Friday, August 22, 2014

How Careers Stack Up for the Next 20 Years

Last year, I published Choosing a Lasting Career, a book designed to fill the gap between those with occupational personality assessments, such as What Color Is Your Parachute?, and sources on the tactics of getting hired, such as Sweaty Palms.  My thesis was that in order to determine the best careers, we needed to consider not only personal factors such as how much time they would leave for our outside activities, but objective ones such as how resilient they would be in the face of such growing factors as replacement by robots and foreigners. 

The conclusions, at times, were stunning.  While published lists of the most desirable jobs emphasized those with strong current demand, I took a longer view.  In 2033, most recent graduates of college, not to mention high school, will have over 20 years remaining before they turn 65, so the long-term viability of the fields they choose will be critical.  Some careers, such as pharmacy, are doing well now, but, considering the trends toward globalization, automation, and efficiency, along with likely technological improvements and social developments, are almost certain to have vastly smaller demand.  On the other hand, health care aides, while generally low paid, promise to be around for a long time, and also have high rankings on other factors I considered.

In Choosing a Lasting Career, I rated 506 different jobs on seven different factors.  They were local boundness (the chance of a job needing to be done from the same immediate area in 2033), resistance to robotics improvements, resistance to computing and connectivity improvements, the prospects for it paying a good living wage, median pay level, overall quality of working conditions, and compatibility with family life and outside projects.  Assessments on the last four of these I documented and compared but left mostly at that, as they are personal matters.  One man may welcome working with his hands outdoors, while another would prefer to be in an air-conditioned office, and neither is objectively correct.  The first three factors, which are good or bad for everyone regardless of what they want from a job, were incorporated into ratings for each position of Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. 

Using these evaluations, I assembled average scores for each of what the United States Department of Labor terms “occupation groups.”  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning all jobs in the occupation group were scored at Poor, and 5 indicating all were Excellent, the 25 groups came out as follows:


Those in the process of determining what career they want to have, or soon to get there, should be aware of several things in particular.

First, the categories of Community and Social Service and Healthcare, though far from consistently excellent, are the standouts for lasting through 2033.  Both benefit from needing to be done in person, with little prospect for replacement by robots or computer systems, along with aging and disadvantaged populations guaranteed to continue needing their efforts.  In Community and Social Service, one of ten specific jobs came out as Excellent (mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists), and ten of 48 in Healthcare achieved the same (audiologists; cardiovascular technologists and technicians and vascular technologists; EMTs and paramedics; home health and personal care aides; massage therapists; nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants; occupational therapists; occupational therapy assistants and aides;  physical therapist assistants and aides; and physician assistants).  By comparison, only eight of the 448 jobs in the other 23 groups achieved that ranking. 

Second, some generally humble fields will be around long after current ones are devastated.  People working in Building and Grounds Cleaning, Personal Care and Service, and Food Preparation and Serving may not be paid well (though, if they become managers or business owners, may well be), but they will be in solid demand for the next 19 years.  Those who think money less of a factor should consider something here.

Third, Computer and Information Technology, regardless of its current flourishing, is in big long-term trouble.  The main problem that will savage this field for Americans is that few people in this area need to be that.  Indians and Russians, especially, already often have the background and skills to succeed at these positions at far lower pay, and it only remains for companies to realize that before putting together entire teams of technicians, most paid less than average corporate secretaries, elsewhere. 

Fourth, while construction, extraction, and production are often considered together, and indeed two of them still are by the Department of Labor, they have completely different long-term prospects.  Jobs in production and extraction look poor long-term, especially because of the threat from robotics and other technology, but construction will flourish, especially in relatively good economic times.  There is a vast difference between the enduring employability of dry-wall specialists, who can count on many things being built that require their skills, and good, experienced manufacturers of almost anything.

Fifth, the same goes for jobs in the sciences, which are generally promising especially in private industry, and positions in mathematics, which suffer from the same problem as those in computer technology.  Math is the same all over the world, and Americans have no monopoly on education in it. 

Sixth, notice the low rankings for Office and Administrative Support, Production, and Military.  During the postwar years, these fields had close to half of American jobs.  Now, all three are in terrible shape.  Keep that in mind when wondering if demand for people in careers can actually go away.

Watch this blog for more posts about the prospects for future careers.  In the meantime, Choosing a Lasting Career is available, among other places, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

The Internet: Another Book Later, What’s Happening With It Economically?

One more volume on the ultimate effects of online activity hit the metaphorical stands last month.

Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker, told us, in The People’s Platform:  Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, why she thinks online attention and influence are illusory.  She reiterated, and in some cases expanded on, the problems pointed out by Jaron Lanier in last year’s Who Owns the Future?, especially that of millions of content producers paid nothing or next to nothing while a few tycoons get billions, mostly for running advertising along with it.  In those, and in her other Work’s New Age-related observations in the first chapter (to the point where she even mentioned one-way business efficiency as well as globalization and automation as a cause of declining employment), she was right. 

As a solution, Taylor favored, in effect, nationalization of Facebook, Google, and the like, and vastly greater government control of the Internet.  In that, she was wrong.  Unless you are on the far left of the political spectrum, you will agree that government is not well suited to controlling extremely fast-moving, inherently exceptionally entrepreneurial, enterprises.  Yet many of the points she makes on the way to that end are salient.        

So, from both books and beyond, what can we say about the economic effects of online resources?

First, since the Internet has become established, there have been more opportunities for artists, writers, and other content creators to get what looks like publicity, but fewer for them to make significant money.  While some online venues do pay something, it rarely approaches that from full-time work, even at the minimum wage.  Taylor provided one stunning example, of a musician needing to have over 47,000 plays by users of Spotify to match the profit once gathered from selling one long-playing record.  (At that rate, an album as financially successful as a platinum-seller in the age of vinyl would need to be listened to the equivalent of six times by every person in the world.)  One reason for such poor remuneration is the huge supply of content, with, for example, over one million blogs maintained and over one million books published each year by Americans alone.

Second, this volume of content providers means their increased publicity is indeed an illusion.  Their work may be in plain sight, but it is effectively hidden among a vast forest of others.

Third, while ever more people are working full-time at creative endeavors, far fewer of their de facto jobs are meaningfully paid.  In 1976, futurist Herman Kahn addressed the problem of the next phase of work, after extraction, manufacturing, and services, and concluded it would be “quaternary,” or people doing things for their own sake.  It seems this prediction has come true, without it being noticed, as so many authors, other writers, singers, musicians, video producers, painters, and so on are in effect doing just that.

Fourth, making creative products has never been so decentralized, yet revenue from them has never been so centralized.  Lanier wrote about one of the most watched You Tube contributors, with over one billion video views, earning about $200,000 per year.  That is certainly good money, but when considering she is in the best-paid five or so out of hundreds of millions, it isn’t impressive at all, and, after seeing that half of American physicians earn more, it becomes an indictment of the level of prosperity the digital economy is actually bringing.  As Lanier estimated that fewer than 1,000 musicians – a number dwarfed by those playing for symphony orchestras in many individual states – are earning what could be called a living by selling their work online, it is clear that there are not many on the Internet in the middle income range either.                      

Fifth, an ever-increasing number of people, having become aware of the economic facts above, are, instead, working toward careers assisting content providers.  In the writing world they are publicists, editors, book designers, “book shepherds,” and a plethora of other advisors.  As with content providers, though, there are just too many of them, so the vast majority gets nowhere or almost nowhere.

Sixth, the amount of online advertising on popular sites is increasing dramatically, not only year by year but month by month.  Compare the number of banner ads, pop-up messages, and now even auditory sales pitches you come in contact with on eBay, Facebook, and The Huffington Post, just to name three.  If users are reaching saturation, the sites’ managements have not shown that they know that, and most likely the amount of advertising, an issue Taylor also discussed, will double, triple, or quadruple within the next year or two. 

Seventh, and most disturbing, the great bulk of money most Americans have and earn is from pre-digital sources, namely from producing and selling tangible things in the past and present.  The online economy, for most users, is not only cashless but moneyless, with little of it changing hands.  Yet the work people put into their creative efforts is as real as ever.  So, the United States, ready or not, is already moving from paying service jobs to nonpaying quaternary ones.  How will we deal with that?          

Friday, August 8, 2014

Unusual Jobs – Opportunities Outside the Mainstream

Not all work is in a factory, an office, a retail store, or some other typical place.  There is a surprising number of jobs, doing tasks that must be completed by live people, that are often overlooked, as they are advertised poorly if at all, are at seasonal or irregular times, or are just plain seldom considered by those who want employment.  The book Odd Jobs:  How to Have Fun and Make Money in a Bad Economy, written by Abigail R. Gehring and issued by Skyhorse Publishing in 2012, is a compendium of such possibilities.  What are some of the most promising ones?

If you are in or near a city, and enjoy riding a bicycle in traffic, you could become a bike messenger.  They are still in demand in densely populated places – you will see many if you live in or visit New York City – and pay about $5 to $15 per delivery. 

With the aging population, there is a lot of demand for elderly care.  Many people need someone not necessarily medically trained to help them with cooking, bathing, going to the store, or just companionship.  It usually pays from $9 to $25 per hour.

As the highest paying work is concentrated into fewer and fewer people, the call for personal shoppers is up.  These people handle the process of buying things – going to stores (or searching online), choosing what is needed, and bringing it back.  This job can involve getting anything from flooring to preschooler’s birthday presents, and, with experience and reputation, can pay as much as $100 per hour. 

Renaissance fairs are common around the country, and are often very labor-intensive, with people needed to serve food, take tickets, run or supervise carnival rides, and so on.  Often these positions are overlooked, since they only run for a week or two, but can offer a lot of paid hours in a short time.  The same general idea applies to a variety of other outdoor events.

On the subject of long hours in short times, one of the best, if you are there or willing to travel there and are in fine physical condition, is being a deckhand in an Alaskan commercial fishing crew.  The seasons are short and pay remarkably high.  The smell of all that fish is offset by, often, lodging being provided.

Another opportunity often including a free room is resort receptionist.  Such jobs, if foreign, often pay less than the American minimum wage, but can come with perks such as being able to use the resort’s amenities, and even meals.  Other positions at relatively isolated vacation spots often include the same.     

If you love skiing, you could consider being a ski lift operator.  It pays, usually, $7 to $9 per hour, and gives you easy access to skiing yourself during off hours.  However, the largest disadvantages, as Gehring names them, are “cold,” “cold,” and “sometimes very cold.”

Another opportunity requiring temporary relocation is FEMA reservist.  Such people work for the government’s disaster relief agency and must be able to go to the site where they are needed on short notice.  There they may be paid anywhere from $9 to $35 per hour, depending on work specialty, and are usually put up in the best rooms available with money allowed for food as well.  The downside is that reservists are required to be on call, for at least parts of the year, and will not be paid if there is no work.

Although regular positions at elementary and high schools, with high entry requirements, are in great demand nationwide, there is an ongoing need for substitute teachers.  As with FEMA reservists, the calls may be on short notice.  It usually pays $50 to $75 per day, and requires some training from the local school district. 

The holiday season, now only a few months away, offers a variety of opportunities even more irregular than short-term cashiers or shelf-stockers.  Some are Christmas tree decorator, gift wrapper, and playing Santa or Mrs. Claus.  Temporary help agencies have some of them, and others are arranged through stores, malls, or through calling prospects. 

These are just a few of the less ordinary possibilities for bringing in money.  Odd Jobs has many more, including numerous business opportunities, and the book is an entertaining read, especially if you might consider a wide range of offbeat engagements.  Even with globalization, automation, and efficiency cutting the need for workers, there are still a lot of things that need to be done here by humans – and that won’t change for a while yet.

Friday, August 1, 2014

AJSN Over 20 Million on Seasonally Higher Unemployment, Little General Improvement

I said yesterday evening to my wife, the stock market expert in our household, that right then was a good time to buy, since the Dow had sewered yet it almost always liked the federal jobs report, and this one rated to be quite similar to those recent.  I don’t know yet about my stock market prediction, but the jobs report one succeeded. 

The best news this morning’s Employment Situation Summary had was the same as for months – the past six of them, in fact.  The number of seasonally adjusted net new jobs exceeded that needed for population growth as it has since and including February – this time it was plus 209,000.  The official unemployment rate, though, broke its four-month stretch of being lower or the same by edging up to 6.2%, unadjusted unemployment climbed from 6.3% to 6.5%, and the unadjusted number of people officially jobless was up over 400,000 to just over 10.3 million.

The American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, the measure of how many more United States jobs could be quickly filled if getting them were routinely easy, went over 20 million for the first time since February.  More than its gain was explained by the count of those recorded as unemployed, as those reporting they wanted work but did not search for it were off almost 100,000 and the number of people not wanting a job at all dropped 300,000.  In all, the AJSN increased 306,000, as follows:


The most important secondary measures of employment were mixed and unchanged.  A total of 3.2 million Americans were officially jobless for 27 weeks or more, up 100,000, and the number working part-time for economic reasons, meaning they wanted a full-time position but couldn’t find it, stayed at 7.5 million.  Civilian labor force participation rose from 62.8% to 62.9%, and the employment to population ratio held at 59.0%.

The AJSN’s improvement over the past year decreased significantly from that in June, but is still almost 1.5 million lower, with latent demand from those officially unemployed, down 1.6 million, being the main story.  The count of people in the armed forces, in institutions, and off the grid or otherwise lost to statistics, though, is now 2.8 million higher than it was in July 2013. 

So where are we now?  The United States job situation seems to be settling into a non-recession pattern, with good job gains combining with people slowly and irregularly leaving the labor force to produce deceptively strong improvements in the unemployment rate.  If the economy is truly healing, it is doing so sluggishly, and is as susceptible as ever to a downturn.  How long can it continue?  Indefinitely, perhaps.  Turtles can walk for a long time, even if they threaten to move, instead, at the pace of snails.       

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Latest on Interviews and Resumes: New, Old, and Overrated

Three new books, one on job interviews, one on resumes, and one with sections on each, have been published.  All are highly regarded by Amazon readers.  What new ideas do they have on these two old cornerstones of job seeking?

Some trends in resumes have gone back and forth over the decades, and, according to these books, are still oscillating.  On length, one (Resumes That Stand Out!, by L. Xavier Cano) firmly advocated a one-page maximum for anyone with career time of ten years or less.  Another is the return of a career objectives section, popular in the 1990s but discouraged the decade after.  Grade-point averages, if over 3.0, and hobbies and interests, at least for new college graduates, have made modest comebacks after decades of banishment.  Both Cano and Martin Yate, author of Knock ‘em Dead:  The Ultimate Job Search Guide 2014, recommended modifying the resume itself, instead of only the cover letter, for different targeted jobs - in fact, the book more geared to mid-life career changers suggested custom documents, often extensively different, for each position applied for.  Two new resume features advocated are inclusion of a LinkedIn URL, if the page itself is complete and professional, and an International Travel section, if the countries involved pertain to what’s being applied for.

On job interviews, a few things have changed in what candidates face.  Per Yate, unusual settings, such as a restaurant or even a hotel lobby, are becoming more common.  The third author, London Porter, in Rockstar Your Job Interview, wrote that the range of questions has widened, with such old saws as “sell me this pen” joined by the likes of “how many gas stations are in the United States?”  Military service now draws its own questions, involving application of service work to corporate life and ability to handle an environment with few firm orders.  As for follow-ups, Porter recommended not only thank-you emails but multiple contact attempts, their timing and frequency dependent on the hiring timeline.

So how much is new in interviews and resumes?  Considering the differences in jobs themselves, their roles, contents, and significances are remarkably unchanged.  A good resume layout from 1980 would still be acceptable today, though, as these books’ authors point out, formatting should accommodate electronic transmission.  The role and structure of cover letters is essentially the same as when Ronald Reagan was elected.  On interviews, whatever the question, job, or venue, the guiding philosophy of being responsible, unruffled, clear-thinking, respectful, of course well-dressed and well-groomed, and more than anything else comprehensively suitable for the position, remains.

And so it is with interviews and resumes.  Ability at them is critically important, but is far from sufficient for being hired.  In interviews the first 90 seconds will usually tell the person across from you whether you have a chance, and resumes are viewed for less time than that by manager and keyword-scanning program combined.  Sometimes it is necessary to “rockstar” them or make them stand out, but in other situations they just need to be reasonable. 
Overall, interviews and resumes are overemphasized.  As valuable as they remain, getting to the point where skill at either comes into play is still the most important thing for jobseekers to address.        

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wal-Mart Benefits America

What can we say about Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., of Bentonville, Arkansas?

First, it is enormous.  The world’s largest public corporation, it has over 11,000 retail outlets in 27 countries – hardly the most of anyone, but their average size makes the company unique.  Its 1.4 million workers make it the largest private United States employer, with over four times as many as second-place IBM.  Ninety percent of Americans live within a 15-minute drive of a Wal-Mart store, they receive more than one-thirteenth of every dollar spent in this country, and the firm’s annual world sales approach half a trillion dollars.  As well as being the country’s, and the world’s, largest retailer overall, it sells more groceries in America than any other.

Second, vast numbers of people not working there benefit from it.  About 100 million people buy from Wal-Mart each week.  A 2005 Washington Post study concluded that the chain’s prices on food alone saved American consumers $50 billion per year, and the company has added many stores since then.  Forty-two percent of Wal-Mart’s sales are made to people with family incomes below $40,000, and one fifth of their customers, double the national average, do not have bank accounts.  Accordingly, many of their shoppers have a special need for savings.

Third, the same sales have caused a steamroller effect on other businesses.  Other research has shown that the negative effect new Wal-Mart stores have on receipts at others, strongest in smaller towns, could be as much as 40 percent, with businesses closer to the company’s locations suffering the most.  A Penn State study concluded that Wal-Mart outlets increased poverty.

Fourth, 80% of the chain’s suppliers are in China, which other studies concluded cost 200,000 American jobs.  Many of its products, though, are not price-competitive or even available when manufactured here, and earlier this month, Wal-Mart officially launched an effort to sell more American-made products, with its “Made in USA Open Call” event. 

So what can we conclude about this gargantuan chain? 

One, if prosperity and poverty measures included and quantified the effect of lower prices, Wal-Mart would attract less controversy.  In 2006, columnist George Will wrote that the chain and “its effects,” including forcing prices elsewhere lower, saved American consumers more than $200 billion per year, more than three times the benefits from food stamps and the earned income credit combined.  Yet poverty statistics do not account for this boon. 

Two, there is little documented reason to show that Wal-Mart stores cost a net number of jobs.  Although many other businesses are often forced out when one arrives, the total amount of retail sales frequently increases to the point where more workers, overall, are needed. 

Three, while Wal-Mart jobs have indeed tended to pay less than those at other retailers, those employers have had much more risk of going out of business.  Although many have criticized the chain for its pay rates and working conditions, demand for its positions, especially at new locations, remains high.  Eight years ago, before the Great Recession, a new Wal-Mart store opening near Chicago received 25,000 applications for its 325 new jobs – bad reputation, low pay, and all – when the city had an official 5.4% unemployment rate.

Four, positions at a large retail chain cannot be compared with those at large information-related companies such as Microsoft, Google, or AT&T.  The corporation’s 2013 $476 billion revenue works out to less than $217,000 per employee, compared with Microsoft’s and Google’s 2008 figures of $664,000 and over $1 million respectively.  Wal-Mart may be even larger and more profitable than either, but with such labor intensity its pay rates can never approximate theirs.

Five, the chain has indeed caused jobs at other retailers to go away.  Yet, with big-box competitors and online opportunities now commonplace, the great majority of the failed local stores would have been in trouble anyway.  As the survivors were well-suited to withstand lower Wal-Mart prices through customization and better customer service, they rated to do the best whether that company was involved or not. 

Other concerns, with doubtful merit, have been raised about the Bentonville company.  Its founder Sam Walton never made a lot of charitable contributions, yet the business now gives close to $1 billion per year.  Its jobs are often physically difficult, but no more than the industry norm.  A 2007 lawsuit charging the chain with sex discriminations in promotions and pay, though many thought it had considerable validity, was unsuccessful, with the judge not allowing it class-action status.  Recently, many commentators have compared Wal-Mart employees with those of Costco, another big-box retailer, who generally earn much more and have better benefits, including health insurance at the lowest levels.  Yet Costco stores, with typically 1/35th as many different items on offer and lots of them sold stacked on pallets, have sales per employee almost three times higher.

Meanwhile, the preponderance of evidence says that this enterprise, even if fearsomely gigantic, is strongly positive.  No company has saved low-income people so much money, and few if any have offered employment to so many.  From bananas to ipads, and in the tradition of the Sears catalogue which it in a sense superseded, Wal-Mart has made it possible for Americans, especially those in need, to consistently, year in and year out, get more for their money. 

The idyllically-remembered Main Streets with “little guy” retailers are gone forever, Wal-Mart or not.  The world is profoundly different now.  We may or may not successfully negotiate the jobs crisis, but for now there is not enough work, and no company has helped the unemployed and underemployed more, whether or not they have had jobs there.  The judgment is not close – the chain is good for America.  That is what we should understand, more than anything else, about Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.            

Friday, July 11, 2014

How a New WPA Program Might Work

From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration provided many American jobs.  Its workers, who reached 3.3 million in 1938, mostly constructed buildings, many of which are still in use today, and roads, all over the country.  The program ended in 1943, when the war effort had greatly reduced unemployment. 

There are two excellent reasons why a WPA-style effort would be good today.   At the top of the list are persistent unemployment, still at 9.9 million officially despite years of improvement, and a massive need for infrastructure work, with a $3.6 trillion cost estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers through 2020.   Beyond that is the stimulus value of the money, as workers would receive paychecks which, unlike those received by people with very high incomes today, would overwhelmingly be spent on goods and services.   Yet times are different now than they were 80 years ago, so some aspects of the program and even its overall charter might best be changed.  So what features could this new infrastructure and jobs effort have?

First, in contrast to the original WPA the new one’s emphasis could be on needed projects first and jobs second.  In order to get conservative support in Washington, it should put better American infrastructure first.  It might start out relatively small, as the highest priority ventures are approved and the results assessed.  It would not be designed to guarantee work for everyone, rather to assure that the public works improvements necessary in any event are completed.

Second, there should be no eligibility restrictions for new WPA jobs.  Requiring, for example, that workers be unemployed would, at a time when 7.5 million Americans work part-time but want full-time positions, be inappropriate.  Those employed only seasonally, in fields they do not want to be in, or at levels well below their education and proven skill levels should also not be penalized for making adaptive choices. 

Third, pay for new WPA jobs would not match industry standards.  The great majority of these positions, even if skilled, could have salaries of $20,000 to $35,000 per year.  The idea of promising middle class prosperity for workers, long held by many on the left and continuing to shape discussions about the minimum wage, would not be able to come into play.

Fourth, the positions would include health care coverage and modest benefits such as holidays off and two weeks of annual paid vacation.  As with pay ranges, these extras would not match those in private industry or even those part of existing government jobs.

Fifth, the overall new WPA goal would be to restore America’s standing of first worldwide in infrastructure, which it had most recently in the 1990s but has fallen to 14th as of last year.  That would provide an objective for all to work towards.

Sixth, construction of new bridges, dams, levees, hazardous waste sites, ports, airports, schools, microwave towers, and railroads, as well as roads and buildings, should also be included.  With a new WPA, a lack of state government funding, which in New Jersey killed one more needed tunnel to Manhattan last year, would not be the object – the merits of new construction could be assessed nationally.            

Seventh, non-infrastructure needs could also be assessed and possibly included.  Teaching opportunities, housing for the homeless and in areas with shortages, putting out underground fires, various scientific endeavors, and a wide range of historical and research projects, all with ample merit but short on funding, are only a few areas worthy of debate.

In all, there is plenty of work needed in the United States, and plenty of people available to do it.  Creaky bridges, overcrowded highways, and insufficient airports will not fix themselves, nor will any kind of technological advance make them unneeded.  The choices are to correct these things expensively later, to complete projects now when workers and materials are relatively cheap, or to allow America to further deteriorate.  If conservatives value resisting even bipartisan proposals to the point where the latter happens, they will have only themselves to blame when businesses, and their country, fail.