The Future Part 3: Changes in the Labour MarketMay 14, 2012
This is the third of a series of posts looking at attempts to use theories about the future to justify removing or downgrading the amount of knowledge taught. The first part can be found here and the second here.
Sometimes it is claimed that changes in the labour market will change the nature of the education required. According to Caroline Walters, the “director of People and Policy” at BT:
We know that the jobs of the future are going to be talent-based. They’ll be in knowledge intensive industries. Competition will be fierce, we know that.
Although bizarrely this is used as an argument for giving less rather than more priority to knowledge.
Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology in the Faculty of Health, Education and Society, at Plymouth University asked:
So why are teachers wasting their own time, and that of the kids, teaching them facts which in a few years time may be utterly out of date? Should we not instead be maximising school contact time by teaching skills, competencies, literacies? After all, it is the ability to work in a team, problem solve on the fly, and apply creative solutions that will be the common currency in the world of future work. Being able to think critically and create a professional network will be the core competencies of the 21st Century knowledge worker. Knowing how – or procedural knowledge - will be a greater asset for most young people. You see, the world of work is in constant change, and that change is accelerating. My 16 year old son has just embarked on training to become a games designer. If, when I was his age I had told my careers teacher that I wanted to be a games designer, he would have asked me whether I wanted to make cricket bats or footballs. Jobs are appearing that didn’t exist even a year or two ago. Other jobs that people expected to be in for life are disappearing or gone forever. Ask the gas mantel fitters or VHS repair technicians. Ask the tin miners, the lamplighters or the typewriter repair people. Er, sorry you can’t ask them. They don’t exist anymore.
It seems pointless to doubt that the labour market has changed. There has been a long-term trend away from unskilled labour, and there are more graduates in the labour market than ever. However, at face value this simply gives us reason to think that a greater grasp of traditional academic skills might be necessary for more school leavers. It might suggest a need for more education but not a change in what should be valued in education. In order to suggest that labour market change might indicate that there is less need for traditional academic skills a stronger claim is needed than the mere existence of labour market change.
Often it is claimed that jobs have in some way become more unpredictable, and therefore, the required knowledge for those jobs cannot be identified. I have already dealt with the claim (from Shift Happens and countless other sources) that The Top Ten in Demand Jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. It is not true, nor was it ever even plausible that it might be true.
Another way to suggest that the job market does not require identifiable knowledge is based on looking at the number of jobs and careers people have in a lifetime. Shift Happens makes the claim that:
It is estimated that today’s learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by age 38. 1 out of 4 workers today works for a company for whom they have been employed less than 1 year. More than 1 out of 2 are working for a company for whom they have worked less than 5 years.
These claims apparently all originate from American sources, (sources for Shift Happens can be found here) and similar claims, suggesting intense job-changing in the modern labour market, are quite common in the American media. An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal challenged the widespread claim that Americans had, on average, 7 different careers and found it to be baseless and, in the words of one economics professor, “utterly implausible”.
More generally, the idea of ever shorter jobs in the American labour market is not supported by the statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics monitors the median tenure of jobs (here and here) and we can plot the figures to show that, if anything, employment tenure has been increasing in the US.
Limited data is also available on the distribution of employees according to tenure, and it does not suggest either an increase in very short jobs, or a decrease in very lengthy jobs in recent years.
(From the following sources:
- http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/tenure_09082006.pdf )
And while much earlier data might be difficult to compare directly, the figures available for 1983 indicate 27.3% of employees had been in their jobs for less than a year, suggesting that even if we look at a longer-term trend it is not likely to be towards more short-term employment either. Although I am responding to the claims that have American sources, we are unlikely to find any greater instability looking at the UK, as “analysis of the British data indicates even less job changing” (Polachek et al, 1993).
A further reason to find the claims in Shift Happens misleading is the use of the age of 38 as a cut-off point when considering the number of jobs people can expect to have. There is a long-established pattern of job changing through the life cycle. Hall (1982) observed that:
The data on job tenure reveal a good deal about the probability process through which most workers eventually settle into near-life-time jobs. The typical pattern is to hold a number of very brief jobs in the first few years after leaving school. Eventually one job turns out to be a good match and lasts several years. The probability that any given new job will become a lifetime job is extremely low for young workers and never rises above 6 percent in any age group. But after a job has lasted five years, the probability that it will eventually last twenty years or more in all rises to close to one-half among workers in their early thirties. As a general matter, the data suggest that most job changes occur in the first few years after a job begins, because the worker or the employer or both perceive that the worker and the job are poorly matched. Once this period of job shopping reaches a successful conclusion, workers have very low probabilities of losing or leaving jobs.
Polachek et al (1993) also observe that “Job changing slows down with age… the final job is taken in one’s forties”. More recently and in a British context, Fenton et al (2006) describes a “life-stage effect” which means that “A high degree of job changing has been seen as a distinctive feature of young people’s employment throughout the whole post-1945 era.”
Finally,even if a pattern of accelerated job changing was established, then it would not necessarily indicate that this was something that education should prepare young people for, any more than a pattern of high unemployment would justify preparing young people for signing on. The possibility exists that education should seek to change this outcome, not live with it. According to one of the sources referenced by the author of Shift Happens: “On average, the least-educated men held more jobs than the most-educated men, while the opposite is true among women.” This would suggest that frequent job changes are not a brute fact that education needs to compensate for, but something influenced by education. Fenton’s (2006) study of young people in Bristol also found: “The clearest pattern is that of an association between job changing and lower educational achievement, thus giving greatest support to the argument that job changing is associated with a succession of low skill and low pay jobs which offer little reward for the ‘sticker’.” Far from providing an argument for low content education, employment instability would seem to occur to a large degree as a result of insufficient education.
Hall, Robert E. “Importance of Lifetime Jobs in the U.S. Economy” The American Economic Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Sep., 1982), pp. 716-724
Polachek, S.W. and Siebert, W.S. (1993) The Economics of Earnings, Cambridge University Press
Fenton, S. and E. Dermott (2006) ‘Fragmented Careers? Winners and Losers in Young Labour Markets’, Work, Employment and Society 20: 205–21