Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jobs Aren't Coming Back

At least, not like they used to be.

The job market has evolved considerably over the past half-century. We've moved away from the concept of a career as something that happens with a single employer to something that happens over a series of employers. We've moved away from manufacturing jobs in favor of service and information-based employment. We've moved away from pensions to self-funded retirement accounts. We've moved away from unions in favor of at-will employment. We've moved away from any sense of "sharing the wealth" in favor of compensation schemes that overwhelmingly favor top management, with wage stagnation for workers even when profits and productivity soar. And yet, to hear people talking about "jobs bills" or "jobs creation", you would think that none of that had occurred - that we were back in the heady, post-WWII period where anybody with a good head on her shoulders could get a "great job" and a "career".

Through that time we've gone from the possibility of a blue collar job as often the primary or only source of income for a family, into an era where absent specialized job skills a blue collar worker is much less likely to earn a middle class wage and even less likely to expect long-term job stability. In recent decades, thanks largely to outsourcing and automation, that phenomenon has crept into the clerical and technical fields, and increasingly affects professionals. Companies that once might have hired recent college graduates into entry level research, editing or technical jobs are able to either hire adequately qualified professionals overseas, or are able to find experienced freelancers who will do the work as needed. A lot of jobs that have disappeared with the current recession aren't coming back - the employers have found alternatives that come at a lower cost, are more flexible, and which may be superior to recruiting, hiring and training new employees, perhaps all three.

Thirty years ago a college graduate might have been told that he would have three, four, five employers over his career. Twenty years ago a college graduate might have heard that if he stayed on a job for five years, that would be a long time. Today college graduates are being advised that they may have three, four, five different careers over the course of their lifetimes - that to maintain employment they'll have to constantly keep an eye on the future and take advantages of opportunities to expand their skills or retrain, as the job they have today may not even exist in five years. Moreover, many will find themselves in the position of consultants or freelancers, competing for contracts that carry neither job security nor benefits. Often working for employers who care less about their résumé than what they'll charge per hour or per contract. No, I'm not arguing that all jobs will disappear, but many will - including a lot of what were once entry-level jobs for college graduates.

Meanwhile, better paying domestic manufacturing jobs will continue to trend toward a skilled, educated workforce. For those fields requiring skilled manual labor, I see a trend toward the manufacture of higher-end products (with fewer domestic jobs) as has occurred in the domestic furniture industry. New technologies will continue to affect every major field of employment, including the skilled trades, increasing efficiency and perhaps quality while reducing man-hours. Computers are already decent at taking dictation; that will only improve. Electronic file transfers will continue to reduce the need for copy services and express mail, office supplies, book, music and video stores, traditional newspapers... and a lot of service and retail jobs.

So workers looking for jobs, many of whom have been unemployed for a year or more, are demanding to know what President Obama is going to do to create jobs. That is, when they're not at "tea parties" demanding that the government cut spending. Sorry, but the only way the President can "create jobs" for the masses is through government spending - and most of those jobs last only as long as the funding lasts. Pick your poison - smaller government, reduced spending, and waiting for the economy to generate more jobs, or massive government stimulus bills that may (or may not) kick-start the economy, and will create some (but not enough) jobs while we're waiting for the economy to recover. But don't be surprised if, whichever poison you pick, things don't turn out the way you expect.


  1. How do you feel about how we push kids to college at all costs? Personally, I am a huge fan of vo-tech (for lack of a better word) schools. Nobody makes stuff anymore! (Not that there is a market for every kind of widget imaginable, of course) But esp. for special ed kids, vo tech can be a lifesaver.
    Also, I have to question is our colleges are equipped to handle the future job market. When I was in college, people majored in things like English, Art, Political Science (me, for law school), generic Business, Math. Many planned to teach. Well, those jobs are gone (except for adjuncts and substitute K-12 anymore). Friends of mine who majored in things like History, Geology, English etc are by and large working in offices and not really in their chosen fields. What kinds of majors do we need these days?

  2. Historically one of the problems with vocational education is that it was viewed as a lesser track - there was a sense that you went into vocational programs if you weren't smart enough for college. That conceit needs to go. There's nothing wrong with learning a trade or vocation, and knowing one can both help you pay for college and help you decide if you really need to pursue a degree - if you like your work and it offers a decent, stable career path, why do you need a bachelor's degree (or higher)?

    But at the same time, assuming you're willing to accept the cost, there's no reason not to get a college education just for the sake of getting an education. There's a transformative value to the undergraduate education - it changes the way people think and approach problems and ideas. There may be a risk in pursuing your dream degree, in that you may never find a job within your field of study (although it may happen). Just be prepared for the possibility that you'll need a graduate degree, perhaps in a different field, or will need to seek a career path outside of your field of study.

    The future is full of surprises. Would you have believed, twenty years ago, that linguistics majors would become hot commodities at tech companies that build search engines?

    I believe that we should make it very affordable to pursue graduate degrees in the hard sciences - chemistry, biology, physics (perhaps with the caveat that if a newly minted Ph.D. goes off to work for a financial institution she has to repay the subsidy).... The future depends upon advanced science, yet we give short shrift to the subject.

  3. I agree with TeacherPatti re: "vo-tech". Anybody who has paid for a plumber or electrician lately knows that those are "viable" career fields and a lot more "stable" than most anything my "poli-sci" degree could get someone.

    I grew-up in a family that pushed education. I plan on pushing my son to go to college. I still remember my father telling me that an education was the only thing that couldn't be taken away from you. With all of that said - I don't think I'm as big a fan of higher education as I was twenty years ago.

    College is now what high school used to be - a litmus test you need to be able to meet in order to get an entry level job.

    I grew-up with the same philosophy as Aaron re: "the transformative value of the undergraduate experience." Then I went to college. To put it mildly, it (and its second cousin law school) wasn't what I had hoped for . . . it was fun. It provided an opportunity to observe aspects of society that I'd never seen before (who knew we had so many trust fund babies in MI), but it didn't seem to transform anyone. and most people were more interested in earnings potential than learning . . .


  4. Yeah. I couldn't get that CWD guy (Mr. GQ, as they called him) to stop talking about money... Sheesh. ;-)

    You have to be careful, even with a trade, in that economic downturns affect the trades as well. A lot of plumbers, electricians and carpenters are hurting right now. Not to mention contractors.

    I agree that there are some disturbing trends in college education, including the fact that the culture of "it's cool to be dumb" has expanded from high schools into a lot of colleges. That goes hand-in-hand with pushing kids who aren't academically inclined into college "because you need a degree to get a good job."

    Yes, a college degree is in a sense like a union card - you need one to get certain jobs. But that's not really a change from the past - it's just that with degree specialization and an expanded population of college graduates (and postgraduates) the range of jobs available with any given degree has significantly narrowed. Back in the 1950's, you could enter a lot of management jobs with a bachelor's degree - pretty much any bachelor's degree; now you're expected to have an MBA. Yet, to put it mildly, I'm not sure that business management has improved....


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