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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Joys of Working at Home

My wife and I both work at home. She is a technical writer, and I write books about careers. According to the Center for Clean Air Policy, the number of telecommuters increased from about 3 million in 1993 to 6 million in 2008. That’s only a small slice of the total U.S. workforce of 150 million, but the growth is impressive and is likely to continue, for several reasons.

The shift to a knowledge-based economy is one factor that has encouraged work-at-home arrangements. An increasing number of jobs (such as our writing jobs) don’t depend on access to factory-scale machinery, so they can more easily be done where the worker lives. To be sure, some knowledge-based jobs such as laboratory research still require facilities that few people have in their homes. Workers in some highly collaborative jobs benefit from close contact with co-workers. And health-care jobs require a lot of personal contact with patients, either in an office or in their homes.

However, technology has the potential to make a work-at-home arrangement easier for many of these jobs, too. As computing power has increased, more and more tasks that have traditionally required a physical laboratory can be performed in a virtual laboratory, through a simulation that stay-at-home workers can run from their desks. Computer networking also makes it easier for workers to collaborate remotely. With video contact (such as Skype) and remote desktop access, you and the other worker can feel very much as if you’re in the same room even as you work from your home offices. Telemedicine is being used to bring some health care tasks (mainly diagnosis) to underdeveloped countries, but we may see its use growing here. A relative of mine with heart problems has her vital signs checked remotely from home several times per day. The workers who interpret these signs could also be at home.

Work-at-home arrangements are not just more feasible now; they are also more desirable to employers. One former employer of mine encouraged workers to spend one day per week at home because of traffic increases in the township where the company was located. This policy allowed the company to expand its workforce without a commensurate increase in the number of cars on the township roads. The arrangement also reduced the burdens on company facilities such as janitorial and cafeteria services, not to mention electric power. Of course, these costs were shifted to the workers, but most workers are willing to take on the burden of running a home office for the benefits that the work-at-home arrangement offers.

And that is yet one more reason why the arrangement is growing: Many workers are more satisfied this way. From my own experience, I can list several reasons that the arrangement is so satisfying. The home setting is less stressful than a corporate office. I am rarely interrupted except when I want to be. I have the companionship of my wife, my dog, and my two cats. I can listen to Internet radio as I work (something that many companies forbid because of the drain on bandwidth). I have total control over the lighting, the heating, and many other aspects of the workplace. I can make a lunch better suited to my idiosyncratic tastes than I could find in a corporate cafeteria and fresher than I could have by brown-bagging. (In fact, the temptation to snack is one of the drawbacks of working at home.) With no need to commute, I save time, run up less mileage on my car, and reduce my risk of accidents. I can participate in the truly important meetings by teleconference but avoid the trivial ones.

This last advantage also can be a disadvantage in some circumstances. Working at home means you lose facetime with your co-workers. The bonds of water-cooler gossip are harder to develop from home. When performance appraisal time rolls around, your boss may feel more positive about onsite workers whom he or she sees every day.

Even more serious is the possibility that the job you are doing at home could be done--for less pay--by somebody whose home is in Bangalore, Shanghai, or some other offshore location. The same factors that encourage your employer to have you work off-site apply to these workers as well. So if you are choosing a job on the basis of how readily the work can be done at home, perhaps you should also look for a position that requires occasional on-site work (such as a weekly meeting) or some attribute (such as a security clearance) that an offshore worker is unlikely to possess.

If you have a fairly extroverted personality, work at home can lack the energy input that you would get from personal contact with co-workers. In my case, this means that working at home has made me very responsive to journalists who call to interview me about career-related issues. I enjoy the contact, albeit remote, and I’m happy to talk for as long as they press me with questions.

Workers with small children who are considering at-home work need to be realistic about how well they will be able to divide their attention between their jobs and their children. They probably will need to arrange day-care services just as if they were working in a company office. A toddler can be much more demanding than my cat, who right now is curling up under the desk lamp.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Earning Less Because of Recession

It should be no surprise that workers are earning less now because of the recession from which we’re still recovering. This is a tricky thing to quantify, for several reasons. For example, when you lay off a lot of low-skilled people, the average wage figure for those who are still employed actually goes up. However, if you look at the experiences of individuals over time, you’ll find lots of evidence that people are earning less, especially when they lose a job and take a new job.

This is the theme of a disturbing article in The Wall Street Journal:Downturn's Ugly Trademark: Steep, Lasting Drop in Wages.” The article offers several accounts of workers who lost good-paying jobs and are now working in positions such as Starbucks barista and school janitor.

The most obvious reason for this drop in wages is simple supply and demand. When the labor market is overcrowded with job-seekers, people who are being hired have less leverage to ask for good wages. Or you might phrase it this way: The large number of job-seekers effectively bid down the price that it costs to hire them.

This is also the conclusion of a blogger on the PayScale.com site. Using a measure of earnings that the site developed, called the PayScale Index, he shows the inverse relationship between this index and unemployment. The PayScale Index began to decline in the first quarter of 2009, just when unemployment jumped from about 6.5 to about 9.2. Just as unemployment has shown only tiny declines since then, so has the PayScale Index remained quite flat.

The drop in wages is particularly severe for people who are laid off, and this is not just a temporary effect. The Columbia University labor economist Till von Wachter and two colleagues analyzed Social Security data to explore the effects of the recession of the early 1980s. The researchers found (PDF) that earnings of those who were laid off improved somewhat after the initial drop in pay, which averaged around 30 percent, but did not return to pre-recession levels. Earnings remained 21 to 27 percent lower 20 years later.

To explain this drop, Von Wachter looked beyond the simple matter of an oversupply of job candidates. He believed that the stale skills of workers were (and are) also to blame.

Many workers who have held a job for a long time do not keep their skills current with emerging trends in their job. These are the workers whom employers most readily target when there is a need for layoffs. In other cases, workers have skills that are fully adequate for the job they hold, but the need for that job is declining. This is the case for jobs that can be replaced by automation or foreign workers. Workers in these jobs will need to shift careers before they can find work.

I should caution that it’s not fair to blame the victim of layoffs and pay cuts in every case, especially in such hard times as these. Some workers have lost their job even though they have excellent skills for their position and are working in a field that is in demand. They may be the victim of a mismanaged company that could have survived in normal economic times. Or they may be unable to relocate to find work because they can’t find a buyer for their house. So they end up taking a job at a lower skill level, and with less pay, than they are qualified for.

On the other hand, these unfortunate workers are the exception. Everybody has heard of someone who survived a traffic accident because of a seatbelt that was not buckled. However, the odds of survival are much better for those who do buckle in. Play the odds. Your odds of weathering a recession with a good job and good pay are better if you keep your skills up to date and work in a career that has a future. For some tips on these matters, I recommend my new book, 2011 Career Plan.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading the Tea Leaves at the Department of Labor

What are the emerging occupations that will offer job opportunities for young people and career changers? One way to get a clue is to look at how our government, especially the Department of Labor, classifies occupations.

You’ve probably been told since childhood that there are two kinds of elephants: African and Indian. Now it turns out, from genetic evidence, that there are actually two species of African elephants: the forest species and the savannah species. This discovery will mean changes in conservation practices.

Something similar happens among the labor economists in the U.S. government: Every so often, they change the way they classify occupations. Most of the time, they split up occupations, just as the biologists have split up elephant species. Two practical results are that we get (1) more career information and (2) indications of how our economy is changing.

Last year, the government changed the Standard Occupational Classification taxonomy, which is what organizes the occupational titles that appear in all reports generated by all branches of government (Labor Statistics, Census, Economic Analysis, and so forth). SOC 2000 was replaced with SOC 2010.

We’re able to see the specific impact on SOC 2010 on career information now that the National Center for O*NET Development, which prepares the nation’s chief occupational database, has announced its plans for how (in an interim release, next month) it will align the O*NET database with SOC 2010. Several occupational specializations have now become occupations in their own right. Some previously unrecognized occupations have been added. And these changes indicate the directions our economy is taking as the second decade of the 21st century begins.

Green energy is one field where the change is particularly visible. Solar Photovoltaic Installers and Wind Turbine Service Technicians used to be two specializations within Construction and Related Workers, All Other. Now they’re distinct occupations, for which BLS will need to collect workforce and wage statistics and make employment projections. I can’t wait to see these figures! For my books about green jobs, I had to rely on industry sources (historically susceptible to boosterism) for these figures.

The same result has happened in other fields as well. Health care, our fastest-growing industry, provides many examples. Genetic Counselors, which used to be a specialization within Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Workers, All Other, is now an occupation in its own right. Similarly, Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse Practitioners, which used to be confined within Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners, All Other, have been promoted to full occupational status. Nurse Midwives and Hearing Aid Specialists have broken free of Health Technologists and Technicians, All Other. (Two new specializations that O*NET is adding to this catch-all occupation are Ophthalmic Medical Technologists and Surgical Assistants.) Some completely new occupational titles in this field are Exercise Physiologists, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists, Ophthalmic Medical Technicians, Phlebotomists, and Community Health Workers.

These changes reflect the effort to reduce health-care costs by shifting some tasks from doctors to highly-skilled nurses and technicians.

In high technology, you can find Web Developers no longer slotted within Computer Specialists, All Other. Computer Security Specialists used to be a specialization within Network and Computer Systems Administrators but now steps out on its own under a modified title, Information Security Analysts. Some entirely new titles are Computer Network Architects, Computer Network Support Specialists, and Radio, Cellular, and Tower Equipment Installers and Repairers.

In the business world, some new faces are Funeral Service Managers, Labor Relations Specialists, Fundraisers, and Credit Counselors.

The presence in SOC 2010 of new or newly-promoted occupational titles means the government is betting that these occupations are likely to expand. Most of them involve new or upgraded skills, which means limited competition for job openings. If you are thinking about your future career or advise people who are, you should pay attention to these occupations.