Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Measuring the Importance of Postsecondary Education

One of the purposes of my forthcoming book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, is to exhort the reader to get additional education or training as preparation for a career move. I describe several routes to career entry, such as on-the-job training, postsecondary technical school, and college degrees. Although I mention the advantages and disadvantages of each skill-building route, I don’t point to any single route as best for all people. That would certainly be bad guidance. But the point is that some education or training beyond the high school diploma is vital. (I make the same point in another book, Quick Education and Training Options Guide, which is due out in October.)

This argument gains a lot of reinforcement from a fascinating research study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce: Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018. (You can get the PDF of the full report or the executive summary at

The report, by Anthony P. Carnevale (full disclosure: he was a colleague of mine at Educational Testing Service), Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, forecasts the demand for workers with various levels of education. The researchers show that the jobs (that is, paid positions, not occupations) normally requiring an associate degree or higher increase from 28% of the total mix in 1973 to 56% in 1992, 59% in 2007, and a projected 62% in 2018. Over the same interval, the fraction of jobs for people with only a high school diploma falls from 40% to 28%, and for high school dropouts from 32% to 10%.

They also show that postsecondary education is increasingly important for entering or staying in the middle class, which they define as the middle four deciles of household earnings. In 1970, 46% of high school dropouts and 60% of high school graduates were in the middle class. By 2007, these proportions had dropped to 33% and 45%. There was also some erosion among college grads, as people with the bachelor’s went from being 47% in the middle class to 38%. But the bachelor’s-holders were moving upward, not downward. The percentage of bachelor's-holders in the upper three deciles of household earnings increased from 37% to 48%. Similar changes can be seen in those with a graduate degree.

Looking at wage trends, they found that from 1983 to 2008, among prime-age workers between the ages of 25 and 54, earnings increased by 13% for high school grads compared to 15% for those with an associate degree, 34% with a bachelor’s, and 55% with a graduate degree. Over a lifetime, they estimated earnings (in current dollars) of $1,767,025 for high school grads, but almost double that ($3,380,060) for those with a bachelor’s.

The researchers point to the changing nature of our economy, only accelerated by the Great Recession, as the force that is increasing the demand for--and remuneration of--workers with postsecondary education.

They also make a related point: that our current postsecondary educational system will not produce enough workers to meet this demand. This idea goes beyond the purview of 2011 Career Plan and therefore doesn’t get a full discussion in this blog. Nevertheless, it’s a very important point, and I may return to it in a future blog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One of the Hottest Career Fields for 2011

In my forthcoming book 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, I devote one chapter to the hottest fields of 2011.

If you’re planning for a career move, it makes sense to focus on a field with a lot of potential. As the economy heats up, it doesn’t work like an oven that browns all the biscuits at the same rate. Some industries are much hotter than others. So it makes sense for you to focus your 2011 career plan on a field that is expected to offer lots of job opportunities.

In the book, I provide information about 11 hot career fields. Following is some information about the hottest field of all, management, scientific, and technical consulting services. (The following discussion draws heavily on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Guide to Industries.)

Firms that offer management, scientific, and technical consulting services influence how businesses, governments, and institutions make decisions. Often working behind the scenes, these firms offer technical expertise, information, contacts, and tools that clients cannot provide themselves. They then work with their clients to provide a service or solve a problem.

Usually, one of the resources that consulting firms provide to clients is expertise—in the form of knowledge, experience, special skills, or creativity; another resource is time or personnel that the client cannot spare. Clients include large and small companies in the private sector; federal, state, and local government agencies; institutions, such as hospitals, universities, unions, and nonprofit organizations; and foreign governments or businesses.

The management, scientific, and technical consulting services industry is diverse. Almost anyone with expertise in a given area can enter consulting, which means that it can be a good field to move into after you have acquired a lot of skills and knowledge in some other industry.

Management consulting firms advise on almost every aspect of corporate operations: marketing; finance; corporate strategy and organization; manufacturing processes; information systems and data processing; electronic commerce (e-commerce) or business; human resources, including benefits and compensation; and many others. Scientific and technical consulting firms provide technical advice relating to almost all nonmanagement organizational activities, including compliance with environmental and workplace safety and health regulations; the application of technology; and the application of sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Consultants work slightly longer hours than most other workers, and occasionally they work evenings or weekends under stress to meet hurried deadlines. Consultants whose services are billed hourly often are under pressure to manage their time very carefully.

Workers enter this industry via a wide variety of routes. Although employers generally prefer a bachelor’s or higher degree, most jobs also require extensive on-the-job training or related experience. Advancement opportunities are best for workers with the highest levels of education.

Some consultants start their own firm as a self-employed, one-person operation, eventually taking on a small support staff.

Employment in this field is projected to grow by 82.7 percent from 2008 to 2018. All of the following occupations are projected to grow within this industry by at least 100 percent. Note that the following facts about these occupations apply only to workers within this industry.

Occupational Growth Within IndustryWorkforce Size Within IndustryAverage Earnings Within Industry
1.Network Systems and Data Communications Analysts148.2%6,560$74,410
2.Industrial Engineers111.8%5,070$82,440
3.Financial Analysts104.1%9,120$74,380
4.Customer Service Representatives104.0%27,980$31,520
6.Public Relations Specialists104.0%8,350$57,530
7.Training and Development Specialists103.9%6,640$60,420
8.Computer Software Engineers, Applications102.4%11,660$89,190
9.Computer Software Engineers, Systems Software102.4%11,420$94,170
10.Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists102.1%5,200$60,340

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earnings are national estimates for May 2009.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 2

In the previous blog, I wrote about getting ahead in your career through informal learning, either by asking co-workers for help or by creating a program of self-instruction, ideally with a study partner. (These are some ideas I include in my forthcoming book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves for a Solid Future.)

Independent study is particularly useful if the skill you want to master is on the cutting edge of technology and classes are not yet available. People who work with computers do this constantly; in fact, their jobs are in danger if they don’t. Years ago, I taught myself how to use Dan Bricklin’s Demo Program, which was the best program for creating demos during the DOS era, before Windows and Visual Basic. I learned by ordering the software (and getting my employer to pay), studying the manual, and experimenting with a project.

This last element of the learning process--applying it to an actual project--is vital. You won’t retain mastery of the skill unless you have occasions to use the skill. This is part of the reason I can barely make out the Arabic alphabet these days, although I studied the language for awhile. As my visits to Saudi Arabia grew further apart, my occasions to use Arabic diminished. Nowadays the only practice I get is with the occasional taxi driver.

By contrast, my skill with the Demo program kept getting better and better for a few years, because I had repeated projects to use it on. When I first learned Demo, I used it in an actual development project I was involved with at work. Because the project would benefit from my use of a demo, my boss was willing to let me learn the skill during the workday. I improved my skills in subsequent projects. Later, I learned Visual Basic the same way and continue to use it now.

Using the skill in a project overcomes one of the downsides of informal learning: that it does not give you a tangible credential in the same way that a formal course does. Once you've used the newly learned skill in a project, you can get recognition for the skill on your performance appraisal.

To encourage skill growth through informal learning and on-the-job experience, in 2011 Career Plan I include a sample e-mail message that a worker can send to his or her boss asking for such an assignment:

E-mail That Requests Skill-Testing Assignment

I have been working on improving my ____________________ skills and would really appreciate some feedback from you regarding these skills. I believe a good way for me to get this feedback is to tackle a work task that requires these skills at a level beyond what you’ve seen me do in the past. If I handle the task correctly and demonstrate the skill, please let me know I’ve done so. If I make any mistakes, I want to know about them, too. Please let me know not just what I’ve done wrong, but how I can do the task better. I promise I won’t be defensive about your comments.

I’m not asking for extra pay for doing this, and doing it would not imply I’ve been promoted. I also assure you that I won’t let this extra task interfere with my usual work assignments. If necessary, I’ll work on this task outside of my regular work hours.

Please give some thought to what task would be appropriate—a challenge, but not so difficult that I’m guaranteed to fail. If you’re not sure, I can suggest some possible tasks that you can choose from. I’ll be happy to answer any other questions you have about this experiment.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 1

This blog is a departure from my usual focus on career information. It’s about career advancement. Many people who want to get ahead in their careers think their only option is to get an additional college degree, certification, or other formal credential. In my book 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, due out in September, I explain some other strategies for getting ahead.

You advance in your career by improving your skills. Degree programs and other formal courses are not the only way to do this.

Let’s face it, nobody knows exactly what to do on the very first day at the worksite. Every new worker needs at least a little informal on-the-job training from experienced workers. Why should this end once you’ve learned the job? When you see co-workers using a skill that you don’t have, ask them to show you how. Most co-workers will be happy to teach you, if it doesn’t take up too much of their time.

Another way to learn informally is through independent study. In fact, this may be your only option if the skill is so arcane that local classes are not available. A few years back, I was involved in a project for a university in Saudi Arabia and realized it would be useful for me to learn some Arabic. This was before 9/11, and it would have been difficult for me to find an academic course in the language, so I undertook a self-instruction program using a textbook and homemade flash cards.

I managed to teach myself a smattering of Arabic, but the program eventually ran aground because I lacked a study partner. Study partners help reinforce each other’s learning and keep the learning program on track. Without a study partner, you’re more likely to give up quickly.

In 2011 Career Plan I include a checklist of characteristics that are good to have in a study partner:

Characteristics of a Good Study Partner

__ This person is interested in learning the same skill that I want to learn.

__ For the skill that I want to learn, this person is now at roughly the same level.

__ For the skill that I want to learn, this person has roughly the same aptitude for learning.

__ This person is as committed as I am to keeping the study program going and staying on task.

__ This person and I can agree on what book (or other learning resource) to use in our program of study.

__ This person and I can get along reasonably well.

__ This person’s schedule and mine allow time to meet regularly for study sessions.

__ This person is able to find time to do the homework required between meetings.

When you’re filling out this checklist, it helps if you know which statements you feel positive about. However, you may be unsure about some statements. For example, you may not know how committed the study partner is until you have started studying together. If you feel neutral about some statements, you may choose to give the person the benefit of the doubt, start studying with this person, and eventually decide whether the arrangement is working out.

On the other hand, if you already feel negative about several statements, maybe you should consider finding someone else as a study partner