High-Paying and Low-Paying Skills

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 0 comments
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.

Senior Citizens at Work

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 0 comments

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.

Career Inspiration

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 0 comments

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.