Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Recent Trends in Work Conditions

Money isn't everything. When choosing a career, most people also consider the work conditions. Will the job be mainly indoors or outdoors? Will it involve a lot of time pressure or high-impact decisions that add stress? It's nice to be able to choose work conditions that agree with you, but sometimes the jobs that are available do not offer exactly what you want, so you have to make compromises if you want to earn a paycheck.

As the economy changes over time, there are changes in the salience of various work conditions that people deal with on the job. I decided to identify recent trends in work conditions by examining recent data about occupations and about the changing levels of employment in occupations. Which work conditions are becoming more prevalent and which are receding?

Here is the procedure that I used to track several work conditions:

  • I used workforce estimates for the years 2006 through 2012 from the Occupational Employment Statistics survey of the BLS. Note that this covers most but not all workers; self-employed workers are not included.
  • For each occupation, I multiplied the workforce size at each year by the numerical ratings for various work conditions in the O*NET database (where they are called Work Context elements).
  • For each year and for each work condition, I summed the products for all occupations and summed the workforce sizes of all occupations.
  • For each year and for each work condition, I divided the sum of products by the sum of workforces to get an overall quotient that indicated the level at which that work condition was significant for the nation’s workforce during that year.
  • Finally, I graphed the changing levels for each work condition.
Note that each chart below uses a different vertical scale, and that this scale is selected to emphasize the vertical movement of the curve. If I had plotted all the curves on a single chart, the vertical movement of some of the curves would not have been as evident. I'm more interested in the direction of movement than in the absolute value of the movement.

The first two charts show the trends for outdoors and indoors work. (Actually, in O*NET, the specific work conditions I used were "Outdoors, Exposed to Weather" and "Indoors, Environmentally Controlled.") As you might expect, the two curves are almost mirror images, and the general trend is away from outdoors work (although there has been a leveling-off in the most recent years). One factor contributing to that trend is the increasing mechanization of agriculture. Another factor is the decline in construction work that followed the collapse of the housing bubble.

You may wonder why the two preceding curves are not exact mirror images--why indoors work falls off very slightly during the recovery even though outdoors work does not pick up by a comparable amount. I found that the slight dip in indoors was offset by slight increases in work done in interior environments without climate controls (such as the jobs done by some warehouse workers and mechanics) and in enclosed vehicles (such as the jobs done by transportation workers and many sales workers). These mini-trends reflect the job growth that happened following the Great Recession, in which office jobs did not return as fast as some skilled blue-collar jobs.

You can see more evidence of this mini-trend in the following chart, which shows the trends in sedentary jobs.This chart shows a curve almost identical to the curve for indoors work.

The trend in what O*NET calls "Degree of Automation" may surprise you by its downward slope. Isn't automation constantly increasing? Understand that the curve represents not the amount of automation being used but rather the number of workers whose jobs involve a lot of automation. Most employees in manufacturing have worked with automation for a long time, so when automation reaches the point that it eliminates a manufacturing job, that's one less automation-related job. An additional drain on automation-related jobs was occurring in the years 2006 through 2009, when many highly automated jobs were being shifted to plants in foreign countries.

On the other hand, you'll note that the slope has pretty much leveled off in the most recent years. I interpret this to mean that automation is not a threat as much as it is the new normal. It's getting harder and harder to find new ways to automate jobs, and the great bulk of automation-using jobs that can be shipped overseas already have been offshored. Nowadays we're actually seeing an increase in advanced manufacturing jobs.

If automation is the new normal, what does this mean for you as a worker? It means that you need a high level of skills, either for doing the things that automation can't do (making sophisticated judgments or using people skills) or for doing the technological work of creating and programming automated equipment. And this is true no matter whether your work is indoors or outdoors, standing or sitting.

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