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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Occupational Outlook Bible

When the Occupational Outlook Handbook was a print publication, it was the number-one best-seller of the U.S. Government Printing Office. But surely it did not outsell the Bible. You may not think of the Bible as a place to read about occupations, but the next time you pick it up, pay attention to how many times working people are mentioned there.

For these references, I am particularly fond of the book of Isaiah. You may think of him as an other-worldly prophet, but he often uses metaphors that indicate he has observed many people working at their jobs. The economy of his time was mainly agricultural, and many of his metaphors are drawn from farming and viniculture, but he also mentions the work of artisans and other kinds of workers.

Following are some example, drawn from the King James translation as found on www.kingjamesbibleonline.org. Besides their interest from a career-awareness perspective, they serve as excellent examples of how concrete language can be used to make an abstract point. Some writers assume that when they write about ideas, they should be using only abstract language. As these examples show, highly specific language, based on everyday experiences, can contribute to a powerful generalization. (George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, uses an example from Ecclesiastes to make the same point.)

10:15 Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood.

18:5 For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches.

19:8–10 The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish. Moreover they that work in fine flax, and they that weave networks, shall be confounded. And they shall be broken in the purposes thereof, all that make sluices and ponds for fish.

28:27–28 For the fitches [an herb] are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin [another herb, nowadays spelled cumin]; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen.

29:16 Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?

41:7 So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, It is ready for the sodering: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved.

44:12–13 The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth: he drinketh no water, and is faint. The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house.

46:6 They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship.

47:13 Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.

47:15 Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast laboured, even thy merchants, from thy youth: they shall wander every one to his quarter; none shall save thee.

63:2 Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?

To those who observe it later this month, I wish you a happy new year.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Labor Shortages Ahead

An important corporate-research organization, The Conference Board, came out with a report this week that predicts labor shortages in several fields. The report covers many countries, but the main trend it expects here in United States is shrinkage of the labor force caused by the retirement of baby boomers.

The U.S. is actually expected to do better than many countries because America continues to be a magnet for both skilled and unskilled workers. As a result, immigration will offset many of the losses from retirements.  (The forecast would probably be more accurate if Congress could agree on an immigration policy.)

But certain fields are nonetheless expected to experience shortages of qualified workers. In some cases, this is because the fields are growing very rapidly and the work cannot be done by offshore workers or robots. This is true for several health-care and high-tech occupations. In other cases, the fields simply are not attracting the interest of young people, even though they offer lots of job opportunities and, in many cases, pay quite well.

Here are descriptions of 19 specific occupations cited in the report. If you know young people who are looking for careers with lots of potential, make note of these:

Information Security Analysts

Plan, implement, upgrade, or monitor security measures for the protection of computer networks and information. May ensure appropriate security controls are in place that will safeguard digital files and vital electronic infrastructure. May respond to computer security breaches and viruses.

Top Skills: Technology/Programming; Science; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Conventional-Investigative-Realistic.
Education required: Bachelor’s degree
Work experience required: Less than 5 years
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Computer and Information Systems Security/Information Assurance; Computer Science; Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; Information Technology; Information Technology Project Management; Network and System Administration/Administrator; System, Networking, and LAN/WAN Management/Manager.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $88,590
Middle 50% of Earners: $67,120–$113,100
Percent Growth 2012-20: 36.5
Annual Openings:  3,920

Mathematicians

Conduct research in fundamental mathematics or in application of mathematical techniques to science, management, and other fields. Solve problems in various fields using mathematical methods.

Top Skills: Mathematics; Science; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Conventional-Artistic.
Education required: Master’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Algebra and Number Theory; Analysis and Functional Analysis; Applied Mathematics, General; Applied Mathematics, Other; Computational and Applied Mathematics; Computational Mathematics; Financial Mathematics; Geometry/Geometric Analysis; Logic; Mathematical Biology; Mathematical Statistics and Probability; Mathematics and Statistics; Mathematics and Statistics, Other; Mathematics, General; Mathematics, Other; Topology and Foundations.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $102,440
Middle 50% of Earners: $72,170–$128,590
Percent Growth 2012-20: 22.7
Annual Openings:  170

Agricultural Engineers

Apply knowledge of engineering technology and biological science to agricultural problems concerned with power and machinery, electrification, structures, soil and water conservation, and processing of agricultural products.

Top Skills: Technology/Programming; Science; Mathematics.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Realistic-Enterprising.
Education required: Bachelor’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Agricultural Engineering.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $74,450
Middle 50% of Earners: $61,910–$94,020
Percent Growth 2012-20: 4.8
Annual Openings:  80

Biomedical Engineers

Apply knowledge of engineering, biology, and biomechanical principles to the design, development, and evaluation of biological and health systems and products, such as artificial organs, prostheses, instrumentation, medical information systems, and health management and care delivery systems.

Top Skills: Science; Technology/Programming; Installation.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Realistic.
Education required: Bachelor’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering; Biological/Biosystems Engineering.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $88,670
Middle 50% of Earners: $68,720–$113,250
Percent Growth 2012-20: 26.6
Annual Openings:  1,010

Civil Engineers

Perform engineering duties in planning, designing, and overseeing construction and maintenance of building structures, and facilities, such as roads, railroads, airports, bridges, harbors, channels, dams, irrigation projects, pipelines, power plants, and water and sewage systems. Includes architectural, structural, traffic, ocean, and geo-technical engineers.

Top Skills: Mathematics; Science; Technology/Programming.
RIASEC Personality Type: Realistic-Investigative-Conventional.
Education required: Bachelor’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Civil Engineering, General; Civil Engineering, Other; Construction Engineering; Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering; Structural Engineering; Transportation and Highway Engineering; Water Resources Engineering.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $80,770
Middle 50% of Earners: $63,850–$101,660
Percent Growth 2012-20: 19.7
Annual Openings:  12,010

Environmental Engineers

Research, design, plan, or perform engineering duties in the prevention, control, and remediation of environmental hazards using various engineering disciplines. Work may include waste treatment, site remediation, or pollution control technology.

Top Skills: Science; Mathematics; Technology/Programming.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Realistic.
Education required: Bachelor’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Environmental/Environmental Health Engineering; Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $82,220
Middle 50% of Earners: $62,920–$103,860
Percent Growth 2012-20: 15.3
Annual Openings:  2,110

Optometrists

Diagnose, manage, and treat conditions and diseases of the human eye and visual system. Examine eyes and visual system, diagnose problems or impairments, prescribe corrective lenses, and provide treatment. May prescribe therapeutic drugs to treat specific eye conditions.

Top Skills: Science; Communication; Mathematics.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Social-Realistic.
Education required: Doctoral or professional degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Optometry (OD).
Median Earnings (May 2013): $101,290
Middle 50% of Earners: $76,720–$132,100
Percent Growth 2012-20: 24.4
Annual Openings:  1,770

Family and General Practitioners

Physicians who diagnose, treat, and help prevent diseases and injuries that commonly occur in the general population. May refer patients to specialists when needed for further diagnosis or treatment.

Top Skills: Science; Communication; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Social.
Education required: Doctoral or professional degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: Internship/residency
Educational Programs: Family Medicine Residency Program; Medicine (MD); Osteopathic Medicine/Osteopathy (DO).
Median Earnings (May 2013): $176,530
Middle 50% of Earners: $130,780–$187,200+
Percent Growth 2012-20: 14.6
Annual Openings:  4,920

Podiatrists

Diagnose and treat diseases and deformities of the human foot.

Top Skills: Science; Technology/Programming; Communication.
RIASEC Personality Type: Investigative-Social-Realistic.
Education required: Doctoral or professional degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: Internship/residency
Educational Programs: Podiatric Medicine and Surgery - 24 Residency Program; Podiatric Medicine and Surgery - 36 Residency Program; Podiatric Medicine/Podiatry (DPM).
Median Earnings (May 2013): $118,210
Middle 50% of Earners: $82,050–$171,170
Percent Growth 2012-20: 22.5
Annual Openings:  460

Physical Therapists

Assess, plan, organize, and participate in rehabilitative programs that improve mobility, relieve pain, increase strength, and improve or correct disabling conditions resulting from disease or injury.

Top Skills: Science; Communication; Social.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Investigative-Realistic.
Education required: Doctoral or professional degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Kinesiotherapy/Kinesiotherapist; Physical Therapy/Therapist Training.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $81,030
Middle 50% of Earners: $67,700–$93,820
Percent Growth 2012-20: 36
Annual Openings:  12,370

Nurse Midwives

Diagnose and coordinate all aspects of the birthing process, either independently or as part of a healthcare team. May provide well-woman gynecological care. Must have specialized, graduate nursing education.

Top Skills: Science; Communication; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Investigative.
Education required: Master’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Nurse Midwife/Nursing Midwifery.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $92,290
Middle 50% of Earners: $78,730–$108,910
Percent Growth 2012-20: 28.6
Annual Openings:  290

Nurse Practitioners

Diagnose and treat acute, episodic, or chronic illness, independently or as part of a healthcare team. May focus on health promotion and disease prevention. May order, perform, or interpret diagnostic tests such as lab work and x rays. May prescribe medication. Must be registered nurses who have specialized graduate education.

Top Skills: Science; Social; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Investigative-Realistic.
Education required: Master’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Adult Health Nurse/Nursing; Critical Care Nursing; Emergency Room/Trauma Nursing; Family Practice Nurse/Nursing; Geriatric Nurse/Nursing; Maternal/Child Health and Neonatal Nurse/Nursing; Nursing Practice; Pediatric Nurse/Nursing; Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse/Nursing; Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research; Women's Health Nurse/Nursing.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $92,670
Middle 50% of Earners: $80,560–$110,130
Percent Growth 2012-20: 33.7
Annual Openings:  5,850

Dental Hygienists

Clean teeth and examine oral areas, head, and neck for signs of oral disease. May educate patients on oral hygiene, take and develop x rays, or apply fluoride or sealants.

Top Skills: Science; Social; Communication.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Realistic-Conventional.
Education required: Associate’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Dental Hygiene/Hygienist Training.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $71,110
Middle 50% of Earners: $59,600–$85,310
Percent Growth 2012-20: 33.3
Annual Openings:  11,350

Occupational Therapy Assistants

Assist occupational therapists in providing occupational therapy treatments and procedures. May, in accordance with State laws, assist in development of treatment plans, carry out routine functions, direct activity programs, and document the progress of treatments. Generally requires formal training.

Top Skills: Social; Communication; Science.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Realistic.
Education required: Associate’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Occupational Therapist Assistant Training.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $55,270
Middle 50% of Earners: $44,400–$66,590
Percent Growth 2012-20: 42.6
Annual Openings:  2,050

Physical Therapist Assistants

Assist physical therapists in providing physical therapy treatments and procedures. May, in accordance with State laws, assist in the development of treatment plans, carry out routine functions, document the progress of treatment, and modify specific treatments in accordance with patient status and within the scope of treatment plans established by a physical therapist. Generally requires formal training.

Top Skills: Science; Social; Technology/Programming.
RIASEC Personality Type: Social-Realistic-Investigative.
Education required: Associate’s degree
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: None
Educational Programs: Physical Therapy Technician/Assistant Training.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $53,360
Middle 50% of Earners: $42,630–$64,510
Percent Growth 2012-20: 41
Annual Openings:  4,510

Construction and Building Inspectors

Inspect structures using engineering skills to determine structural soundness and compliance with specifications, building codes, and other regulations. Inspections may be general in nature or may be limited to a specific area, such as electrical systems or plumbing.

Top Skills: Mathematics; Science; Communication.
RIASEC Personality Type: Realistic-Conventional-Investigative.
Education required: High school diploma or equivalent
Work experience required: 5 years or more
On-the-job Training Required: Moderate-term on-the-job training
Educational Programs: Building/Home/Construction Inspection/Inspector.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $54,450
Middle 50% of Earners: $42,090–$69,310
Percent Growth 2012-20: 12.2
Annual Openings:  3,670

Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators

Operate or control an entire process or system of machines, often through the use of control boards, to transfer or treat water or wastewater.

Top Skills: Equipment Use/Maintenance; Science; Technology/Programming.
RIASEC Personality Type: Realistic-Conventional.
Education required: High school diploma or equivalent
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: Long-term on-the-job training
Educational Programs: Water Quality and Wastewater Treatment Management and Recycling Technology/Technician.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $43,200
Middle 50% of Earners: $33,480–$55,080
Percent Growth 2012-20: 7.7
Annual Openings:  4,750

Transportation Inspectors

Inspect equipment or goods in connection with the safe transport of cargo or people. Includes rail transportation inspectors, such as freight inspectors; rail inspectors; and other inspectors of transportation vehicles, not elsewhere classified.

Top Skills: Science; Equipment Use/Maintenance; Thought-Processing.
RIASEC Personality Type: Realistic-Conventional-Investigative.
Education required: High school diploma or equivalent
Work experience required: None
On-the-job Training Required: Moderate-term on-the-job training
Educational Programs: No related CIP programs; this job is learned through work experience in a related occupation.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $65,950
Middle 50% of Earners: $44,890–$89,710
Percent Growth 2012-20: 11.2
Annual Openings:  1,170

Crane and Tower Operators

Operate mechanical boom and cable or tower and cable equipment to lift and move materials, machines, or products in many directions.

Top Skills: Equipment Use/Maintenance; Installation; Management.
RIASEC Personality Type: Realistic-Conventional-Investigative.
Education required: High school diploma or equivalent
Work experience required: Less than 5 years
On-the-job Training Required: Moderate-term on-the-job training
Educational Programs: Construction/Heavy Equipment/Earthmoving Equipment Operation; Mobile Crane Operation/Operator.
Median Earnings (May 2013): $48,630
Middle 50% of Earners: $37,410–$63,260
Percent Growth 2012-20: 16.8
Annual Openings:  2,240

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Internship is the New Entry-Level Job

New college graduates are finding that many entry-level jobs have disappeared or require a higher level of skill than used to be commonly needed. The high unemployment rate for people age 20–24—11.3 percent in July—reflects this environment. According to The Wall Street Journal, automation is a key factor contributing to this trend.

Automation has eliminated many entry-level jobs in several industries, such as finance and insurance. Credit analysts, loan officers, and especially insurance underwriters have seen demand tapering off. For example, employment of insurance underwriters has shrunk by 13% from 2003 to 2013. One finance industry insider estimates that it now takes 30 percent less staff time to complete valuation calculations, thanks to software that analyzes financial statements.

To be sure, automation has expanded entry-level jobs in other industries. For example, it is estimated that entry-level jobs for computer systems analysts have increased by 20 percent over the past decade. Automation also has created new occupations, such as social-media manager. This kind of work did not even exist 10 years ago, but now employs thousands of workers, especially young ones.

The onslaught of automation has happened for reasons beyond increases in computing power. The Great Recession has caused firms to seek ways to squeeze greater productivity from workers, especially new hires.

This trend has changed the nature of the work that recent graduates do in industries other than technology. Instead of crunching spreadsheets and preparing reports, entry-level workers may be expected to meet with clients, identify problems with entrenched procedures, or serve on teams for new product development. New hires therefore have greater need for skill at interpersonal relations, communication, and critical thinking.

Traditionally, college grads in entry-level jobs paid their dues in positions requiring technical skills commonly taught in the classroom. Only after some years at this level were these workers expected to have mastered the soft skills needed for more complex assignments. But now the model for career growth seems to be changing, and ironically this is happening just in time for the millennial generation, who are notorious for their impatience with the traditional model.

Young workers may be eager to take advantage of these new opportunities, but to succeed in this environment, they will need to have acquired skills that usually are not taught in the classroom. This is why internship is such an important adjunct to a college education these days. In effect, internship is the new entry-level job. And this implies that interns need to avoid placements in which they are locked away in a windowless room doing technical tasks. Their internships need to include experiences that will build their soft skills.

For more tips on getting a lot out of an internship, I recommend the guide developed by the University of Michigan, adapted from Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.: Making the Most of Your Internship (PDF).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How Bad-Mouthing Can Get You a Job

There are many ways to write a cover letter, but one caught my attention recently. A young man I know, son of a friend, got a job offer by using a cover-letter strategy that seems counterintuitive: He bad-mouthed an employer’s product.

First, let me give you a little background to set the scene, while protecting my young friend’s identity. I’ll call him Jack.

Jack has a bachelor’s in computer science, and at age 23 he has just earned a master’s degree in a field that makes a lot of use of computers. While doing the coursework (online) for his master’s, he held a full-time job in this field. He has worked part-time in this same field since high school. This means Jack already had a pretty strong resume to bring to the job search.

He also used a good strategy for uncovering jobs: Rather than look only for posted jobs, he wrote directly to the kinds of companies that employ people with his background. One obvious target was the company that publishes the specialized software that he uses every day on his job. By doing some online snooping, he was able to identify the head of HR and find that person’s e-mail address.

I generally advise against contacting HR and instead suggest writing directly to the head of the department where you want to work. But Jack got good results with his method.

And perhaps the key to his success was that he concluded his cover letter by writing, “I HATE your software. Let me help you make it better.”

The head of HR phoned Jack and talked about what Jack disliked (and liked) about the software. This gave Jack a great opportunity to demonstrate his command of the software package and his understanding of the features that contribute to a good user experience. The initial phone conversation led to a few Skype interviews, and eventually the company offered him a job doing software testing.

In the end, Jack decided not to take this job. One important reason for his decision was that the employer is in a very distant state, and Jack (who has lived at home until now) is presently interviewing for a job closer to home. He also was not certain he would like to do software testing.

But the lesson from his job-search experience is still valid, and it applies to interviews as well as to cover letters: Sometimes the best way to interest employers is not to tell them what they want to hear.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A New Skill is Identified: Shopping

Recently I read about a new business, called Instacart, that does your grocery shopping for you. This is different from well-established grocery services, such as Peapod and FreshDirect, because the company owns no food warehouses or trucks, and you don’t have to place your orders many hours in advance. Instead, mere minutes after you place your order on the Web, Instacart enlists someone in your community—an independent contractor, not an employee—to go to one or more existing food stores, buy what you ordered, and deliver it to you in the contractor’s own car.

The shoppers earn between $15 and $30 per hour, depending on how fast they deliver the goods. This is considerably better pay than most jobs at a supermarket, but (like so many work arrangements that the new economy is creating) the work offers no fringe benefits. It is also not likely to provide full-time work, although for some people that’s an advantage.

Instacart makes its profits by charging a flat delivery fee ($3.99 for most orders), plus a markup on the store’s prices. One estimate is that the markup averages about 20 percent.

In some ways, this work arrangement resembles the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, in that it uses the Web to match consumers of a service with fairly ordinary people who have that service to offer. One important difference is that the service that Instacart offers—shopping—is not regulated, as taxicab transportation is. Instacart also is unlikely to displace many existing workers, because there are very few professional grocery shoppers, certainly compared to cab drivers.

The work does not require any formal credentials, but it does require a skill that you will probably not find in any existing skill taxonomies: shopping skill. My shopping skill was tested recently when my mother was incapacitated by a hip fracture and I had to buy her groceries. Unlike an Instacart shopper, I was tasked with the additional goal of finding the best prices. As a child of the Depression, my mother knows the going prices of nearly every item she customarily buys at several markets in her Manhattan neighborhood, including the open-air green market in Union Square. Instacart clients don’t require this kind of accountability.

However, Instacart clients do expect speed. This means that the shoppers must know what stores stock a wide range of grocery items and have them in high quality, plus where the items are located in the store. Every year about this time, when summer berries and fruit come ripe, I wander helplessly through the aisles of my local supermarket, trying to find the Sure-Jell pectin for making jams. Is it in the aisle with cooking supplies? Gelatin? Seasonal items? I’m never sure, and even the clerks (if you can find one) sometimes send me to the wrong aisle.

It will be interesting to see whether this kind of work continues to expand beyond ride-sharing and grocery-shopping. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, sees the bright side of this trend: “When you ask what kind of niches we’ll see for people who used to be in traditional middle-class jobs, this is the kind of labor that could fit into that. I wouldn’t want to suggest people will become grocery-delivery millionaires, but if you don’t have a college education but you’re smart and responsible, could you make a living doing this and maybe piecing it together with some of these other kinds of jobs? Absolutely.”

I’m not so sanguine about this trend. It reminds me of the old joke that there will always be work because people can do each other’s laundry. That’s true, but as our economy relies more and more on imported manufactured goods, we need to find work that leads to exports.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Home Can Be More Stressful Than Work

Workplace stress has been a longtime interest of mine, but now there is research indicating that for most people, being at home is more stressful than being at work. Does this seem counterintuitive to you?

One study asked volunteers to collect saliva samples over the course of the day. When the samples were analyzed for the presence of a stress hormone, it turned out that levels were significantly higher when the volunteers were at home, compared to levels at work.

Consider some of the reasons for workplace stress that occupations are rated on in the O*NET database:

  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry people
  •  Competition
  • Time pressure
  • Needing to be exact or accurate
  • Consequences of errors
  • Dealing with physically aggressive people
  • Conflict situations
  • Decisions that have impact on co-workers or company results
  • Working at a pace determined by the speed of equipment

Now consider some of the reasons for stress at home:
  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry family members or neighbors
  • Time pressure to meet nonwork commitments (such as housekeeping chores)
  • Conflict situations with spouse, children, or neighbors
  • Illness or death of a loved one
  • Unruly pets
  • Malfunctioning appliances or furnishings
  • Decisions that have impact on family
  • Adjusting to suit family members’ schedules
What’s the difference between these two sets of stressors? Researchers speculate that people are better able to shrug off workplace stressors because they imagine (whether realistically or not) that they always have the option of quitting their job (or getting a reassignment), whereas it is much less common to imagine walking away from domestic woes. In addition, people are more able to vent about workplace stressors, because it is socially more acceptable to complain about your boss or your clients than it is to badmouth your spouse or your kids.

It’s interesting that one group among those in the saliva study were an exception to the general trend and found work more stressful than time at home: people with high incomes. I’m not surprised. I have run correlations between stress factors and income, using the O*NET ratings and the BLS figures for median incomes across the spectrum of occupations. I find a correlation of 0.33 for Impact of Decisions and 0.34 for Level of Competition, as well as 0.25 for the overall need for Stress Tolerance. It seems that when you’re earning the big bucks, your home can really be a refuge from stress—although technology (a cell phone or a networked computer) is now allowing work to intrude on your time at home more than ever before.

I remember what my life was like when I was working as a lowly and low-paid research assistant at Educational Testing Service and had just bought my first house. On my weekends, I had so much fixing-up work to do on that little Cape Cod house that I was happy when Monday morning rolled around. I used to say to my carpool, “I’m so glad to get back to work. Now I can relax!”

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.