Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Bureau of Labor Statistics today posted their latest employment-projection figures for the upcoming decade. Here's the table that I find most interesting.

 Fastest growing occupations, 2014 and projected 2024
(Numbers in thousands)
2014 National Employment Matrix title
Change, 2014-24
Median annual wage, 2014
Total, all occupations
Wind turbine service technicians
Occupational therapy assistants
Physical therapist assistants
Physical therapist aides
Home health aides
Commercial divers
Nurse practitioners
Physical therapists
Ambulance drivers and attendants, except emergency medical technicians
Occupational therapy aides
Physician assistants
Operations research analysts
Personal financial advisors
Cartographers and photogrammetrists
Genetic counselors
Interpreters and translators
Hearing aid specialists
Forensic science technicians
Web developers
Occupational therapists
Diagnostic medical sonographers
Personal care aides
Ophthalmic medical technicians
Nurse midwives
Solar photovoltaic installers
Emergency medical technicians and paramedics

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is Marco Rubio Right About Welders and Philosophers?

In the Republican candidates’ debate on the evening of November 10, Senator Marco Rubio argued for the importance of vocational education by stating that “welders earn more than philosophers” and that “we need more welders and less philosophers.” Was he correct?

Let’s consider earnings first. If a philosopher is someone who studies philosophical issues for a living, then the occupation under consideration is mostly pursued by the faculty of colleges and universities. Earnings figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are available for Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary: The estimate for May of 2014 was a median annual wage of $65,540. If you assume that this average is being pulled up by the religion teachers (which I doubt), you could suggest a somewhat lower figure for the philosophy teachers alone and still have a figure that considerably exceeds the annual earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $36,720.

Some fact-checkers have approached the issue from the understanding that Senator Rubio was speaking about alternative postsecondary options for study, and therefore “philosophers” should be construed to mean people who majored in philosophy, not people working in that field. Using this approach, I could compare the starting wages of philosophy majors ($39,900, as reported by The Wall Street Journal) with the starting wages of welders: probably roughly equivalent to the lowest 10 percent of wage-earners among Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers, which is $24,990, according to the BLS. Or I could look at the mid-career earnings of the philosophy majors—$81,200, according to the WSJ survey—a figure that exceeds even the 90th percentile earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $57,120. Among both new workers and mid-career earners, the philosophy majors get bigger paychecks.

Note, however, that these are apples-to-oranges comparisons. If I am truly comparing the outcomes of postsecondary programs, I should be comparing the wages of the philosophy grads to the wages of those who graduated from welding programs. Some of the latter are no longer working as welders and have moved on to more lucrative careers such as Construction Managers (with a median of $84,410). The WSJ survey and others of its ilk do not cover welding grads, so a precise comparison is not possible. And those with no formal training beyond welding probably have few opportunities for advancement to high-paying managerial careers. Thus it seems likely that philosophy is the postsecondary program with the bigger payoff.

Now let’s look at the senator’s second assertion: “We need more welders and [fewer] philosophers.”  It’s important to parse this assertion carefully. Did the senator mean we need fewer philosophers than welders? Or did he mean fewer philosophers than we have now?

If he meant the latter, he has raised an issue that is philosophical in its own right. A friend of mine who has a PhD in philosophy reminded me of a quotation from John W. Gardner, once president of the Carnegie Corporation: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

But let’s assume that the senator meant that there is a greater need for welders than for philosophers. That meaning follows logically from his earlier statement about earnings because getting a paycheck depends on being employed. What are the comparative job prospects for philosophers and welders?

In fact, only about 23,000 people were working as Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary, in May 2014. Compare this to more than 350,000 working as Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers. The BLS projects 10,600 job openings for the former occupation between 2012 and 2022, and remember that some of these will be for religion teachers. By contrast, the BLS projects 108,500 job openings for the welders over the same time span. This comparison validates this interpretation of Senator Rubio’s second assertion: We have a greater need for welders.

In the discussion of comparative earnings, I also looked at the figures for philosophy and welding graduates. But for a comparison of employment prospects, hard data simply is not available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many philosophy grads are working in business, law, clergy, and other fields, although often with additional degrees. Therefore, I would not discourage bright students with the ability to be flexible about their career outcomes from opting for a major in philosophy.

Senator Rubio, however, was talking about government policy rather than the career choices of individuals, and the specific point he was making is that vocational education suffers from a lack of prestige. I agree with him that this is harmful to the future of our economy, and the quotation from John Gardner is quite relevant to this issue. There are already reports of manufacturers who are having trouble finding skilled workers, and the blame is often placed on a widespread disrespect for occupations in the skilled trades.

Perhaps I have parsed Senator Rubio’s words more carefully than is appropriate. Politics, after all, deals with philosophical issues much as a meat cleaver deals with meat. I agree with the senator’s main point, even if it was expressed inelegantly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Music Thanatologist: Another Occupation You May Not Have Heard Of

Some health-care occupations are not aimed at making you healthy. There’s only so much that doctors, pills, and therapies can do; eventually, death comes to all of us. The hospice industry recognizes this and provides services to ease the suffering of those going through this transition. One tool in its toolbox is music, which has been found to give comfort and relief to people as they approach death. And therefore a new occupation, music thanatologist, is gaining recognition and a workforce.

The occupation may be regarded as a specialization within the larger field of music therapy. However, music thanatologists now have their own professional association with its own standards for certification, and they may choose not to seek certification as music therapists. (It’s not clear to me why the Music-Thanatology Association International chooses to hyphenate the names of the specialization and specialists.)

At the bedsides of people approaching death, music thanatologists play the harp and may also sing. The harp is used because it is portable; allows the player to perform melody, harmony, and counterpoint; can be accompanied by voice; and sustains notes, especially at the low end, better than smaller string instruments such as the guitar. I suppose a Casio keyboard would fit all of these criteria, but the natural ring of acoustic strings is surely more soothing than electronic tones. Patients and their families have been known to compare music thanatologists to angels, but I have noticed that practitioners avoid making this association.

The MTAI professional association says that the musical selections chosen are “quiet, restful, and meditative” and that they tend to be mostly those “unassociated with particular memories, thoughts or feelings.” Practitioners are trained to select “rhythm, pacing, volume, and tone” in response to the patient’s condition, changing as the patient’s condition changes.

Insurance companies are unlikely to pay for this service, and the practitioners do not accept tips, as a subway busker might. Instead, they are usually compensated by a hospice organization or by the health-care facility. The income is modest compared to some other therapy occupations, probably less than $30,000 a year, so people who do this for a living are mostly motivated by the satisfactions of helping dying patients and their families. Practitioners often say that the work is as spiritual as it is clinical.

The training program covers health issues as well as instruction in harp and voice performance. It is very different from the program at a music conservatory. It typically takes two years and includes an internship. Students must provide their own harps.

On YouTube, here and here and here, you can view music thanatologists performing and discussing their work. You can also read about the field in Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain andPreparing the Passage, by Jennifer L. Hollis.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Varying Reasons for Labor Shortages

Nobody wants to return to the recessionary days when large numbers of people were seeking job openings that didn’t exist. But neither is it good when employers cannot find workers to fill job openings—and this is happening in the labor markets for some occupations. The reasons vary.

One example is the market for airline pilots. Republic Airways Holdings, a regional carrier, last year reduced its fleet of 243 aircraft by 27 because of a lack of pilots. It expects to continue such cuts at least through the first half of next year.

Part of the blame for these cuts, according to Republic, belongs to new FAA regulations. One regulation raises the minimum number of hours of flight experience for most commercial passenger pilots. Another adds to the amount of rest time required for pilots, reducing their productivity.

But the Air Line Pilots Association says that the main reason for the shortage is the low pay that regional airlines are offering. In 2014, ALPA reported that for first officers, the starting pay averaged a mere $21,285. The association says that many pilots lost jobs because regional carriers went out of business, and these pilots would be glad to return if the wages were commensurate with their level of professionalism. Foreign carriers are offering much sweeter compensation packages.

A 2014 report (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office cites several additional factors. Reductions in defense spending have diminished the number of retired military pilots available for equivalent civilian jobs. Pilot jobs in general aviation (non-passenger flights) have experienced cutbacks, thus reducing opportunities for new pilots to accrue flight experience. And collegiate pilot-training programs are attracting fewer students in recent years—perhaps because of low pay in the industry. Thus there is concern that the pipeline of future pilots will not be able to provide the workers needed to replace those who retire because of age limits.

A completely different set of dynamics affects the labor market for agricultural workers, where shortages are also expected. Recently, a few states have passed laws making it easier for police to demand proof of immigration status and making it harder for businesses to hire workers who lack documentation. Citizens and immigrants with legal papers have not taken the place of these displaced workers, leaving many farmers without a way of bringing in crops. The American Farm Bureau Federation expected 2012 losses of as much as $9 billion as unpicked crops rotted in the fields.

However, a get-tough policy on undocumented immigrants is not the only factor contributing to the shortage of agricultural workers. In fact, many observers of this job market predict that even reform of the immigration system—which is stalled in Washington—will not solve the problem. Mexico, the source of most of our agricultural workers, is improving its education system and diversifying its economy—including expansion of its own agriculture industry— thus providing more opportunities for its people to find good jobs at home.

Two other occupations facing worker shortages are truck drivers and pizza delivery drivers. Manufacturers are expecting to have trouble finding skilled workers in the near future.

Worker shortages usually cause employers to bid up wages for the limited number of willing and able workers. None of the present shortages seems likely to reach the extreme that leads to dangerous inflation, and a modest amount of wage growth would be welcome in the present economy. Another response is for employers to apply appropriate kinds of automation, such as harvesting machines, and this usually creates good-paying jobs in fields such as engineering, programming, and machine maintenance.

The economy never reaches perfect equilibrium between supply of and demand for workers, and the current worker shortages are much less damaging than the job shortages of the recent recession years.