Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Future of Employment: Where Are We Going?

As a teacher one of the things you want to be able to help your students with, and one of the things they're hoping that adults can in fact help them with, has to do with what they should do for employment, and why it is that what they're doing in school is a step in the right direction for them to in fact become meaningfully employed. An article in Sunday's NY Times by Louis Uchitelle, Retraining Laid-Off Workers, but for What?, would surely give any reasonable person concerned with this issue some pause. The article tells a couple of stories, but the one that made the biggest impression on me focused on what our thinking in this country is regarding jobs. Our running philosophy essentially boils down to if you're well enough educated and you try hard you'll find a good paying job, and if you don't, well somehow that's your fault.

Uchitelle tells about United Airlines aircraft machinists who were laid off. Aircraft machinists are reasonably well-paid, and they represent a section of the job market where those who are in the profession often don't have college degrees. Many machinists go to a trade school, on their own or through their employer, to acquire their skills, or otherwise come into the profession via the military where they've had extensive training before they go to work for an airline. The United machinists were reasonably well-paid, having worked out a top-end $60/hour wage with their 2002 contract with the airline. This, of course, was before United declared bankruptcy.

United's machinists were considered, prior to 1999 anyway, to be very efficient when it came to overhauling and repairing aircraft. The industry norm for a plane overhaul was 22 days and United machinists were doing it in 11, using genuinely original methods and cross-workshop teamwork to significantly reduce turn-around time on aircraft. The United machinists were so good that American West airlines contracted with United to have American West aircraft worked on by the United machinists. All this came to serious crash in the summer of 1999 when the machinists engaged in a work slowdown which in the end prompted United to begin outsourcing its aircraft overhauls to companies that didn't use union labor. United soon discovered that outsourcing was less expensive than in-house maintenance, making it worthwhile to outsource planes even if it took longer to complete the overhauls. The trend towards outsourcing continued when the cost of United's mechanics increased, and an airline considering and finally entering into bankruptcy was looking for ways to save money.

Ok, so a convergence of unfortunate circumstances put the machinists in a bad situation with regard to their long-term employment, with many of them being laid off. But they were well-trained to begin with, and on top of this they were eligible for federally subsidized re-training and job placement.

'The presumption — promoted by economists, educators, business executives and nearly all of the nation's political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike — holds that in America's vibrant and flexible economy there is work, at good pay, for the educated and skilled. The unemployed need only to get themselves educated and skilled and the work will materialize. Education and training create the jobs, according to this way of thinking. Or, put another way, an appropriate job at decent pay materializes for every trained or educated worker.

"If the workers were already trained, as the mechanics certainly were, then what they needed was additional training and counseling as a transition into well-paying, unfilled jobs in other industries. If the transition failed to function as advertised, well, the accepted wisdom suggested that it was the fault of the workers themselves. Their failure to land good jobs was due to personality defects or a resistance to acquiring new skills or a reluctance to move where the good jobs were.

"That was the myth. It evaporated in practice for the aircraft mechanics, whose hourly pay ranged up to $31. Not enough job openings exist at $31 an hour
— or at $16 an hour, for that matter — to meet the demand for them. Jobs don't
just materialize at cost-conscious companies to absorb all the qualified people
who want them."

But surely with some additional training and education we can tweak that mechanic into something professionally useful and well-paid, right? Well, no, not really:

"Saying that the country should solve the skills shortage through education and training became part of nearly every politician's stump speech, an innocuous way to address the politics of unemployment without strengthening either the bargaining leverage of workers or the federal government's role in bolstering labor markets.

"But training for what? The reality, as the aircraft mechanics discovered, is painfully different from the reigning wisdom. Rather than having a shortage of
skills, millions of American workers have more skills than their jobs require. That is particularly true of college-educated people, who make up 30 percent of the population today, up from 10 percent in the 1960's. They often find themselves working in sales or as office administrators, or taking jobs in hotels and restaurants, or becoming carpenters, flight attendants and word processors."

I'd throw working at Wal-Mart or the local national supermarket chain of your choice (I suppose these are the "sales" jobs that Uchitelle's referring to, this makes it a bit more stark) as also topping the job opportunities list for those once in relatively high-paying jobs who now need jobs. And are there really jobs out there to be plucked from the tree of employment, ones that will make students, or anyone really desirous to work, adequately employed? Well that's not clear, and the evidence would suggest that the answer is no, there's not:

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a rough estimate of the imbalance in the demand for jobs as opposed to the supply. Each month since December 2000, it has surveyed the number of job vacancies across the country and compared it with the number of unemployed job seekers. On average, there were 2.6 job seekers for every job opening over the first 41 months of the survey. That ratio would have been even higher, according to the bureau, if the calculation had included the millions of people who stopped looking for work
because they did not believe that they could get decent jobs.

So the demand for jobs is considerably greater than the supply, and the supply is not what the reigning theory says it is. Most of the unfilled jobs pay low wages and require relatively little skill, often less than the jobholder has. From the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004, for example, more than 55 percent of the hiring was at wages of $13.25 an hour or less: hotel and restaurant workers, health care employees, temporary replacements and the like.

That trend is likely to continue. Seven of the 10 occupations expected to grow the fastest from 2002 through 2012, according to the Labor Department, pay less than $13.25 an hour, on average: retail salesclerks, customer service representatives, food service workers, cashiers, janitors, nurse's aides and hospital orderlies.

So if you're able to find a job that pays decently and you're able to keep it, good on you. But if you lose it you may find yourself out there working in some flavor of the service industry. But that's not what we sell ourselves, and that's certainly not what we sell our students. In point of fact, as near as I can tell, the whole issue of what students should do with their education and where they should go for work is something of a black box - in high school we're focused on preparing our charges for college, which begs the question as to what the 50% or better who either don't go to college or otherwise don't finish college should be doing, and whether they might have been better served with some realistic job counseling/training while they were a junior or senior in high school. But heck, even if they walk out the door with a good job in hand, as many an airline mechanic surely thought they had, they could well enough still face the possibility of losing that job and then find themselves vying for what's left out with everyone else out there.

I'm told, and surely read enough about it, that we're not training our students sufficiently in the math and sciences. Being a chemistry teacher I can attest to that with the paucity of infrastructure and pedagogical investment being a real problem. But what, exactly, are we training these kids for? Some know they want to be doctors, engineers, physical therapists, or nurses, so they're not so hard to get on the right track. But what are the other kids, the vast majority as it stands, supposed to be looking forward to in the future? How are we supposed to prepare out students for jobs in a realistic fashion when life-long employment no longer is a reasonable expectation, outsourcing, overseas and here in the U.S., is taking jobs left and right, and the protection that our parents once may have enjoyed from unions has withered away to the point where non-union jobs are the ones most directly in competition to union ones, as the United aircraft mechanics discovered to their dismay? I think these are important questions, and in all honesty I don't see much being done to address them, but I know that politicians love NCLB and think we should be doing a better job at teaching math and science, for what specific purpose it seems we all just somehow know without really being sure.


Anonymous John Coxon said...

James, you are so, so right to be concerned about the future prospects of your students. Not just in the United States also in every other part of the world - irrespective of the political tone of the country. You might want to view my blog and comments on the new legislation just introduced within Australia. Observe the recent civil unrest in Paris as people responded to new job legislation.

The problem as I see is that everyone is still confusing the terms 'job' and 'work'. The assumption that if you dont have a job then you are a second-class citizen still applies in the minds of many. Whether the past was better than the present or the future is irrelevant, what is relevant is that the work environment around the world is changing, constantly and rapidly. There is no longer any prospect of full employment or job security - though someone forgot to tell the politicians this!

As a teacher, might I suggest, that you are going to have to break the mould. You are going to have to teach differently. You are going to have to work with your students to encourage them to view the world outside school in a different manner. You are going to have to teach them the skills that enable them to think and make decisions for themselves, to accept and take personal responsibility for their own lives - especially those 50% that never attend or graduate from college and even more specifically those other 50% who do graduate but continue to suffer from the ongoing delusion that their degree is a passport to satisfying work. This is going to involved you thinking outside the square, as a teacher. It may even involve you in 'bucking the system', you may even put your own career in jeopardy in doing so - yet to do otherwise is to fail your future students, to do otherwise effectively places you in a position of condoning the status quo and to otherwise means your head remains buried in the sand, just waiting till the day comes when your own work is done by some other means that doesnt require you.

Sorry for sounding so personal; I certainly am not trying to attack you. My concern is that as a teacher you have a choice. You can either go with the flow or you can stand up for your students and teach them the lessons that they will need to move beyond survival in the world of uncertainty that they will, undoubtedly, face in the future. It is pointless actually ponitificating about the changes taking place in society - the true leaders are those that stand up and say, I'm going to do something to help those less fortunate to become more self sufficient and less reliant upon others in the future. As a teacher you are one of a handful of people in a position to make a true and positive difference - please do not let the opportunity slip away.

5:19 AM  
Anonymous Tracy W said...

I think broad basics is the way to go. Maths, reading and writing, the sorts of things that work out useful in any job. Plus they're useful even if you don't have a job. And once you can read, it's much easier to find training in anything you want to learn.

I am a bit puzzled by that article's statistics. The unemployment rate is under 5%, which is probably only a little above frictional levels. This sounds like most people are finding jobs and there isn't a considerably greater demand for jobs than supply.

Furthermore, the opening job you use to get into a company is a starting point and can be quite different from the long-run prospects. My brother-in-law makes a nice living in sales, checkout chicks can turn themselves into store managers, temps frequently get job offers (that's how I once found a high-paying job), etc.

5:29 PM  
Blogger James said...

John, A lot said there, and I believe you're right - as a teacher I need to be involved in some aspect of the solution. Now frankly, before I go risking my job or anything else, I'd like to better understand what it is I'm supposed to be telling these kids that is more than just doomsaying. I'm working on that, and at some point I hope I do take up the charge and go for it and moreover make a substance difference for a student or two.

Tracy, I don't question broad basics, but if that's all there is to it we might as well send them out into the work force after 8th grade when they have the bascis. Surely there's more to it than that, but what, specifically should it be and what, specifically, should we be preparing them for? "Specifics" are hard to come by, surely, but I am inclined to think we do students a disservice when we tell them that what we're doing for them is preparing them for the real world when we're not entirely sure what that means, or at least aren't able to easily identify it. There needs to be more realistic job/work immersion, where we give students information about where the workforce in the future is going and what they need to be able to adapt and be successful in it; we don't really seem to do that now.

I'm not sure what the employment rate has to do with the discussion. It's all wonderful to say that unemployment is 4.8% (the latest number per The Economist), but if the people in question are working in jobs that pay them 1/2 or less than what they were making before, well ... what does that say? You have to work, and you'll work at WalMart if need be to pay the bills, even though you're working for a fraction of what you may have been making before, and now have no where near the benefits.

Frankly I think you're missing the point regarding the ol' up by the bootstraps perspective. It's not the same for someone who's 40 or older who's now out of a job that they thought they'd have till retirement, or would otherwise be able to find a new one for if they lost the one they have because they're so exquisitely trained and worth the high salary they were getting. You may go for years before you can find a job that's going anywhere, and just as likely not find one at all. That's the reality, and it's a reality that too many people think is their fault (they've done something wrong to put them in the spot their in vis-a-vis a job), and for which we do too little to try to clarify and make easier for all concerned.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for an outstanding post.
i teach in a community college.
sometimes one sees the whole
"engine of social mobility" thing
actually working out the way
convential wisdom says it will.
but for many, maybe most, the academy
is the *disappointment machine*:
we're here to help the students
learn to blame themselves when
the "american dream" turns out
to be unavailable. see also:
disciplined minds.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If stewardesses have college degrees when their job doesn't require it, maybe it is because our colleges don't teach anything other than useless leftist propaganda meant to keep the worthless faculty employed. We have plenty of engineers out there doing computer programming they could have done in high school because their grant hugging professors were out of touch with the needs of industry. And all the crazy schemes of corporate governance were learned by the praetorian soviet style of elections and governance of all the nonprofit board, and alumni and trade associations where the supposed intelligentsia goes to show off. If all the rigor of oversight in securities applied also to research and other nonprofit grants, a third of our professoriate would be behind bars. This book is jibberish. No wonder Stalin felt the effete affected intelligentsia of media and academia were his prize useful idiots. All he had to do was coddle their narcissism and they would do ANYTHING without the slightest pang of conscience! This is what we expect from the gunless, carless, houseless, soulless, botox-deadened urban vermin. The reason we have layoffs and need a lot more of them is because of all the people whose minds were polluted by such trash.

5:27 PM  

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