Commentary

The 'New and Emerging' Occupations Are Neither

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In my studies of the American labor market over the last 35 years, I have constantly seen references to "new and emerging occupations." "High tech" is the buzz phrase of our times. "Where are the new and emerging occupations?" educators ask, and "Aren't these the jobs that we need to prepare young people for?" Sometimes I get the feeling that we are involved in a search for the Holy Grail; if we do not find these new and emerging occupations, we ask ourselves, what are we going to do about preparing people for the job market?

But these questions reflect a view of the future workforce that is misguided, in my judgment. Instead of looking at the job market from the perspective of new and emerging occupations, let me suggest to those who aim to help young people understand their employment possibilities that other market phenomena are far more important than those elusive emerging fields.

As a labor economist, I begin with the concept that supply and demand in a market interact with each other. The supply of human resources affects the kinds of job opportunities for which we need to train people.

Several theories have been developed to explain the tightening American job market. A number of observers have argued that we were overeducating Americans. They have felt that we were sending too many people to college and were in danger of becoming a second India, with many underemployed college graduates.

But these observers were not looking at supply and demand. At no time during this period of increasing competition did the demand for people with high levels of skill actually decline. During the most recent recession, for instance, the number of blue-collar jobs dropped by 2.2 million, but positions held by college graduates--professional, technical, managerial, and administrative jobs--increased by 550,000. The same phenomenon occurred during the 1974-75 recession. However, we were overwhelming the labor market on the supply side. The pressure to find jobs for this large supply of workers led to the search for new and emerging occupations. And with all these people looking for jobs while the unemployment rate has continued to rise, the pressure is still moving us in that direction.

Another notion--that automation and technology were eliminating jobs--received much attention in the 1960's. It was felt that automation was radically changing the nature of jobs and work. In 1962, the first Manpower Development and Training Act was passed to train 50,000 people. The birth of this act was rooted in the thinking that if we trained people for the jobs that were available, there would be fewer problems in the job market. At that time, the labor force numbered approximately 70 million, with a post-World War II productivity-increase rate of 3.2 percent per year. (The productivity-increase figure means that the same amount of goods and services can be produced in any year as in the previous year by that percentage fewer workers.)

Since 3 percent of 70 million is roughly 2 million, many people simplistically concluded that 2 million jobs were being eliminated each year due to automation. Willard Wirtz, then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, was one of those making that point. Then, by dividing the 2 million by 50 work weeks per year, these same people arrived at the figure of 40,000 jobs per week lost to automation.

However, there were other factors contributing to the productivity rate besides automation. It apparently did not occur to the proponents of this position that we do not produce the same size market basket from one year to the next, or that we had, at least until 1972, a rising standard of living. A rising standard of living continued to create sufficient jobs to modify those drastic effects. The higher the standard of living, the more goods and services people are able to purchase, which in turn puts more people to work providing those goods and services.

In many ways, we sit down to plan our activities and programs for the 1980's and 1990's using the same type of "Maginot Line" thinking employed by the French generals before World War II. That is, we plan the future in terms of the same things we have seen in the past. If, instead, we were to look at both the past and the future, we would see that right now--though the past 35 years have been dominated by labor surpluses--all that is about to change due to the alteration in our country's birthrate pattern. This change is inevitable. Our economists may not be very good at calculating the unemployment rate for last month (let alone predicting it ) or the inflation rate six months from now, but they are good at demographics--the statistical study of human populations.

Demographics tells us that beginning in the 1960's, Americans stopped having as many children as they did in the 1950's. From 1960 to the mid-1970's, we went through two waves of declining births, primarily due to increasingly effective birth-control methods. As a result, live births during this period were down to almost 3 million annually, the same level as in 1946, before the baby boom.

In light of these demographic changes, we are going to have to face some facts. First, we have to recognize that, despite the new technology, there is no way to produce a 20-year-old in less than 20 years. Consequently, those people born in the 1960's and 70's will not be available to work in the 80's.

In the 1980's, we may well experience a shortage of human resources similar to that prevailing during World War II. It was then that blacks were able to make some economic progress in this country, moving from sharecropper jobs on farms to industrial jobs in the urban North. It was then that women began to enter the labor market in large numbers, particularly in the then-traditional factory occupations. We will see the same patterns at work again; employers will be looking for workers in the middle to late 1980's.

An overriding principle of the job market is that most jobs are filled by people who replace someone leaving an existing position. Statistics show that two out of every three job openings are filled to replace people leaving previously existing positions. A third job opens up due to growth, and only a small proportion of those are in new and emerging occupations.

For example, for New York City, projections predict a decline of 154,000 positions in 1980-85. Yet the city has more job openings than some states. How can a place that is basically a job-growth disaster area have so many employment opportunities? New York's replacement economy continues to provide the openings.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects figures for jobs to be filled due to growth and replacement and assesses the fastest-growing areas. But how relevant are the growth professions to the actual labor markets? After all, men and women do not live by percentage changes alone. Some assessments of fast-growing areas will be described as areas of "keen competition," and it will be said that the job market for the particular occupation is very poor. However, that is only one dimension. For example, people believe that finding a teaching job is virtually impossible. Yet more college students entered teaching jobs in recent years than any other professional occupation. Why has this been the number one occupation? Because it is the single largest professional occupation, and even with slow or no growth, replacement requirements provide a large number of openings each year.

Many consider the job outlook for lawyers to be poor. It is difficult to break into fields such as law, and the occupational projections tell us that we have more lawyers and people training to be lawyers than we have jobs for lawyers. But such occupational projections must be used with great care. We almost lost the Korean War due to the mistaken occupational projections for engineers. The shortage of engineers was serious, but training efforts slowed in response to projections that there would be a surplus. The same situation could develop in the near future in the teaching profession.

Part of the misinterpretation of occupational projections lies in the manner in which they are developed. First, a projection is made as to the number of lawyers expected to be in demand. Then the number of students in law school is determined. If the second number is greater than the first, the projection is that we are preparing too many lawyers. This overlooks the fact, however, that not everyone who studies law will practice law. Many who study law may go into politics or business, or may use their training in other ways, but will not be classified as lawyers. Many people may find jobs related to their training but not in the specific field of their study.

We are about to experience a period of great change on the demand side of the human resources/jobs equation. We have literally been overrun with human resources during the past three decades. In the 1980 Presidential election campaign, Jimmy Carter said we added 8 million jobs during the year. But Ronald Reagan countered that the unemployment rate rose substantially during the same year. They were both right. We had very substantial job growth in 1980, but at the same time, large numbers of people were trying to enter a job market that could not accommodate them all; hence, the inevitable job shortages. As we move into the mid- to late-1980's, we are entering a period when employers will start looking for people, unlike the situation over the past 35 years.

The Spring 1980 Occupational Outlook Quarterly, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, lists occupations, the number of people employed in them, and the anticipated number of job openings in each. What one finds in examining this listing is that, although there will be new and emerging occupations, most of the jobs in these areas will be familiar to us. For example, the number one occupational opening for 1978-90 is for secretaries and stenographers. Retail sales workers are second, followed by building custodians, cashiers, bookkeeping workers, and so forth. The new and emerging changes we develop, of course, will be in the kinds of equipment these "old" jobs will use and the nature of their function. Secretaries will not be using green eye shades and quill pens; they will be using computerized typewriters and a whole array of modern technology. As one looks over this list of occupations, however, there are very few job categories that are unfamiliar.

We have spent a great deal of energy in this country in the last 35 to 40 years looking for the new and emerging occupations. At the same time, though, our real challenge has been improving the skills of people for the great array of jobs that already exist. Although it is important, of course, for employment researchers to keep an eye on the new occupations and activities, we should not be so overwhelmed that we believe they should be the major focus of our planning. Aside from the fact that the cutting edge of change is always important to monitor, new occupations will account for only a small part of the job openings that we can expect in the next decade. Most jobs, even in depressed regions where there is low or no growth, will be provided by replacement needs.

So, if you are looking for where the jobs are going to be, look at where they are now. Let us keep our eye on the replacement market. Most employment opportunities will be not in new and emerging occupations or in high-technology fields, but rather in jobs that are at present a part of the American occupational pattern.

Vol. 02, Issue 38, Page 24, 20

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