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

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.