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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is Marco Rubio Right About Welders and Philosophers?

In the Republican candidates’ debate on the evening of November 10, Senator Marco Rubio argued for the importance of vocational education by stating that “welders earn more than philosophers” and that “we need more welders and less philosophers.” Was he correct?

Let’s consider earnings first. If a philosopher is someone who studies philosophical issues for a living, then the occupation under consideration is mostly pursued by the faculty of colleges and universities. Earnings figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are available for Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary: The estimate for May of 2014 was a median annual wage of $65,540. If you assume that this average is being pulled up by the religion teachers (which I doubt), you could suggest a somewhat lower figure for the philosophy teachers alone and still have a figure that considerably exceeds the annual earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $36,720.

Some fact-checkers have approached the issue from the understanding that Senator Rubio was speaking about alternative postsecondary options for study, and therefore “philosophers” should be construed to mean people who majored in philosophy, not people working in that field. Using this approach, I could compare the starting wages of philosophy majors ($39,900, as reported by The Wall Street Journal) with the starting wages of welders: probably roughly equivalent to the lowest 10 percent of wage-earners among Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers, which is $24,990, according to the BLS. Or I could look at the mid-career earnings of the philosophy majors—$81,200, according to the WSJ survey—a figure that exceeds even the 90th percentile earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $57,120. Among both new workers and mid-career earners, the philosophy majors get bigger paychecks.

Note, however, that these are apples-to-oranges comparisons. If I am truly comparing the outcomes of postsecondary programs, I should be comparing the wages of the philosophy grads to the wages of those who graduated from welding programs. Some of the latter are no longer working as welders and have moved on to more lucrative careers such as Construction Managers (with a median of $84,410). The WSJ survey and others of its ilk do not cover welding grads, so a precise comparison is not possible. And those with no formal training beyond welding probably have few opportunities for advancement to high-paying managerial careers. Thus it seems likely that philosophy is the postsecondary program with the bigger payoff.

Now let’s look at the senator’s second assertion: “We need more welders and [fewer] philosophers.”  It’s important to parse this assertion carefully. Did the senator mean we need fewer philosophers than welders? Or did he mean fewer philosophers than we have now?

If he meant the latter, he has raised an issue that is philosophical in its own right. A friend of mine who has a PhD in philosophy reminded me of a quotation from John W. Gardner, once president of the Carnegie Corporation: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

But let’s assume that the senator meant that there is a greater need for welders than for philosophers. That meaning follows logically from his earlier statement about earnings because getting a paycheck depends on being employed. What are the comparative job prospects for philosophers and welders?

In fact, only about 23,000 people were working as Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary, in May 2014. Compare this to more than 350,000 working as Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers. The BLS projects 10,600 job openings for the former occupation between 2012 and 2022, and remember that some of these will be for religion teachers. By contrast, the BLS projects 108,500 job openings for the welders over the same time span. This comparison validates this interpretation of Senator Rubio’s second assertion: We have a greater need for welders.

In the discussion of comparative earnings, I also looked at the figures for philosophy and welding graduates. But for a comparison of employment prospects, hard data simply is not available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many philosophy grads are working in business, law, clergy, and other fields, although often with additional degrees. Therefore, I would not discourage bright students with the ability to be flexible about their career outcomes from opting for a major in philosophy.

Senator Rubio, however, was talking about government policy rather than the career choices of individuals, and the specific point he was making is that vocational education suffers from a lack of prestige. I agree with him that this is harmful to the future of our economy, and the quotation from John Gardner is quite relevant to this issue. There are already reports of manufacturers who are having trouble finding skilled workers, and the blame is often placed on a widespread disrespect for occupations in the skilled trades.

Perhaps I have parsed Senator Rubio’s words more carefully than is appropriate. Politics, after all, deals with philosophical issues much as a meat cleaver deals with meat. I agree with the senator’s main point, even if it was expressed inelegantly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Music Thanatologist: Another Occupation You May Not Have Heard Of

Some health-care occupations are not aimed at making you healthy. There’s only so much that doctors, pills, and therapies can do; eventually, death comes to all of us. The hospice industry recognizes this and provides services to ease the suffering of those going through this transition. One tool in its toolbox is music, which has been found to give comfort and relief to people as they approach death. And therefore a new occupation, music thanatologist, is gaining recognition and a workforce.

The occupation may be regarded as a specialization within the larger field of music therapy. However, music thanatologists now have their own professional association with its own standards for certification, and they may choose not to seek certification as music therapists. (It’s not clear to me why the Music-Thanatology Association International chooses to hyphenate the names of the specialization and specialists.)

At the bedsides of people approaching death, music thanatologists play the harp and may also sing. The harp is used because it is portable; allows the player to perform melody, harmony, and counterpoint; can be accompanied by voice; and sustains notes, especially at the low end, better than smaller string instruments such as the guitar. I suppose a Casio keyboard would fit all of these criteria, but the natural ring of acoustic strings is surely more soothing than electronic tones. Patients and their families have been known to compare music thanatologists to angels, but I have noticed that practitioners avoid making this association.

The MTAI professional association says that the musical selections chosen are “quiet, restful, and meditative” and that they tend to be mostly those “unassociated with particular memories, thoughts or feelings.” Practitioners are trained to select “rhythm, pacing, volume, and tone” in response to the patient’s condition, changing as the patient’s condition changes.

Insurance companies are unlikely to pay for this service, and the practitioners do not accept tips, as a subway busker might. Instead, they are usually compensated by a hospice organization or by the health-care facility. The income is modest compared to some other therapy occupations, probably less than $30,000 a year, so people who do this for a living are mostly motivated by the satisfactions of helping dying patients and their families. Practitioners often say that the work is as spiritual as it is clinical.

The training program covers health issues as well as instruction in harp and voice performance. It is very different from the program at a music conservatory. It typically takes two years and includes an internship. Students must provide their own harps.

On YouTube, here and here and here, you can view music thanatologists performing and discussing their work. You can also read about the field in Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain andPreparing the Passage, by Jennifer L. Hollis.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Varying Reasons for Labor Shortages

Nobody wants to return to the recessionary days when large numbers of people were seeking job openings that didn’t exist. But neither is it good when employers cannot find workers to fill job openings—and this is happening in the labor markets for some occupations. The reasons vary.

One example is the market for airline pilots. Republic Airways Holdings, a regional carrier, last year reduced its fleet of 243 aircraft by 27 because of a lack of pilots. It expects to continue such cuts at least through the first half of next year.

Part of the blame for these cuts, according to Republic, belongs to new FAA regulations. One regulation raises the minimum number of hours of flight experience for most commercial passenger pilots. Another adds to the amount of rest time required for pilots, reducing their productivity.

But the Air Line Pilots Association says that the main reason for the shortage is the low pay that regional airlines are offering. In 2014, ALPA reported that for first officers, the starting pay averaged a mere $21,285. The association says that many pilots lost jobs because regional carriers went out of business, and these pilots would be glad to return if the wages were commensurate with their level of professionalism. Foreign carriers are offering much sweeter compensation packages.

A 2014 report (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office cites several additional factors. Reductions in defense spending have diminished the number of retired military pilots available for equivalent civilian jobs. Pilot jobs in general aviation (non-passenger flights) have experienced cutbacks, thus reducing opportunities for new pilots to accrue flight experience. And collegiate pilot-training programs are attracting fewer students in recent years—perhaps because of low pay in the industry. Thus there is concern that the pipeline of future pilots will not be able to provide the workers needed to replace those who retire because of age limits.

A completely different set of dynamics affects the labor market for agricultural workers, where shortages are also expected. Recently, a few states have passed laws making it easier for police to demand proof of immigration status and making it harder for businesses to hire workers who lack documentation. Citizens and immigrants with legal papers have not taken the place of these displaced workers, leaving many farmers without a way of bringing in crops. The American Farm Bureau Federation expected 2012 losses of as much as $9 billion as unpicked crops rotted in the fields.

However, a get-tough policy on undocumented immigrants is not the only factor contributing to the shortage of agricultural workers. In fact, many observers of this job market predict that even reform of the immigration system—which is stalled in Washington—will not solve the problem. Mexico, the source of most of our agricultural workers, is improving its education system and diversifying its economy—including expansion of its own agriculture industry— thus providing more opportunities for its people to find good jobs at home.

Two other occupations facing worker shortages are truck drivers and pizza delivery drivers. Manufacturers are expecting to have trouble finding skilled workers in the near future.

Worker shortages usually cause employers to bid up wages for the limited number of willing and able workers. None of the present shortages seems likely to reach the extreme that leads to dangerous inflation, and a modest amount of wage growth would be welcome in the present economy. Another response is for employers to apply appropriate kinds of automation, such as harvesting machines, and this usually creates good-paying jobs in fields such as engineering, programming, and machine maintenance.

The economy never reaches perfect equilibrium between supply of and demand for workers, and the current worker shortages are much less damaging than the job shortages of the recent recession years.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Third Look at My Predictions

In 2012, I did a retrospective analysis of predictions I made in 2009. Three years later, it’s now time to take yet another look. The original predictions consisted of occupations that I selected to include in the book called Great Jobs in the President’sStimulus Plan (JIST, 2009). My goal was to identify occupations that were likely to benefit from the proposed economic stimulus and that would do well once the economic recovery built up steam. It turns out that many of my recommendations were poor advice for the short term, but on balance my picks were good advice for the long term. And I’m okay with that. Occupational choice (as opposed to job choice) should be a long-term decision.

Understand that at the time I wrote Great Jobs in the President’s Stimulus Plan, I had access to only an incomplete picture of what would be in the stimulus plan that eventually became law as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. President Obama had not even been sworn in when I delivered the manuscript to the editor. During the subsequent months that it took ARRA to work its way through Congress, political horse-trading resulted in considerable changes to the plans originally outlined by the president-elect’s economic advisors—the plans that I used in researching the book. In the introduction to the book, I warned about the limitations of my predictions.

But I also noted that the stimulus plan was designed to do more than just reopen the jobs that had been lost.  One important goal was to create jobs in sectors of the economy that would anticipate the directions where the American economy needed to go to remain competitive in a global job market. Therefore, the promise of these “great jobs” was not just a matter of short-term employment but also the potential to be good long-term choices. And when measured for the long term, based on the most recent job-market projections, my recommendations still hold the promise of success.

Let’s look at the record in detail, measuring my predictions against actual changes in the workforce between May 2009 and May 2014. (The BLS issues estimates of workforce size for May of each year. May 2009 was the latest May before the stimulus could start to influence the economy; May 2014 is the latest May for which figures are available.)

In Great Jobs in the President’s Stimulus Plan, I selected eight industries that the ARRA was designed to promote: construction; education; energy; health care; management, scientific, and technical consulting services; manufacturing; scientific research and development services; and wholesale trade. I identified 300 occupations that are important in these industries and that had reasonably good outlook projections. This set of 300 included some occupations (such as Technical Writers, Sales Engineers, and Industrial Truck and Tractor Operators) that are not closely linked to any of the eight industries but are important across industries. These 300 occupations, taken from the O*NET-SOC taxonomy, represent 267 unique SOC occupations for which it is possible to obtain workforce statistics.

Now let’s look at the scorecard of how my picks performed during the recovery. The baseline for comparison is 3.4 percent. That is, the workforce of all occupations grew by 3.4 percent between May 2009 and May 2014. My set of 267 SOC occupations, the “great jobs,” grew by an overall average of only 2.5 percent—in other words, did a bit worse than the workforce as a whole.

It’s interesting to note which industries grew better than others. The jobs I picked from the management, scientific, and technical consulting services sector actually shrank by an average of 1.2 percent. The education jobs grew by only 1.6 percent; the construction jobs by 2.5 percent; and the wholesale trade jobs by 3.4 percent. The other industry groupings of jobs in the book grew faster than the workforce-wide average of 3.4 percent. Most notably, the energy jobs grew by 7.8 percent and the manufacturing jobs by 8.2 percent.

But recall what I said earlier about how the stimulus plan was designed to boost the sectors of the economy with the best prospects for long-term growth, and about how occupational choice should be based on long-term prospects. For the long term, the baseline is 10.8 percent—that’s how much the workforce as a whole is projected to grow between 2012 and 2022, the latest forecast available from the BLS. Against this baseline, the occupations I chose for the book score much better. The 267 unique occupations in the book have average projected growth of 13.6 percent over this long term.

In fact, of all the industries into which I grouped the occupations, only one is projected to fare worse than the average for all occupations: wholesale trade. The occupations that I chose from this sector are projected to grow 10.7 percent (one tenth of a percent slower than the baseline). My picks in all the other industry groupings are projected to grow faster. The occupations I picked in two industry groupings have especially rosy outlooks: In scientific research and development services, the occupations are projected to have 20.1 percent growth; in health care, 25.2 percent.

One lesson to take away is that it can take many years for an economic stimulus policy to take full effect, and it can also take many years before an individual’s career choice turns out to be a good one. Before making a choice, learn about the long-term economic trends for the occupation. And while you’re at it, don’t look only at the economic trends. Also consider the trends in work conditions.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

One Particularly Stressful Job

I have written about workplace stress and how some occupations are inherently more stressful than others because they involve life-or-death decisions, constant deadlines, fierce competition, exacting standards, or other nerve-fraying factors.

Yesterday I read about one particular job that is experiencing a labor shortage because stress is driving away workers at a time when demand for trained workers is actually increasing. It’s an unusual occupation—drone pilot—but it provides insights into other stressful jobs.

If you have been following the news lately, you know that drone strikes are a key part of our military strategy as the Obama administration tries to avoid entangling the United States in another Middle East ground war. In fact, the number of drone pilots quadrupled between 2008 and 2013, reaching nearly 1,300. The number of sorties per day tripled over the past decade, reaching a peak of 65 not long ago, but this is expected to be reduced to 60 per day by fall of this year because the program is losing pilots faster than it can recruit and train them.

The main reason for the attrition is the stressfulness of the job. This has been known for some time. A 2013 study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that the electronic health records of drone pilots showed that these pilots’ incidence of health mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress was comparable to the incidence among pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

This may seem surprising, partly because there is a popular conception that piloting a drone is very much like playing a video game. Drone pilots have even been known to say this flippantly, but the reality of the job is quite different. First, they are responsible for a very expensive piece of machinery, which they are flying entirely by instrumentation and by viewing an extremely limited video image that is often compared to looking through a soda straw. The pilots get none of the sensory feedback, such as the sound of the motor, buffeting by desert crosswinds, or the impact of touching down on the runway, that an airborne pilot would experience. The difference between a crash landing and a safe touchdown is a matter of one degree of pitch. Operators also have to deal with a two-second delay between manipulating the controls and seeing the drone react.

More important, the work involves life-or-death decisions that evidently are not made any easier by distance; after all, airborne pilots are likewise far enough away to be unable to see the whites of their victims’ eyes. In fact, drone pilots get a much closer view than airborne bomber pilots do. Often they perform many days of surveillance of the target to ensure the presence of the intended adversary and the absence (to the extent possible) of noncombatants. They may also need to survey the carnage left at the scene of a missile strike.

You may think that these workplace stresses are dissipated when drone pilots reach the end of their shift and go home. However, these pilots work alternating day and night shifts, which in itself can be stressful. Moreover, transitioning from the exacting work environment to home life creates other stresses. A drone pilot commented, “The weirdest thing for me—with my background [as a fast-jet pilot]—is the concept of getting up in the morning, driving my kids to school, and killing people. That does take a bit of getting used to. For the young guys or the newer guys, that can be an eye opener.” One officer remarked, “Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home—and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home—all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman.”

This kind of “transition stress” is not unique to drone pilots and is a little-known factor that contributes to the difficulty of many other high-stress occupations. For example, a relative of mine was working as a ghost writer while dating a medical intern. One day when his girlfriend got off work, she snapped at him, “I’ve been saving lives all day. What have you been doing?”

I have a very rough idea of this kind of stress from my experience serving as a juror in a murder trial for which the death penalty was a possible outcome. When we reached the penalty phase following the conviction, I spent a day in which we were shown gory crime-scene photographs (for the first time during this trial); a night sequestered in a motel, thinking about the decision we would have to make the next day; and a day debating whether the convicted murderer should live or die. (He’s now serving life without parole.) When I came home, my wife and child greeted me as if I were returning from an overnight business trip, and it was a very unsettling experience. They were unable to understand what I had been through. Despite their good intentions, the transition was very difficult.

It must be a great burden to go through something similar every day, and that’s why I can understand how the Air Force is losing drone pilots faster than it can replace them.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Hookup Economy

You hear a lot about the “sharing economy” these days, but I think I’ve found a better term: the hookup economy. A job used to be like a relatively stable relationship between two parties, but nowadays many work arrangements are more like a hookup. The matches between employers and workers are made on the fly, there’s zero commitment from either party, and the connection is fleeting.

It’s hard to criticize Uber and Lyft on this account, because the relationship between a conventional taxi driver and a passenger was always ad hoc and short-lived. The same might be said about ZTailors, launched this week by George Zimmer (who used to tell you that “You’re going to like the way you look—I guarantee it”), which hooks up tailors with customers. But each week brings another Tinder-like app that matches up employers and workers, and some of these are meant to arrange work that used to be done by full-time payroll employees.

For example, Universal Avenue, a Swedish startup, helps businesses recruit salesworkers who work as freelancers. UpWork, Freelancer.com, and Guru.com are matchmakers for workers of many kinds, including designers, writers, engineers, and programmers. TaskRabbit lets you find workers for tasks that may not even fit comfortably into any occupation title, such as assembling IKEA furniture.

In favor of this trend, one might argue that the freelancers who work this way get paid for their time and (where relevant) skills, and they can have a flexible work schedule.

On the other hand, there are legal protections that one expects in an employer-employee relationship that are missing in these hookup work situations. Compared to a payroll employee, a hookup worker has much less legal protection from sexual harassment, racial or age discrimination, or a hazardous work environment (when the work is done on-site).

Listed on one’s resume, this kind of work also does not make much of an impression. This is less of a liability for designers, writers, and other workers who tend to display their output in a portfolio. But for most workers, a spell of doing hookup projects can look like unemployment on a resume.

Of course, doing this kind of work is better than having no income. And in today’s economy, this may be the only kind of work that some people can find. People who are downsized in their 50s or early 60s often have a particularly hard time finding an employer willing to take them on for a payroll job. So I think that hookup work is here to stay.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Where Occupational Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Last week, I blogged about metropolitan areas where the health-care industry dominates. I looked at the trends in the average earnings of health-care professionals in those metros and, for comparison, the trends for health-care professionals nationwide. I found that the Great Recession had no effect on nationwide earnings—they continued to increase at a steady pace—but in the metros where health-care professionals are concentrated, these workers’ earnings took a noticeable dip during the recession years.

I thought it would be interesting to look at some other occupational categories and see how their experiences compared. So I turned to the same database, the Occupational Employment Survey, and identified the metros where occupations in education exceeded 10 percent of the wage-and-salary workforce; where computer and mathematical occupations exceeded 5 percent; and where engineering occupations exceeded 4 percent.

Here are the metros where these occupations dominate:

Metro Area
Ithaca, NY
Gainesville, FL
Hinesville-Fort Stewart, GA
Champaign-Urbana, IL
Corvallis, OR
Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, VA
Merced, CA
Lafayette, IN
College Station-Bryan, TX
Auburn-Opelika, AL
Ann Arbor, MI
Athens-Clarke County, GA
Yuba City, CA
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX

Metro Area
Computer &
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
Boulder, CO
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA
Huntsville, AL
Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX
Trenton-Ewing, NJ
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA
Madison, WI
Raleigh-Cary, NC
Colorado Springs, CO

Metro Area
Huntsville, AL
Columbus, IN
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
Warner Robins, GA
Norwich-New London, CT-RI
Bremerton-Silverdale, WA
Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, WA
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI
Holland-Grand Haven, MI

Next, I graphed the 2007–2014 earnings of professionals in the metros where they are concentrated and also nationwide. Here’s what I found:



The most obvious common element is that the workers in all of the occupationally-concentrated metros experienced earnings downturns during the recession years, whereas across the nation the same kinds of workers experienced no such downturns. Therefore, it appears that what I found for health-care workers last week is not unique to them. Perhaps any concentration of a particular type of worker (and therefore of an industry) increases the wage instability of a metro area.

But I found one interesting way in which the experiences of these occupations differed: For health-care and education professionals, average wages were higher nationwide than in the metros where the workers are concentrated. On the other hand, for computer and engineering professionals, areas where the workers are concentrated offer higher wages.

This finding is consistent with what the urban theorist Richard Florida has written about the “creative class”: Highly creative workers, such as engineering and computer professionals, tend to be most productive where they can work collaboratively. That is why, even with the marvels of 21st-century communication, the industries that employ creative workers tend to concentrate geographically. Thus we find Silicon Valley for high tech, Hollywood for movies, and Nashville for music. And where these workers are concentrated and more productive, they earn more. The same does not seem to be true for educators and health-care professionals.

I’m not saying that educators and health-care professionals are not creative, but the nature of their work does not demand constant creativity to the degree that engineering and computer careers do. As a result, concentration of these workers may actually lower wages by increasing competition.