Friday, March 29, 2019

A New Job Training Bill: How Can It Be Better?

What is the purpose of vocational education?  How can we achieve it?   

Kevin Carey, in the March 1st New York Times “A Well-Meaning Job Training Bill That May Hurt More Than Help,” opined that it should be doing more than simply helping people get started in new careers.  He criticized “The Jobs Act,” a rather grandiose name for an otherwise good bill sponsored by one U.S. Senator from each major party and cosponsored by 12 more “bipartisan” ones, “including three Democrats who are running for president,” concluding it would, per the article’s title, “hurt the students it is designed to help.”  He didn’t like the bill’s shortening minimum Pell-grant tuition-coverage eligibility for programs only eight weeks long, as “study after study finds that too many” of them don’t succeed in “better jobs and wages,” but did not mention how many people completing such courses are hired into their new fields.  He went off on the “dynamics” of how certificate programs, often provided by “for-profit” institutions (an expression he seems to use as a pejorative), “shortchange women,” because most cosmetology certificate holders are female, and have “limitations… stratified by race,” as more blacks than those in other groups end their education with one, and hastily concluded that, for these two masses of people especially, “the bill leaves students at the mercy of a higher education market that routinely fails them.”  He cited the irrelevant statistic that “only about one in four students whose credential is a short-term certificate go on to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years,” not seeing that those succeeding in fields they have chosen usually either conclude their higher education or wait years before continuing it.  As a substitute for more vocational certificate graduates, Carey advocated “career advising and job search assistance,” as they “have been shown to help,” as if they, somehow, avoided the flaws of “short training programs of wildly uneven quality.” 

Instead of scuttling a not only positive but rare and commendably bipartisan effort, how could it be improved?  The answer is to require accreditations for certificate programs.  It may take a while for bodies issuing them to develop their standards, and for schools to meet them, but that would be healthy, as program quality at reputable institutions would be certain to quickly improve.  As well as coursework rigor, accrediting boards should also require that certain percentages of graduates – overall, not diced into sex and race groups – be hired in the certificates’ fields.  When programs meet these standards, the Pell grants, described by Carey as “about $3,000” for 8-week ones could start.  This – not dividing Americans by demographic factors, vilifying organizations trying to earn money, or snobbishly pitying people for choosing careers they know do not pay well – is the solution we want.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Artificial Intelligence: Governance, Taxation, Ethics, Ground Rules, and Its Largest Question

Over the past few months the subject of human-replacing technology articles has shifted.  From constant progress reports, autonomous vehicle news is down to a trickle, but artificial intelligence (AI) issues are still drawing reporting.  Here are four such stories, all from The New York Times.

The first, “How Do You Govern Machines That Can Learn?  Policymakers Are Trying to Figure That Out,” by Steve Lohr on January 20th, wasn’t specific.  It reminded us, though, that “today’s machine-learning systems are so complex, digesting so much data, that explaining how they make decisions may be impossible” (italics Lohr’s).  I still believe that AI is only algorithmic, but it is now developing its own computational procedures often already too large to explain.  As to whether we need confidence in systems with methods more accurate than ours, “an M.I.T. computer scientist and breast cancer survivor” said that “you have to use” machine-generated algorithms predicting that disease if they are objectively best.  Yet, as we know from recent driverless-car attitudes, not all will consent to that.  Lohr also discussed two situations which he and everyone else seems to conflate:  poorer AI recognition of female and nonwhite faces, which is a technical issue requiring more work, and how to use controversial but correct data.

Next was Eduardo Porter’s February 24th opinion-section “Don’t Fight the Robots.  Tax Them.”  Important issues he touched on were “how do you even define a robot to tax it?,” that before applying levies on such things we should first withdraw accelerated depreciation and other tax subsidies, and that reduced numbers of workers pay less income tax.  His suggestions included robot-owning businesses forfeiting taxes formerly paid by laid-off workers (good, as it assigns cost to the cost-causer), and a per-robot tax (OK, if we agree on what robots are).  I think we would do better to charge income tax on a sliding scale with companies with more full-time equivalent jobs paying less, which, given Porter’s idea of taxing “the ratio of a company’s profit to its employee compensation,” he almost proposed himself.

The last two were written by Cade Metz and published March 1st.  The content of “Is Ethical A.I. Even Possible?” didn’t support that headline, but focused on two concerns, of facial recognition shortcomings as above and the growing unwillingness of AI researchers to contribute to autonomous weapons systems.  As Metz mentioned, the AI Now Institute, per its website “an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence,” has been formed at New York University.  AI can certainly be ethical, but we will not all agree on what is right to do with it and what is not.

Finally, Metz’s “Seeking Ground Rules for A.I.” proposed ten overarching principles in the field.  They were transparency (in design, intention, and use of the technology), disclosure (to users), privacy (allowing users to refuse to have their data collected), diversity (of the development teams, presumably in race and sex), bias (in input data), trust (self-regulation), accountability (“a common set of standards”), collective governance, regulation, and complementarity (to limit AI as something for people to use instead of something to replace them).  A good start, and may, or may not, go a long way without major changes. 

Beyond all of these, we have a query to which AI will force an answer.  It is not a pleasant one, but we must think about it.  As Lohr almost stated, blacks, whites, men, women, gays, and straights, to name the most common but hardly all identity groups, do not have identical behavioral compositions.  As the systems determine differences between sexes and races, they will use them to identify criminal suspects, recommend hiring or not hiring, accept or refuse mortgage and other loan requests, determine optimal housing, and make or contribute to an almost infinite set of other large life-affecting decisions.  When algorithms are assembled using contextless data, it is inevitable that many will incorporate these factors.  Even if these six categories and more like them were expressly blocked from consideration, proxies such as geographical location would bring them right back in.  So here is the question:  What do we do when the truth is racist, sexist, homophobic, or heterophobic?  The answer we develop will mean more for the future of AI than any further technical progress. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Males and Females in School and In the Office – Who’s Beating Whom?

A fascinating New York Times article came out February 7th.  Written by clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, “Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office” contrasted men’s “95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies” with females’ tendency to “study harder and get better grades.”  Damour cited research results citing women’s lack of confidence and suggesting that boys were much more likely to get that from their school experiences, even if they were less likely to show the competence of girls who “don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.”  She suggested that “parents and teachers can stop praising inefficient overwork,” such as students with top grades doing clearly unneeded extra credit assignments.  The best line was from an unnamed “colleague” of Damour’s saying that, if 90 was enough for an A, “the difference between a 91 and a 99 is a life.”

What I did and saw in school, though now 40 to 55 years ago, was right in line with this piece.  In my classes there were usually phalanxes of peers, almost all girls, who always seemed to be prepared, poised, and academically outstanding.  I was not.  I was one, per Damour, who did “just enough to keep the adults off their backs.”  My parents considered me an underworking underachiever who did not do enough for my future, and applied a great deal of pressure on me to do more and do better.  At times my sister, once found in the middle of the night making an unrequired large chart for a class in which she had a solid A average “just because she wanted it,” fit the girl’s grind stereotype – my mother, after opining that I had the opposite problem, said my sister, who after getting a top mark on a school project would have no interest in discussing its subject, would do well to enjoy present days more. 

What long-term effects did my school attitude ultimately have?  I don’t know how to evaluate the downside, with family financial problems also perhaps precluding a four-year Ivy League stay, but there has been one great advantage.  My most common reason for being apathetic about schoolwork was that I wanted to learn other things.  Since graduating from a good state university in 1979 at age 22 I have continued that, with both advanced degrees, a 6,000-book library, and a vast and unique set of knowledge-enhancing and teaching experiences.  I have converted many personal weaknesses, such as my atrocious grade-school organization ability, into strengths.  While my sister claimed a “very efficient mind,” mine is anything but, and I have taken enormous pleasure from that.  I have no answer for whether, for example, thirty years as a top physician would have been better for me. 

If I were advising students and teachers on how to help the former to get the most from their work efforts, some things would be clear.  Both grinds and slackers need to focus more on tactics, which Damour touched on but could have pursued further, and drop the incorrect assumption that more labor is always good.  All should encourage gaining information from tangents off school subjects, and from totally unrelated things, as well.  All students, especially in high school and college, should at least seriously consider participating in activities to which they will not later have access.  The 91%-and-99% insight above, along with the old line about what people call someone graduating last in their medical school class (the answer is “Doctor”), should be on the wall in every school if not every classroom. 

As for work settings, it is almost paradoxical that so many men and women change places.  While most people making financial sacrifices to preserve life balance are women, it is chiefly men who in pursuit of more money and success seem to lose perspective and forfeit everything else.  It would be hard for bosses to honestly stop loving workaholics, but could they more often value and reward the crucial but too often sadly undervalued virtues of preparation, planning, being on time, following instructions, making commitments, responding to messages, being generally and consistently reliable and dependable, and in general doing what the grind girls above have taught themselves to excel at?  Most cubicle workers and others with open-ended responsibilities could use more emphasis on tactics, especially in knowing what they do not need to do.  That, along with remembering that school grades by themselves have only small effects on workplace success, should keep everyone’s head screwed on more securely. 

So who is winning, the intense or the casual?  Neither.  Both are losing, as long as they fail to pay attention to their lives around them, to how such lives may later be, and to making the most of their work and study time.  As with other social problems, those of overwork and underwork are best solved by having, sharing, and using accurate information.  There need not be winners and losers in classrooms or on jobs, only people making personal choices suited best to them.  That is what we need.

Friday, March 8, 2019

February’s Employment Data: Little Change Compared with December, But AJSN Now 16.5 Million on Higher Latent Demand

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was special.  Not that there was anything noteworthy about the numbers – they were duller than usual – but now that the government has been staying entirely open, they show us clearer than last month’s fractured issue what has been happening this year.

First was the quite low 20,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, which wasn’t so bad when averaged with January’s 304,000, or 162,000 per month, not great but still more than needed for our population increase.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment fell 0.2% to 3.8%, but with January’s 0.1% gain we have no trend.  Likewise for average hourly nonfarm payroll earnings, which stalled at plus only 2 cents per hour last time but rose 11 cents last month to $27.66 for a hair-over-inflation average 6.5 cents per hour.  The count of those officially jobless and out for 27 weeks or longer again held at 1.3 million, with the total unemployed number, down 300,000 to 6.2 million, more than erasing January’s 200,000 gain for an average drop of 50,000.  The two best measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, held even, the same result for the first and a hold of January’s 0.1% improvement for the second.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric which shows how many more positions could be easily filled if all knew they were truly easy to get, dropped 600,000 from January for an average 335,000 rise over the past two months, as follows:

Compared with December, most of the gain came from higher official unemployment, with other significant contributions from increases in those not searching for work in the previous year, those in the miscellaneous non-civilian et al. category, and people claiming discouragement.  Compared with a year ago the AJSN has improved by 300,000, with a 419,400 drop in latent demand from those officially unemployed partially offset by a 155,000 hike from those wanting to work but not looking for it for a year or longer.  Perhaps tellingly given improving economic times, 325,000 fewer people are in the miscellaneous group than a year ago, cutting hidden demand there by a tenth of that.

How can we sum up all of this?  It was a decent two months, with small surprises in the part-time-for-economic-reasons (good) and number of new positions (bad).  We are showing signs of leveling off, with year-over-year AJSN improvement wafting down, but we remain in the best economy since 2008.  And we’re still, slowly, getting better.  Accordingly, while it wasn’t large even for his species, the turtle, once again, took a step forward.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Just Like Employees, Not All Articles on Jobs Are Successful

This past week offered me, on the surface, several opportunities to write a post from one published piece.  It didn’t work out that way.  Why not?

Most with potential were in the February 24th New York Times Magazine, subtitled “The Future of Work Issue,” and were even more irritating to me than its font with lines connecting “s” and “t” and other letter pairs.  The first, Charles Duhigg’s “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable,” chronicled how many Harvard M.B.A. graduates were just that, in high-pressure, long-hours positions providing little in deep meaning, sense of purpose, self-direction, and so on.  None of this is anything new, and people have long chosen to leave such positions after getting financially set for life but long before retirement age.  It’s a choice they made, and decades later when they’re teaching kindergarten or some such, plenty will be happy to have taken that enviably remunerative path. 

After a piece impossible to argue with on basic labor rights for household workers, we have Emily Bazelon’s “A Seat at the Head of the Table,” complaining about not enough women in top corporate roles, which has had staggering progress in my lifetime alone but as long as more women than men choose slower career paths will go on to some extent forever.  Then on to Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s “The Rise of the WeWork Class,” worthwhile only if you haven’t seen the January 27th front-page business section’s piece I wrote about three weeks ago documenting the rising business fad of super-workaholism and spineless companies using office space provider WeWork as culture-instilling attack dogs.  The feature on people doing the same jobs for 50 years or more was interesting, if again not a fresh idea, followed by Matthew Desmond’s hackneyed “Dollars on the Margins” which trumpeted the advantages of a $15 per hour minimum wage apparently for everyone, with consideration to neither its downside nor its inability to assure financial solvency, let alone prosperity.  There is a sufficient set of fascinating things to say about where employment is going, but it wasn’t represented here. 

On then to The Atlantic, and Derek Thompson’s attempt to justify its “Ideas” categorization, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.”  A more honest title would have been “Workism Has Long Made Many of Those Americans Who Let Themselves Get Roped Into It Miserable,” but overstatement is its tone throughout.  One of these pieces full of controversial declarations which themselves could be spun into articles of their own (e.g. “everybody worships something,” “the best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want…,” “the religion of work isn’t just a cultist feature of America’s elite.  It’s also the law”), it maintained a frantic tone about a part of our culture with roots before the Revolution, in its current form since the 1950s, and resurgent in the 1980s.  It laughed at a 1957 prediction that “our identity would be defined by our hobbies, or our family life,” actually written around the time when jobs-as-self-definers peaked, and called “quaint” the idea that some people “preferred careers that gave them time away from the office to focus on their relationships and their hobbies,” a choice now made by maybe one-third of employment-age women and not a few men.  Yet even if Thompson was caught flatfooted by the Protestant work ethic, he acknowledged that average American work-years have shortened, and correctly pointed out that seeking passion in what is only one component of people’s lives is not automatically optimal.
The best I saw was Joe Pinsker’s “The ‘Hidden Mechanisms’ That Help Those Born Rich to Excel in Elite Jobs,” also in the February Atlantic.  It should be clear to all that financial advantages are significant to career outcomes in a variety of ways, and now we have a book documenting that:  Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman’s The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged.  If it hasn’t occurred to you that those altruistic trips to Guatemala by 15-year-olds impressing college admissions officers simply perpetuate familial financial strength, or that 20-something professionals who can draw from “the bank of Mom and Dad” are more likely to stick it out and ultimately succeed in the likes of New York City, you should at least read this author-interview article.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be disappointed with these efforts.  They all came out in one week.  There will be more, and whether good, bad, or indifferent I will keep you up with them.