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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Learning from Silly Assessments

Sometimes, you can learn about a serious matter by contemplating something silly. I have gained insights into serious career-related assessments by looking at frivolous assessments.

Almost every day, one or another of my Facebook friends is likely to post the results of a quiz that reveals such important insights as “What character in The Wizard of Oz are you?” or “Which state should you have been born in?” One quiz that appeared a few months ago even tried to reveal “What career should you be pursuing?” Call me a killjoy, but I am almost never tempted to take these silly assessments. I guess I worked at Educational Testing Service too long to be able to regard any assessment as harmless fun.

But I did make an exception for an assessment on Clickhole.com that lampoons these silly assessments: “Are You An Introvert, An Extrovert, Or A Sea Monster?” It offers items such as “What’s your signature look? (a) Bright and flashy. (b) Muted and professional. (c) A rippling shadow below the surface.”

In addition to poking fun at the proliferation of personality quizzes, this one points out a common failing of assessments: that the scale each item loads on is painfully obvious. In this example, it’s unmistakable that (a) loads on extroversion, (b) loads on introversion, and (c) loads on…well, you can guess.

The result of this transparency is that it’s easy for all but the most naïve test-takers to rig the answers. The first time I took a career assessment was in eighth grade; I was given one of the Kuder interest inventories. When it asked questions such as “Do you like adding columns of figures?” even a tweenie like me could tell that it was getting at my interest (or, in my case, lack of interest) in math. I knew I didn’t like math, so it was easy for me to make sure that the assessment results voiced this dislike loud and clear.

If you take the Clickhole.com assessment, you’ll notice something else that causes some assessments to be overly transparent: All of the items load the responses to (a), (b), and (c) according to the exact the same pattern as in the “signature look” example I cited above. Paper-and-pencil assessments almost universally follow this fixed method of arranging the options—in columns—to enable the test-taker to compute the scores simply by going down each column, counting the number of selections.

When an assessment is this transparent to the user, it wastes that person’s time. In eighth grade, I could have saved a lot of time and effort by simply rating 10 or so academic fields on a scale of one to ten—or by rank-ordering them.

To be sure, some very naïve clients may feel they benefit from this kind of assessment. These would have to be people with such sparse insights into their preferences that the assessment items are opaque to them; the scales the items load on are not obvious to them.

But there’s another major way in which career assessments fail. It’s the opposite situation: when the item-to-scale relationship is not at all obvious. That is, the test-taker fails to understand how his or her responses produced the end results. This kind of assessment is a black box, a fortune cookie. A sophisticated test-taker, rightly or wrongly, may be skeptical of the results from such an assessment.
To be sure, naïve test-takers (again) may feel they are benefiting from the assessment, in this case because of their blind faith in the accuracy of the results. But I do wonder how secure that faith is. I wonder especially how these test-takers will process any new self-insights that contradict the assessment results. Should they believe what the test told them or what they are now discovering about themselves?

That’s why I believe that the most useful way of assessing work-related preferences is by using informal methods based on introspection, such as making lists of enjoyable past experiences and drawing inferences from them. These methods definitely take more time and are vulnerable to the many distractions that our always-wired world throws at us. They also may be more difficult for clients who are naïve about their likes and dislikes, or those with limited inferential ability.

Finally, I realize that many people seeking career advice are simply lazy. “Just tell me what I should do,” they plead, and therefore they prefer a quickie assessment to the hard work of introspection and inference.
Nevertheless, because introspective and inferential methods require clients to do the work of prioritizing and inference themselves—and do not get their answers from a black box—the decision-makers buy into the results. And they can reinforce or refine their insights by factoring in additional information, such as their reactions to new experiences (say, job shadowing) or input from friends and family.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Complacency About an Inadequate Recovery

We have officially emerged from the economic downturn that began at the end of 2007, but for many workers, it really doesn’t feel that way. Yes, employment has finally returned to prerecession levels, but many of the jobs that have come back are inferior to the jobs that were lost.

A report by the National Employment Law Project (PDF) finds that “lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of job losses during the recession but 44 percent of employment growth over the past four years. Today, lower-wage industries employ 1.85 million more workers than at the start of the recession.” The report finds the opposite is true for mid-wage and higher-wage industries, with greater losses and smaller gains.

Yet it’s surprising how often I encounter cavalier attitudes toward the economic plight of working Americans.

Sunday’s Review section of The New York Times featured an op ed piece called “Fear Not the Coming of the Robots,” by the investment advisor Steven Rattner. The article features a nifty graph that you really must view to appreciate. It shows one column with bars representing occupations that used to employ large numbers of workers but have been decimated by automation. These occupations include word processors, telephone operators, computer operators, proofreaders, travel agents, and switchboard operators, among others. For each occupation, the graph shows not only the number of jobs lost but also the median wage, which tends to be in the thirties. Bars in a second column represent occupations that have gained workers, including computer systems managers, physical therapists, financial analysts, registered nurses, financial managers, and accountants. The wages for these occupations are much higher, with the lowest (for accountants) at $63,550.

Rattner concedes that technology has changed the nature of work, making advanced training increasingly necessary, and resulting in a sharp rise in income inequality. But he argues that the main culprit is globalization, not technology, “particularly the ability of companies to substitute far less expensive and increasingly skilled labor in developing countries.”

So what is Rattner’s proposed solution? “To address these very real challenges, we should be embracing technology, not fearing it. That means educating and training Americans to perform the more skilled jobs that cannot yet be performed by workers in developing countries.” I’m all for that, too, but where is the funding for this education and training going to come from? Not from a Congress that is incapable of passing legislation that invests in human capital. And how much more can young people and displaced workers mortgage off their futures for tuition loans?

There’s also the problem of those people who lack the ability to learn advanced skills even if somehow a training program were available. Rattner breezily comments, “Of course, not every worker can be retrained, and so we must help those who aren’t suitable for the new jobs through more robust social welfare programs.” Do you see any indication that Congress is about to beef up support for jobless people? I see the exact opposite. Even the idea of creating jobs through a program such as the Civilian Conservation Corps is a nonstarter in the current political climate.

So, yes, I do fear the one-two punch of robots and global competition. Rattner is like the captain of a ship who tells the passengers, “Don’t worry that the ship is sinking, because you can go merrily sailing in the lifeboats”—but the lifeboats aren’t there.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

High Tech Also Spawns Small Businesses

Everyone is familiar with gigantic businesses such as Facebook and Amazon that are using Internet technology to create new business models—and therefore new jobs. Just this week, the transportation-alternative app Uber was valued at $18 billion, provoking a flurry of comments from business columnists, some of them thinking the valuation crazy and others thinking it appropriate.

But it’s important to pay attention to small businesses that are springing up as new technologies create opportunities for entrepreneurs who are able to think creatively.

This idea came home to me last week in New York City, as I was walking down 16th Street past the corner of Irving Place, opposite Washington Irving High School. I spotted a parked van with the logo, “Pure Loyalty Electronic Device Storage.” The van was about the size of a food truck and looked very much like this one:


I peeked inside and saw what looked like curtains with pouches sewn on, each labeled with a number. The worker at the window told me that students from the school are not allowed to bring cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, or other electronic devices into the school, so they check them with her each morning (as at a hat-check window) and retrieve them when school lets out. They are happy to pay the dollar-a-day fee rather than be without their devices for as long as it takes them to get to school from home in the morning and back again at day’s end.

According to the New York Daily News, the business was operating trucks in three New York boroughs in 2012 and was founded and owned by 40-year-old Vernon Alcoser, a former correctional officer. That same year, the New York Post estimated that the industry was bringing in $4.2 million per year. In addition to the trucks, some neighborhood grocery stores are offering the storage service as a sideline business.

The industry is not entirely carefree, however. In June 2012, a truck owned by Safe Mobile Storage, parked near Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, was attacked by armed bandits, who tied up the workers and took their money, plus 22 cell phones from storage.

Despite such setbacks, the industry seems likely to serve its niche role as long as high schools with metal detectors enforce the citywide ban on electronic devices in the classroom—or until schools provide lockers where students can leave them.

Now that electronic devices have become our constant companions, they are creating countless business opportunities for entrepreneurs who offer to create apps for them, accessorize them, repair them—and store them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Occupations Where Workers Get High (or Don’t)

On a recent episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass identified several occupations as those in which workers have the greatest self-reported percentage of substance abuse, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. I checked for the source of this information and could not find any research later than 1993, when HHS conducted a household survey and later published the results as “Drug Use Among U.S. Workers: Prevalence & Trends by Occupation and Industry.”

It seems likely that the overall incidence of workplace substance abuse has declined since then, perhaps aided by the passage of the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 (even though that law applies only to federal contractors and federal grantees). At least, that is what is indicated by urine tests conducted on workers. Quest Diagnostics reports that between 1988 and 2012, the positivity rate for its urine tests showed a 74 percent drop-off (from 13.6 percent to 3.5 percent) for the U.S. workforce as a whole. Among those workers federally designated as in safety-sensitive occupations, the decline was smaller (only 38 percent), but dropped from an already-low percentage of 2.6 to 1.6.

The Quest Diagnostics report does not break down findings by occupational groups, but it quotes Mary Brown-Ybos, director of compliance for DISA Global Solutions, Inc., and president of Substance Abuse Program Administrators Association (SAPAA), as saying, “Some industries, such as the restaurant industry, have adopted an attitude that drug use in their industry is something they cannot control.”

The report also noted increases in some categories of drugs. Positivity almost tripled for amphetamine and methamphetamine. Prescription opiates also increased in use, with hydrocodone and hydromorphone more than doubling and oxycodone up by 71 percent.

For what they are worth, here are the findings of HHS from the early 1990s.

Ten Highest Rates of Current Illicit Drug Use, 1991–93
Rank
Occupation Category
Percentage Reporting Drug Use
1
Other Construction
17.3
2
Construction Supervisors
17.2
3
Food Preparation
16.3
4
Waiters and Waitresses
15.4
5
Helpers and Laborers
13.1
6
Writers, Designers, Artists, and Athletes
13.1
7
Janitors
13.0
8
Purchasing Agents and Buyers
12.9
9
Auto Mechanics
12.8
10
Construction Laborers; Other Laborers (tied)
12.8




Ten Lowest Rates of Current Illicit Drug Use, 1991–93
Rank
Occupation Category
Percentage Reporting Drug Use
1
Police and Detectives
1
2
Administrative Support
2.2
3
Teachers
2.3
4
Child Care Workers
2.6
5
Dental and Health Aides
2.8
6
Data Clerks
3.2
7
Records Processing Clerks
3.5
8
Computer Programmers and Operators
3.6
9
Engineers
3.9
10
Therapists
4





Ten Highest Rates of Heavy Alcohol Use, 1991–93
Rank
Occupation Category
Percentage Reporting Drug Use
1
Other Construction
20.6
2
Construction Laborers
19.9
3
Helpers and Laborers
19.5
4
Auto Mechanics
16.3
5
Food Preparation
16.3
6
Truck Drivers, Light
15.1
7
Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Mechanics and Repairers
14.9
8
Painters, Plasterers, and Plumbers
14.8
9
Carpenters
13.8
10
Material Moving Operators
13.8



Ten Lowest Rates of Heavy Alcohol Use, 1991–93
Rank
Occupation Category
Percentage Reporting Drug Use
1
Data Clerks
0.8
2
Personnel and Training Specialists
1.1
3
Secretaries and Typists
1.4
4
Bank Tellers
1.5
5
Bookkeepers
1.7
6
Clinical Laboratory and Technologists
2.2
7
Teachers
2.2
8
Dental and Health Aides
2.3
9
Computer Scientists and Analysts
2.4
10
Child Care Workers
2.6



Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Best Jobs Not Behind a Desk: Updated

This is an update to a book I wrote a few years back for JIST Publishing, featuring occupations that do not chain you to a desk. If you want to avoid the Dilbert style of work, you may want to consider one of the occupations on the list that follows.

If you're a bit antsy by nature, nonsedentary work may be a better fit for your energy level, and it probably will be better for your health. Researchers have linked desk jobs to increased incidence of back pain, eyestrain, obesity, and even colon cancer. One Australian study found that men who sit at their desks for more than six hours per day were almost twice as likely to be obese as men who sit for less than 45 minutes. An American study found that women who worked at a sedentary job for 14 years gained 20 pounds more than women who worked in the least sedentary jobs.

First, let me explain how I created this list. The O*NET database, created and maintained for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rates about 1,000 occupations on the level of "general physical activity" that they require, using a scale that ranges from zero to 7. The O*NET also rates every occupation on how much sitting it requires, again using the zero-to-7 scale, so I subtracted this rating from 7 to obtain a rating for how much the occupation allows not sitting. Then I calculated the average of the two ratings--general physical activity and not sitting--and expressed this combined rating on a scale ranging from zero to 100. This is the "Activity Level" measure in the following list. Using this measure, I sorted all occupations for which I had a full set of data and eliminated those that make up the bottom half of the distribution--the 280 most sedentary occupations. The 280 remaining occupations offer at least a moderate amount of moving around.

Next, following the procedure I used in the Best Jobs series of books, I sorted these non-desk-bound occupations three times, using economic information I obtained from the BLS: annual earnings (based on May 2013 estimates), projected growth from 2010 to 2020, and projected annual openings over this same decade. Finally, I summed these three rankings to generate one overall ranking. Occupations with the best combination of economic rewards are to be found closest to the top of the list. Note that adjacent occupations often have only small differences in their overall scores, so a difference of a few places on the list usually is not very significant. Also understand that the earnings figures are national averages, and actual earnings vary by location, specialization, and other factors.

I think you'll agree that the following list covers a wide variety of occupations, with something for almost every interest except maybe the most bookish pursuits:

Rank
Occupation
Activity
Level
Annual
Earnings
Growth
2010-
20
Annual
Openings
1
Physical Therapists 65.7 $81,030
36.0%
12,370
2
Registered Nurses 54.3 $66,220
19.4%
105,260
3
Nurse Practitioners 52.9 $92,670
33.7%
5,850
4
Physician Assistants 55.7 $92,970
38.4%
4,890
5
First-Line Supervisors of Construction Trades and Extraction Workers 61.4 $60,380
23.5%
18,710
6
Occupational Therapists 55.7 $76,940
29.0%
4,820
7
Physical Therapist Assistants 61.4 $53,360
41.0%
4,510
8
Electricians 72.9 $50,510
19.7%
22,460
9
Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters 74.3 $50,180
21.3%
13,050
10
Radiologic Technologists 64.3 $55,200
20.8%
6,960
11
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses 61.4 $41,920
24.8%
36,310
12
Surgeons 60.0 $187,200
23.2%
2,310
13
Occupational Therapy Assistants 61.4 $55,270
42.6%
2,050
14
Carpenters 77.1 $40,500
24.2%
32,920
15
Industrial Machinery Mechanics 72.9 $47,910
18.9%
15,250
16
Respiratory Therapists 60.0 $56,290
19.1%
4,010
17
Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers 71.4 $43,880
20.9%
12,370
18
Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians 61.4 $53,210
30.4%
2,300
19
Brickmasons and Blockmasons 82.9 $46,610
35.5%
3,280
20
Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators 54.3 $42,540
18.9%
14,440
21
First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers 57.1 $61,220
7.8%
15,200
22
Surgical Technologists 62.9 $42,720
29.8%
3,910
23
Geoscientists, Except Hydrologists and Geographers 55.7 $91,920
15.8%
1,730
24
Veterinarians 62.9 $86,640
12.0%
3,100
25
Kindergarten Teachers, Except Special Education 54.3 $50,230
13.0%
6,510
26
Structural Iron and Steel Workers 80.0 $46,520
21.8%
3,150
27
Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels 61.4 $69,920
13.8%
2,130
28
Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers 58.6 $56,130
5.9%
24,390
29
Electrical Power-Line Installers and Repairers 74.3 $64,170
8.9%
4,990
30
Cement Masons and Concrete Finishers 75.7 $36,130
29.1%
5,720
31
Service Unit Operators, Oil, Gas, and Mining 77.1 $42,790
20.9%
3,640
32
Elevator Installers and Repairers 80.0 $78,640
24.6%
800
33
Radiation Therapists 62.9 $79,140
23.5%
840
34
Construction and Building Inspectors 61.4 $54,450
12.2%
3,670
35
Sheet Metal Workers 72.9 $43,890
15.5%
4,890
36
Insulation Workers, Mechanical 75.7 $40,500
46.7%
1,730
37
Chiropractors 67.1 $65,300
14.6%
1,520
38
Construction Laborers 77.1 $30,460
24.3%
48,910
39
Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Workers, All Other 60.0 $48,610
17.1%
2,280
40
Painters, Construction and Maintenance 61.4 $35,390
19.8%
11,050
41
Medical Assistants 54.3 $29,610
29.0%
26,990
42
Rotary Drill Operators, Oil and Gas 78.6 $51,570
18.6%
1,540
43
Computer Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Programmers, Metal and Plastic 54.3 $46,510
27.6%
1,350
44
Nuclear Medicine Technologists 54.3 $71,120
20.2%
720
45
Massage Therapists 65.7 $35,920
22.6%
4,410
46
Vocational Education Teachers, Postsecondary 54.3 $48,300
11.8%
3,660
47
First-Line Supervisors of Landscaping, Lawn Service, and Groundskeeping Workers 68.6 $42,570
12.7%
4,990
48
First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers 72.9 $70,040
6.3%
3,050
49
Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics 65.7 $31,270
23.1%
12,060
50
Millwrights 77.1 $50,030
18.4%
1,340

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Recovery from Recession: Comparing States

The nation's recovery from the Great Recession is proving to be uneven, with some states still stuck in the downturn and others bouncing back. I used figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released only two weeks ago to see how states compared. The maps below show what I found.

I created two maps, one that looks at the increase in average wage across occupations and the other that looks at the increase in total workforce size:


The outstanding state obviously is North Dakota, where the petroleum boom is lifting both wages and employment by high percentage figures (11.2 percent and 13.8 percent).

Some states show very difference performances on the two maps. For example, Colorado's workforce increased by a healthy 5.3 percent, but its average wage increased by only 1.2 percent. In other words, most of the jobs it gained were low-wage jobs. (Three Sunbelt states--California, Arizona, and Florida--experienced similar lopsided gains.) By contrast, West Virginia's workforce expanded by only 1.3 percent, but its wages gained by a substantial 3.8 percent. Perhaps the small size and low population density of this state contributed to this phenomenon (and similar results in Vermont); to expand the workforce even by a small amount, employers had to jack up wages more than was necessary in more crowded states.

My state, New Jersey, bears the shame of posting less than 2 percent gains on both measures. We Garden Staters share this dubious distinction with New Mexico, Arkansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

New Wage Figures Reveal Trends of the Past Two Years


The BLS has just released the May 2013 estimates for wages in 800+ occupations. I thought it would be interesting to see which occupations showed the greatest and smallest increases in pay compared to previous years.

I decided that the best way to smooth out errors and focus on large trends would be to look at groups of occupations rather than detailed occupations and to look at the difference over two years rather than one year.

Here’s what I found:


Occupational Group
May 2011
May  2013
Change
Healthcare Support Occupations
$25,140
$26,080
3.7%
Computer and Mathematical Occupations
$75,080
$77,860
3.7%
Architecture and Engineering Occupations
$72,070
$74,530
3.4%
Business and Financial Operations Occupations
$61,700
$63,800
3.4%
Management Occupations
$92,880
$95,600
2.9%
Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations
$59,570
$61,120
2.6%
Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations
$59,330
$60,860
2.6%
Office and Administrative Support Occupations
$31,250
$32,010
2.4%
Community and Social Service Occupations
$39,880
$40,810
2.3%
Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations
$43,640
$44,610
2.2%
Construction and Extraction Occupations
$39,820
$40,670
2.1%
Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations
$40,600
$41,440
2.1%
Production Occupations
$30,670
$31,250
1.9%
All Occupations
$34,460
$35,080
1.8%
Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance Occupations
$22,620
$22,970
1.5%
Personal Care and Service Occupations
$20,730
$21,010
1.4%
Sales and Related Occupations
$24,840
$25,160
1.3%
Transportation and Material Moving Occupations
$28,760
$29,100
1.2%
Legal Occupations
$75,470
$76,100
0.8%
Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations
$18,900
$19,020
0.6%
Education, Training, and Library Occupations
$46,060
$46,140
0.2%
Protective Service Occupations
$36,740
$36,770
0.1%
Farming, Fishing, and Forestry Occupations
$19,460
$19,380
-0.4%
Teachers, Postsecondary
$64,592
$62,920
-2.6%


Perhaps the most powerful takeaway from this table is that wages are growing fastest among the STEM occupations—science, technology, engineering, and math.

Some occupations that will account for numerous job openings—notably the Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance Occupations; the Personal Care and Service Occupations; and the Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations—have experience slower-than-average wage growth. Yesterday’s Senate defeat of the bill to raise the minimum wage—a disgraceful defiance of overwhelming popular support—only reinforces this trend.

It’s interesting to note that three groups of blue-collar occupations have experienced slightly faster-than-average wage growth: Construction and Extraction Occupations; Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations; and Production Occupations. These occupations require higher levels of skill than the wage-stagnant occupations in the previous paragraph. Production Occupations, in particular, have seen increased skill requirements as the low-skill workers in this field have been replaced by either robots or offshore workers.

Yes, but what about Postsecondary Teachers? Surely they require high levels of skill, not to mention high-level educational credentials, yet their wages actually lost ground over this two-year period. This downturn in annual wages reflects the fact that colleges and universities are increasingly using adjunct teachers. These temporary or part-time workers are paid on a different scale from tenured or permanent faculty.