politicians give lip service to higher education, it may suffer from false economies in this era of budget-cutting.

I hope I can find the time to take this analysis one step further and try to identify metro areas that have a high density of college students but--unlike the metro areas that made my lists--have a low density of workers in high-skilled occupations. Other research I have read, especially the work of Richard Florida, indicates that the presence of universities contributes to economic success but is not sufficient to guarantee it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Federal Jobs: Pros and Cons

In the wake of this week’s agreement about the national debt ceiling, you may be wondering what impact this legislation will have on careers in the federal government. As it happens, I recently wrote a book called 150 Best Federal Jobs, which is now in the final stages of editing. To prepare this book, I studied the outlook for federal careers and their other advantages and disadvantages. I’ll be interested to see how the Bureau of Labor Statistics revises their projections for federal jobs when their new figures come out early next year.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the federal workforce has been expanding rapidly and is expected to grow by leaps and bounds. In fact, the paychecks of federal workers make up only a small fraction of our federal expenditures that are running up unprecedented levels of debt.

More important, even before the current round of cuts (plus those that are to be enacted by the “Super-Congress”), the federal workforce was not expected to be a fast-growing industry. Two years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 0.5 percent growth from 2008–2018, compared to 10.1 percent for all industries. If you don’t count Postal Service jobs, federal growth was projected to be a somewhat healthier 3.5 percent, but that still does not compare well to the 10.1 average across all career fields.

On the other hand, I should mention the many factors that make federal employment desirable. This is one of the few industries that were not badly hurt by the recent recession. It continues to offer jobs in a wide variety of fields, jobs that have many advantages compared to jobs in the private sector:
  • Federal jobs tend to be more secure. When agencies need to reduce their size, they usually do so by attrition (that is, not replacing people who leave). Employees can challenge termination or other personnel decisions through a formal appeals process.

  • Hiring and promotion in federal jobs are guided by a stronger commitment to diversity and inclusion than you’ll find in most private-sector worksites.

  • Federal jobs offer a wider selection of health-insurance plans than do private-sector employers. Retirees can continue their health-insurance coverage for the same fee they paid while working.

  • Federal jobs offer better retirement benefits than many jobs in the private sector.

  • Federal jobs offer 10 holidays per year.

  • Federal jobs offer 13 vacation days per year to beginning workers, 20 days after 3 years, and 26 days after 15 years. To this, add 13 days of sick leave per year.

  • Federal jobs often permit flexible work arrangements. For example, you may be able to work four 10-hour days per week or do some work from home. Workers are rarely required to work more than 40 hours. This can make a huge difference in some fields, such as law and accounting.

  • High-quality day care for children is often available at federal job sites or sometimes is subsidized at off-site centers.

  • Federal jobs can give you the satisfaction of serving the nation.
Federal employment is not a worker’s paradise, however:
  • The advantages listed above mean that competition for some federal jobs is intense.

  • A few federal jobs require security clearance, which may require background investigations that can drag on for months.

  • The workplace structure tends to be more bureaucratic than in small private-sector businesses. In high-tech jobs, the workplace may be slower to adopt the newest technologies.

  • Sometimes political pressures prevent workers from doing their jobs as they see fit.

  • Jobs may be affected in arbitrary ways by national political trends. For example, last year President Obama froze federal workers’ pay as a political gesture that actually had a minimal impact on the budget.

  • Although the many rules are designed to promote fairness, some workers find ways to manipulate the rules to gain an advantage.
What about pay? The answer depends on how you analyze the data. Federal workers earn more than private-sector workers, but they also are better educated. Most individual federal workers would earn more in an equivalent private-sector job. On the other hand, federal pay is extremely fair. In many private-sector jobs, you have to negotiate your salary and don’t know what other workers’ salaries are based on. The pay for federal jobs is supposed to be comparable to what is current in the private sector, with adjustments for local cost of living, and it is based on your salary grade.

The high level of competition for federal jobs, though listed here as a disadvantage, is an indication that work for the federal government is, on balance, very rewarding.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

High-Paying and Low-Paying Skills

The book I’m trying to finish right now is the second edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills. (I’ll be able to complete the manuscript once release 16.0 of the O*NET database becomes available.)

Like all of my other books in the Best Jobs series, this one will include a lot of lists. I intend to include some lists that show the relationship between skills and earnings, because readers can learn a lot from considering this relationship. For example, consider readers who have not decided on a particular career goal but want to prepare for a high-income career. These readers can focus on developing these high-payoff skills and feel they are doing something positive toward advancing their careers, even though their goals are not sufficiently crystallized to allow them to work on developing occupation-specific skills.

Recently I came upon an astute analysis of the relationship between skills and earnings. The urban theorist Richard Florida asked his colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute (at the University of Toronto) to combine data from the O*NET database about the skill requirements of occupations and data from the U.S Department of Labor about the earnings of occupations, with the goal of seeing how an increase in a skill contributes to an increase in earnings.

For the purpose of their analysis, they collapse several O*NET skills into three large skill categories: analytical skills, social intelligence skills, and physical skills. (I do something similar in my book.) Then they look at how differences in level of skill affect level of income. For example, how do the earnings for occupations requiring the 25th percentile level of analytical skill compare to earnings for occupations requiring that skill at the 75th percentile level? In this case, they found that income increased by $25,600. The difference for analytical skills is charted in the graph below. Note that the x-axis is not a time scale, as it is in most line graphs; it represents a difference in level of skill.

For social intelligence skills, the difference in income is even more dramatic. Occupations at the 75th percentile level average $34,600 more in pay than occupations at the 25th percentile level.

But note how different the effect is when the researchers look at physical skills. It turns out that working in an occupation requiring physical skill at the 75th percentile level actually reduces your income by an average of $13,600 from what it would be at the 25th percentile level.

In his blog on The Atlantic website, Richard Florida uses these findings to explain why the economic prospects of men have stagnated recently. The Great Recession threw many more men out of work than women, and even though men have been getting rehired faster than women, their long-term outlook is not as good.

For the previous edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills, “I computed the average growth and job openings of the jobs with the highest percentage of women and found statistics of 14.3% growth and 59,608 openings, compared to 10.2% growth and 29,421 openings for the jobs with the highest percentage of men. This discrepancy reinforces the idea that men have had more problems than women in adapting to an economy dominated by service and information-based jobs. Many women may simply be better prepared, possessing more appropriate skills for the jobs that are now growing rapidly and have more job openings.” I expect to find a similar discrepancy when I analyze the male- and female-dominated sets of occupations that I assemble for the new edition.

This difference in skills also helps to explain some of the narrowing of the male-female wage gap. In his blog, Florida posts two graphs by the blogger Alex Tabarrok that compare changes in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to changes in male and female wages. Both male and female wage variations track pretty closely with GDP variations until about 1975, when the male increases level off even as the female earnings continue to climb in parallel with the GDP increases. Although some of this difference can be explained by the increase in female participation in the labor force, a lot is probably caused by the better match between the skills of female workers and the requirements of the new economy.

The lesson here for both men and women is that it pays to develop analytical and social intelligence skills. For greater detail about the skill requirements of high-paying jobs with good outlook, see the next edition of 150 Best Jobs for Your Skills.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Senior Citizens at Work

Everybody knows someone who is still out of work because of the Great Recession. But you may not know many senior citizens who are. A blog entry by the economist Casey B. Milligan on The New York Times website points out that per capita employment of people ages 65 to 74 actually rose between 2007 and 2010, whereas in the population as a whole it fell by 7 percent. On the blog, you can see a nice chart illustrating this contrast, with one line for people ages 65 to 69, one line for people ages 70 to 74--both of these zigging and zagging a little, but ending up at a higher place--and another line for all ages, showing a steady downward slide. Mulligan notes that for those age 75+, the increase is even higher, but this is such a small group of workers that it is left off the chart.


I found this news fascinating because I recently finished working on the manuscript of 150 Best Jobs for a Secure Future, in which I look at career fields and occupations that have more security than most. I also look at the factors that contribute to job security and give suggestions for how you can make your job more secure.

One of the studies (PDF) that Mulligan cites to help explain this phenomenon, by economists at Boston College, looks at unemployment figures for young men and senior men over six past recessions and finds that older men used to have greater job security during slumps but this difference has been eroding. This makes it all the more noteworthy that older workers are bouncing back from unemployment so well. On the other hand, I want to point out that older workers still remain a little more secure, and this seems consistent with my finding, in the research for my book, that the more secure occupations tend to have greater-than-average concentrations of older workers. My own theory, which I have no way of proving, is that over the course of a career, workers in insecure jobs tend to lose them, whereas workers in secure jobs tend to be able to hold on, resulting in a gradual sifting of older workers out of insecure jobs and into secure jobs.

Another factor that may be in play, which was noted by some people who commented on the blog, was that older workers are likely to have better networks for finding jobs.

Mulligan explains the relatively high employment of elderly people by saying that they’re more willing to work. The Boston College study notes that older workers are less discouraged by the physical demands of work than previously because the economy now offers fewer physically demanding jobs. Now that more women are in the workforce, older men may be postponing retirement until their wives (who are, on average, three years younger) reach retirement age. Finally, those workers too young to get Medicare may be motivated to work because of the lack of post-retirement health-care benefits, which used to be a common benefit of employers but has diminished greatly over the past two decades, even as health-care costs have risen dramatically. Several of the people who commented on Mulligan’s article took up this argument, such as the elderly person who wrote, “I would not say that the elderly are ‘willing’ to work so much as they are forced to work.”

Others who left comments noted that the figures don’t indicate which workers are full-time and which are part-time. Many of these employed senior citizens may be holding part-time jobs to supplement retirement income. One wrote, “My spouse and I are senior citizens and we both work part time at two jobs. Employers would rather hire part-timers because they are less expensive. Young people have to find full-time work; empty nesters like us have fewer expenses and can just about make it on two (four all together) part-time jobs. We realize we are being exploited, but what can we do? We must supplement Social Security.”

Here’s the lesson I take away from this: The politicians who would cut back unemployment benefits and slash funding for workforce development want to believe that unemployed young people simply are not trying hard enough to find jobs. But I believe that’s a mistake. Unemployed young people tend to lack job-finding resources and, at the same time, they need jobs that they can build a life on. Their need for work is very different from the need for work experienced by senior citizens.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Career Inspiration

I recently returned from a trip to New Mexico, where I had occasion to visit several old mission churches. In their gift shops, I noticed several items related to saints, many of whom were identified as patron saints of various occupations. For example, St. Thomas the Apostle is the patron saint of architects; St. Lawrence of Rome is the patron saint of cooks (apparently because he was martyred by being roasted on a gridiron); St. Martha is the patron saint of dieticians. On one website I found an amazingly thorough listing with about 400 occupational entries.

For me, this saint-oriented way of looking at careers is something entirely new, but its implications are not all that different from the implications I wrote about last year in a blog that discussed the traditional Jewish way of classifying forms of work. (That blog appeared on a page that has since been taken down, but I have re-posted it on this site.) Both of these traditions are reminders that all work has the potential of being sacred.

This notion has attracted some interest from career development practitioners and in the general culture. At this month’s meeting of the National Career Development Association, I attended a roundtable presentation on applying logotherapy to career counseling. Although not an explicitly religious approach, logotherapy is based on the principle (developed by the psychiatrist Victor Frankl) that the fundamental human need is to find meaning in one’s life. Career choice, therefore, should be based on finding meaningful work. Another presentation, which I did not attend, was about finding “a sense of calling in our work life.” Still another was about “the implications spirituality poses for career counseling.”

JIST offers a book that is explicitly about applying spiritual insights to career decisions: The Christian's Career Journey, by Susan Britton Whitcomb. The larger issue of seeking a deeper purpose in life is the theme of the colossal best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren. A less explicitly religious and more metaphorical treatment of this theme is the novel A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron, which I would particularly recommend to anyone who loves dogs.

May you find purpose in your work and in your life.

Two Occupational Taxonomies

Note: This blog originally appeared in 2010 on another site, where it has since been taken down.

We humans love to classify things. Show us a diverse collection of objects or concepts--be they animals, cloud formations, rocks, literary works, beers, shoes, or personalities--and we’ll devise a taxonomy to classify them. This is certainly true of the world of work; several classification schemes are presently in use. Today’s blog is about one that has recently been revised and one that is over 1,500 years old (and still being used).

Federal law mandates that all occupational information be reported under the Standard Occupational Classification. Before the initial release of the SOC in 1980, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Employment Service used different taxonomies, and information could not readily be compared between the two without the use of crosswalk tables. This disconnect continued even after the release of the SOC, until the SOC was mandated as the one standard taxonomy.Because the world of work does not stand still, neither can the SOC taxonomy. As the U.S. economy changes and creates new occupations, the SOC needs to be revised regularly. Of course, revisions affect many departments in the government, so each time the SOC is revised, an interagency committee meets and deliberates over what should be added, removed, combined, split, or renamed. The 2010 release of SOC has recently been published, and I was curious to see what indications of our changing economy I could see in the revisions from the previous release.

Advances in technology are responsible for several new occupations in SOC 2010: Solar Photovoltaic Installers; Wind Turbine Service Technicians; Radio, Cellular, and Tower Equipment Installers and Repairers; Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists; and Genetic Counselors. Because health-care duties formerly handled by physicians are now being shifted to lower-cost workers, the new taxonomy needed to add Ophthalmic Medical Technicians and several advanced practice nursing occupations: Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. The category of Therapists now includes Exercise Physiologists. Audiologists, formerly part of Therapists, now is a category in its own right, on a par with Pharmacists and Podiatrists and indicative of its increased level of professionalism. (The doctoral degree has become the standard qualification.) The graying of America is reflected in the addition of Hearing Aid Specialists. Our increased concern with homeland security necessitated adding Transportation Security Screeners.

It’s interesting to contrast the SOC with another occupational taxonomy that was finalized roughly during the time of King Arthur and has not been changed since: the 39 categories of work according to traditional Jewish law. Everybody knows that the Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest from work. What you may not know is that this prohibition necessitated a definition of what constitutes work. It happens that the same word, melakha (which translates roughly as “workmanship”) is used in the Torah for what God rested from on the seventh day and also for the work that went into the construction, furnishing, and provisioning of the Tabernacle that the Children of Israel created in the wilderness, following the exodus from Egypt. Therefore, Jewish law defined the different kinds of work (the plural, melakhot) by itemizing the tasks that created the Tabernacle. So, for example, the taxonomy includes carrying, igniting a fire, knotting, harvesting, grinding, shearing wool, writing, and building, among other tasks.

As I noted earlier, this taxonomy has not been changed in all these years. But neither has the highest level of categories in the SOC, which consists of 23 groups, such as Management Occupations and Protective Service Occupations. The difference is that the SOC taxonomy specifies lower levels of detail, whereas Jewish law leaves the specifics open to interpretation and therefore does not create a structure that has to be updated in response to changing social conditions and technologies. For example, after the invention of electricity, the category of igniting a fire was interpreted to include using electric power, because electricity is equivalent to a spark or because using it means closing a circuit, which is taken to be a kind of construction or completion. In this example, we can also see the problem that emerges when the taxonomy’s specifics are left open to interpretation, because some progressive scholars of Jewish law reject the equation of electricity with fire and permit its use on the Sabbath.

But let’s set aside these squabbles over interpretation and reconsider the basis of the taxonomy of the 39 melakhot. You may think that the traditional religious attitude toward work is that it’s a curse that was imposed on Adam, and my previous two blogs (about job dissatisfaction) indicated that for many people it is. However, the basis of the 39 melakhot suggests that all work has the potential for holiness. It can serve a purpose greater than just putting bread on the table. I think that many workers are dissatisfied because they feel the work they’re doing lacks a larger purpose. I would advise these workers to think about a job change or a career change that provides that purpose.

To that end, I guess this is as good a place as any to plug one of my books, 150 Best Jobs for a Better World.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Hollywood Model of Employment

In 2011 Career Plan and many other books, I write mostly about careers that people pursue by going to work for someone else. To be sure, freelance or self-employed work is not uncommon in some occupations I describe. When I write about job-hunting, however, I generally write in terms of getting hired. However, some people who write about the future of work suggest that this kind of work arrangement is soon going to fade away. It’s an intriguing theory, but I don’t buy it.

The argument is that the “Hollywood model” will become the new norm. In the days of black-and-white movies, Hollywood studios kept writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, set designers, and other workers--even actors--under contract as full-time employees. But nowadays a movie producer brings together a team of workers with no commitments beyond the project at hand.

Some futurists argue that this will become the model for other industries--all the more likely as we see decreases in noncreative work, such as mass manufacturing, and increases in more creative work, such as research and development. Teams of creative workers will come together for a project and disband when it’s completed.

This new work arrangement is supposed to make the creative industries more competitive. It gives the project manager (in Hollywood, that would be the producer) the ability to put together the most appropriate team for the particular project and gives the talented workers the freedom to choose which projects to work in. This is supposed to increase the creativity of the output, because flexibility in the makeup of the team should avoid a cookie-cutter approach to the creative process. Moreover, this arrangement is supposed to save money, because the organization (in Hollywood, that would be the studio or production company) is not carrying the overhead of a large staff of salaried employees.

This alleged trend toward ad-hoc work arrangements should be encouraged by modern telecommunications technology. Nowadays you don’t even have to be on the same continent as your teammates to collaborate on many types of projects. In addition, traditional notions of loyalty to one’s employer have long since crumbled and no longer present a barrier to a more tentative employment relationship.

In the late 1990s, I had been reading several books that argued that this was the emerging model for work. At the time, I was convinced by this reasoning, and I even drafted an article arguing in favor of this prediction.

But I no longer believe that this change will happen anytime soon. One reason for my skepticism is the passage of time: Almost all of these factors have been present for the past 15 years, yet no paradigm shift has occurred so far.

You, too, may become a skeptic after visiting your local multiplex. Has the Hollywood model really contained movie production costs? And after the umpteenth movie in which an odd couple hits the road, an irresponsible schlubby guy woos a hot gal, or a superhero battles the forces of evil, do you really think Hollywood is more creative now than in the heyday of Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers?

In the current model for the film industry, word of mouth quickly kills off every movie except a few blockbusters. Seeking a blockbuster, then, producers spend megabucks to inject larger-than-life stars or larger-than-life special effects into a predictable concept that has been pre-sold to the public, such as a formulaic plot, a sequel, or a 30-year-old television show. I wonder whether other creative industries can achieve any better results by following the Hollywood model. Software publishing may be the dominant industry of this kind, and almost all the applications on my desktop are only cosmetically improved over what I was running a decade ago. Most of the advances in software have resulted from breakthroughs in hardware platforms.

Here are some important factors that I believe will continue to discourage project-based work arrangements in the near future:
  • Health insurance costs continue to climb, and we’re seeing only slow movement at best away from a system that is employer-based and that can deny you coverage easily when you’re not a full-time worker.

  • Job security has become a much greater concern since the onset of the Great Recession. (This is why the book I’m working on right now is called 150 Best Jobs for a Secure Future.) People realize that we are a long way from recovery of the jobs lost and that few safeguards have been put in place to prevent a repeat of the financial collapse. Because job loss means loss of health insurance, couples increasingly want at least one partner to have steady employment.

  • The trend toward creative work means that an increasing number of companies are engaged constantly in creative projects and do not need to dismiss their workers after one project is finished. Creative workers are needed now more than ever, and so the companies that have identified and used their talents are reluctant to let them scatter to the four winds.

  • Companies that only occasionally need creative workers can sometimes fill these needs by finding full-time employees who work elsewhere but are willing to moonlight. Moonlight income is very welcome these days of stagnant salaries in most industries.

  • The project-based work arrangement requires creative workers to spend part of their work time lining up the next project. Many creative workers find this a drag on their ability to focus on the project at hand.

I am living proof of what I’m describing. After I was downsized in the late 1990s by a company that had only intermittent need of creative workers (at least in my area of expertise), I worked as a consultant for some years, doing project-based assignments. One such assignment, from JIST Publishing, turned into a series of assignments, then a half-time job, and finally a full-time job when JIST discovered that my skills were a good fit for the company’s needs and would be in constant demand. The same modern communications media that allowed me to work for JIST from home on a project-by-project basis enable me to work for JIST from home now as a regular employee.

The Great Recession has made me even more convinced than before that the traditional work arrangement remains preferable to a project-based scheme. I believe that my view is not idiosyncratic but is shared by most workers who theoretically should be able to work in a project-based arrangement.