Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Revisiting My Predictions for the President’s Stimulus Plan

These days, it’s easy to forget the excitement that many people felt when President Obama was inaugurated. Many businesses attempted to capitalize on this historic moment by issuing commemorative merchandise, such as plates and tee-shirts bearing Barack Obama’s image. It was also a time of recession, and many people were wondering what relief they could expect from the incoming president’s promised stimulus plan. As a result, the editors at JIST Publishing thought this would be a good time for me to write a book that eventually was called Great Jobs in the President’s Stimulus Plan and that had a cover photo showing President Obama looking thoughtfully into the distance.

Now, almost six years later, I thought it would be a good time to revisit what I wrote in that book and to see how well the passage of time has borne out my predictions. So, for the 100 occupations I featured in the book, I am now looking at the BLS data regarding their workforce sizes in 2008 and 2012. Did these occupations actually increase in size over this period of economic recovery?

I regret to say that the occupations actually shrank in workforce size, by an average of 4.7 percent. However, I must point out the workforce size of all occupations shrank by almost the same amount: by 3.7 percent.

Where did I—and the economy—go wrong? First, I may have chosen some wrong occupations because at the time I wrote the book, a few days before the inauguration, the stimulus plan existed only in outline form. It had not been presented to Congress, let alone held to a vote. I made my best guesses about which occupations were likely to benefit, based on the industries that were targeted in the proposed legislation.

More important, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act itself may have been insufficient to boost the economy, not to mention the specific occupations I focused on. This is the argument of Paul Krugman and some other economists. At the time the ARRA passed, he wrote, “Officially, the administration insists that the plan is adequate to the economy’s need. But few economists agree. And it’s widely believed that political considerations led to a plan that was weaker and contains more tax cuts than it should have—that Mr. Obama compromised in advance in the hope of gaining broad bipartisan support.” More recently (February 20 of this year), Krugman is conceding that “most careful studies have found evidence of strong positive effects on employment and output.” He contrasts our economy to that of the Eurozone, where nations that were forced to impose fiscal austerity—the opposite of stimulus—have fallen into double-dip recessions. Nevertheless, although the ARRA arrested the economy’s downward slide, saving many jobs, it did not create new jobs sufficiently to overcome the losses of the recession within a few years. As Krugman expresses it, “The U.S. economy continued to perform poorly—not disastrously, but poorly—after the stimulus went into effect.”

It is also worth asking whether 2012 is too soon to evaluate the success of the ARRA. Some economic effects take years to appear—for example, the results of funding for scientific research and for vocational training and other kinds of education. Also, some stimulus spending took years to be disbursed, so any results would not have been visible in 2012. A noteworthy example is health information technology, now one of our fastest-growing industries. Stimulus funding for health IT was not disbursed until 2011. It’s true that only 2 percent of expenditures remained to be awarded at the end of 2012, but for the Department of Energy, 15 percent of allocated funding had still not been awarded at that time.

I conclude that my recommendations in that book were not as misguided as they might appear at first. Economic stimulus measures and individual workers’ careers both require many years to bear fruit.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Outlook for Wind Turbine Technicians

Green careers are attracting a lot of interest, but it can be difficult to find reliable figures for projected growth and even current employment. Here is an update about wind service technicians, based on the best figures I was able to find.

Back in 2009, I researched several green occupations, including this one, for a special supplement to the Occupational Outlook Handbook that I was preparing for the publisher JIST Works. At that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics was not providing any figures for this occupation—neither for current nor projected employment. So I had to make my own calculations from data I found in government and industry sources.

The BLS now does report employment figures for wind service technicians. Last December, for example, the BLS released an estimate that 3,200 people were employed in the occupation in 2012 and that 4,000 will be in 2022, an increase of 24 percent. The BLS also estimated 800 job openings per year.

To try to get a sense of the current level of employment, I looked at the estimates of the Wind Energy Foundation. Understand that this organization exists to promote wind power, but we can avoid most possibility of boosterism if we focus on the current state of the industry rather than on projections of the future. The Wind Energy Foundation estimates total U.S. utility-scale wind-power capacity, in the second quarter of 2014, at just under 62,000 megawatts. If we assume that average turbine capacity is 2 megawatts (a fairly conservative figure) and that one operations and maintenance worker is needed for each 7 turbines (which was the ratio when I first researched this occupation), the number of these workers should be about 4,200. If we assume average turbine capacity of 3 megawatts, this still accounts for 2,950 workers.

These two estimates of workforce size bracket the 2012 estimate made by BLS, but it seems reasonable to expect that the occupation would have grown considerably in the past two years. Note that these figures apply only to operations and maintenance workers. Many other wind turbine technicians surely are engaged in constructing new capacity. In fact, again according to the Wind Energy Association, 14,000 megawatts of wind power capacity was under construction during the first half of 2014. So the occupation probably has expanded on roughly the scale projected by the BLS.

The wild card in projections for wind power capacity—and, therefore, employment of technicians—is whether or not this country will invest heavily in offshore installations. The most reliable winds are found there, and some industry observers believe that this coming year will see the beginnings of offshore wind-power projects, despite their high cost relative to dry-land installations.

One advantage that wind turbine technicians enjoy in the job market is that often they face little competition. This is partly because the technology is new and expanding rapidly, so not many trained workers are entering the job market compared to the demand for their services. But another reason is that many people do not like working at great heights and in confined spaces.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Am I Using a Credential Fraudulently?

You may notice the “PhD” following my name on some of my book covers. I do hold a doctor of philosophy degree (earned, not honorary), but my use of these letters brings up an interesting question of when it is—and is not—appropriate to use work-related credentials. This issue is particularly timely because so many people are now working (or seek work) in fields that they did not prepare for formally.

What raised this issue for me was a question in “The Ethicist” column of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The query, posed by someone whose name was withheld, was this: “A Pilates-certification-program teacher uses the credentials ‘Ph.D.’ after her name in connection with the course description on the studio’s website. However, her degree is in finance, which is never mentioned on the site. Is this acceptable?” The core of the answer from columnist Chuck Klosterman was, “Anyone who includes an academic designation alongside the description of a class she’s teaching is implying that these things have a material connection. She is actively trying to make people misinterpret what she has to offer.”

I admire Chuck Klosterman for his often subtle parsings of ethical issues, and I believe he was correct in making this judgment. So after reading this column, I had to ask myself whether I am using my PhD credential ethically. And as I thought about how to answer this question, I realized that many people deal with a similar issue. Because of my interest in careers, I often ask people how they got into the line of work they presently are doing, and a great many of them describe a crooked career path that did not include the “appropriate” academic training.

As for me, it’s true that I am not teaching Pilates or any other course, but it could still be argued that my use of “PhD” on my books implies what Klosterman calls “a material connection” between my education and the contents of my books. And the fact is that although my books are about careers, none of my degrees is in economics, counseling, psychology, or education. My degrees are all in English literature. (In case you’re curious, my specialization was pre-Shakespearean drama, and my dissertation was about morality plays.) But the particular focus of my academic work, literature, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that in preparing for and writing my dissertation, I learned how to do research and write about it, and these skills do have a material connection to the work I do now.

You might argue that research and writing skills are necessary but not sufficient qualifications to write about careers; the writer should also be well-informed about career development issues. I often joke that getting a degree in English guarantees that you’ll become informed about career development issues, and in my case there was some truth to this statement. Not long after I got my degree, it became obvious that I was not going to find a permanent job teaching at a university, so I had to decide what else I was going to do with my life. I read What Color Is Your Parachute? and did all the exercises. From my self-assessment, I realized that teaching was not what I liked or was especially good at; instead it was researching and writing, as I had done for my dissertation. The first opportunity that came my way for a job involving these tasks was developing career information for Educational Testing Service. This job led to a 19-year stint. During that time, I engaged in what amounted to an apprenticeship in career development theory, with Martin R. Katz as my mentor. In that setting, the world’s biggest testing organization, it was also inevitable that I would learn a lot about assessment. At Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), I took three graduate courses from the counseling master’s program: an introduction to counseling and two educational statistics courses.

Therefore, the credentials I bring to my work are a combination of formal education (mostly the PhD) and on-the-job training (my apprenticeship at ETS), and I try to mention both of these elements on my book covers: The “PhD” appears on the front cover after my name, and on the back cover is a statement that I have been working in the field of career information for more than 30 years.

Many people, like me, are working in fields where their credentials consist, at least in part, of informal on-the-job learning. But most people present their credentials to the world mostly through a business card, which does not accommodate as much text as the back cover of a book. People who work in fields where certification is available as a credential have the chance to put certain relevant initials after their name on the card, but this is not an option in most fields.

If you are working in a field where you do not have formal credentials—perhaps because they do not exist—I would advise you to be hesitant about putting a degree after your name. But I would give you a lot of leeway for arguing (as I do here) that your degree really is relevant to your qualifications.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Welcome Your New Teammate: A Robot

Everybody knows that the ability to work well collaboratively is growing in importance. Teamwork involves several specific skills, such as communication, negotiation, learning, and comfort with diversity. But a new kind of collaboration is happening in many workplaces: not between one person and another person, but between one human and one machine. And that requires a slightly different set of collaborative skills.

Robots have been used in manufacturing for some time now. General Motors used its first robot in 1961, at a plant in Ewing, New Jersey, a location I routinely drive past on the way to my local library. (It’s now a level brownfield.) That robot weighed 4,000 pounds and was used to weld and move parts weighing as much as 500 pounds. The brute strength and speed that such robots brought to the workplace made them dangerous to work alongside. For the sake of safety, they were segregated in enclosures and other closed workspaces. They also have been used in conditions that are hostile to humans, such as the chambers where paint is sprayed on automobile bodies.

This practice is starting to change as a new generation of slower and more lightweight robots is being rolled out. For example, at the Spartanburg BMW plant, a Danish-made robot rolls a layer of protective foil over the electronics in car doors, a task that would cause repetitive-strain injury if done by humans. This is something that more old-fashioned robots could do, but that would mean isolating the car for a task that is better done alongside tasks that humans are doing. Over the next couple of years, the BMW plant’s engineers intend to configure robots to hand tools and parts to human workers.

One manufacturer has added fake eyes to the “head” of its robot so the robot can signal by a simulated facial expression where it is going to move next. Robots are also being designed to react to contact with humans. Most simply, this means the robot pulls back when it meets resistance. More sophisticated robots are designed so a human can move the robotic arm through a sequence of operations and the robot will then be able to repeat the sequence. This makes it unnecessary to pay a highly skilled programmer each time the robot needs to be configured perform a new task, and that means that robots can be used for small-batch manufacturing, where the tasks are constantly changing.

As robots gain improved capabilities, their presence in the workforce keeps growing. The International Federation of Robotics reports that 26,269 industrial robots were sold in North America in 2012, and the Federation projects that sales will exceed 31,000 by 2016.

So what skills will be necessary for human-robot teamwork? As robots become more reliable, mechanical skill will diminish in importance. And as robots gain sophisticated ways to receive instructions, the traditional collaborative skill of communication will become more important. Human workers will need to remember to keep their robotic teammates in the loop whenever the work routine changes, even slightly. With voice-activated robots, humans will need to learn the particular commands that the robot can respond to.

But the most important skill humans can bring to the collaboration is the uniquely human ability to be creative. The most successful human co-workers will be those who are constantly finding original ways to improve productivity and the quality of output. Of course, this is nothing new. It was true even before the industrial age. However, as robots become increasingly capable of mastering skills such as attention to detail, learning, and flexibility, the jobs where workers can collaborate with them—rather than be replaced by them—will be the jobs that require a high level of skill at creative problem solving.