Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Year's Career News in Review

For my final blog of 2010, I decided it would be a useful exercise to look back at the 600+ tweets I’ve issued on Twitter in order to follow up on some, comment on the significance of others, and call your attention to some important ones you may have missed. (If you’re not already following me, my handle is LaurenceShatkin.)

In January, I mentioned that the Department of Labor was asking people to vote for their favorite career sites. The top vote-getters are now listed as Tools for America’s Job Seekers at the Career OneStop site. For example, the set of tools includes some social media sites and niche job boards that I’d never heard of before.

Several tweets dealt with the career prospects for lawyers. This career no longer guarantees high salaries and lots of job offers. One fascinating blog by a law professor shows how salaries for lawyers cluster around two levels, roughly $50,000 and $150,000. It’s almost like two separate careers, what statisticians call a bimodal distribution.

One theme that appeared in many tweets was the loss of public-sector jobs that has resulted from tight budgets at the municipal and state level. For example, Colorado Springs laid off firefighters, a vice team, burglary investigators, and beat cops, cut back on the hours of park maintenance workers, stopped repaving roads, and reduced bus service.

It’s worth taking another look at the predictions of the researchers at IBISWorld for the best-performing (i.e., those with most revenue growth) industry sectors of the coming decade. It’s interesting to note that most of them involve STEM careers and several of them will provide many green jobs.


Best Performing



Voice Over Internet Protocol Providers (VoIP)



Retirement & Pension Plans






eCommerce & Online Auctions



Environmental Consulting



Video Games



Trusts & Estates



Search Engines



Recycling Facilities



Land Development


Another interesting prediction came from the software giant Cisco, who predicted that the smart grid will have a bigger market impact than the Internet. This sounds like hyperbole to me, but even a half of that impact would still mean tens of thousands of jobs.

Speaking of predictions, it’s worth taking another look at the list of pundits and supposed experts who were wrong about the housing bubble (by saying there was none).

Green jobs have been a continuing interest in mine. I think it’s worth repeating here that the O*NET developers have created an excellent directory of Web-based resources about green jobs. It’s a PDF with clickable links.

My favorite career-related video of the year: An animation that makes an economics lecture come alive. You'll find that economics can be a lot more fun than you thought possible. You'll also learn what really motivates workers. (It’s not pay.)

I hope the coming year is a good one for you and for your career.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New Insights into the Mommy Track, Part 2

This is another blog about women's career issues, prompted in part by my recent research for Quick Nontraditional Careers Guide: Eight Steps for Defying Traditional Gender Roles, which will be published in June. Last week I wrote about a study that found high-skill women suffer a greater wage impact from the mommy track than do low-skill women. This week I’d like to discuss another study, this one showing that highly educated women face different levels of wage damage from the mommy track depending on their occupation.

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, economists at Harvard, in “The Career Cost of Family”(PDF), find that the earnings penalty of the mommy track is decreasing in many high-end careers. Specifically, many of these careers, especially in health care, have become more family-friendly than they were in the past, perhaps because of the increased presence of women in them. Corporate and financial occupations, on the other hand, are not progressing as rapidly.

Like last week’s study, this one is based on longitudinal research. In this case, the subjects were a very high-powered group: graduates of Harvard College between 1969 and 1992. The study found that although women are increasing their presence in high-level occupations, they are tending to choose professions and specializations within professions that offer the greatest flexibility of work hours.

The really interesting part of the report, called “Occupational Vignettes,” explains how and why women are moving into certain professions and specializations.

Among the fields of medicine, women account for 42 percent of workers under 45 years of age. In the specializations ob-gyn, pediatrics, dermatology, child psychology, and medical genetics, they account for more than half of all practitioners. “They exceed their average of 42 percent but are less than 50 percent in allergy and immunology, family practice, psychiatry, pathology, public health, general preventive medicine, internal medicine, and forensic pathology.” The general trend is that women are opting for specializations with fewer regularly occurring on-call, emergency, or night hours, and they’re avoiding those with the longest residency or fellowship requirements.

One of the most dramatic increases in female participation has been among veterinarians. In the 2007–2008 academic year, 77 percent of the DVM degrees went to women. Why? “Compelling evidence suggests that the increasing ability of many veterinarians to schedule their hours and reduce or eliminate on-call, night, and weekend hours has been a contributory factor.” Regional veterinary hospitals and emergency centers are serving this function, lifting the burden from veterinary practices. “About 40 percent of female veterinarians in private practice in 2007 (versus 27 percent of male veterinarians) stated that they put in no emergency hours.” It is also becoming more commonplace for veterinarians in a private practice to be employees rather than partners, an arrangement that encourages greater job flexibility.

Women with MBAs have a very different experience. The researchers find that these women “have the lowest labor force participation rates, the longest periods of job interruption when they have children, and forfeit the largest fraction of their income when they take time off.” Although they start out with pay equal to that of male MBAs, a decade later they are earning 55 percent of the men’s earnings. The researchers found three roughly equal factors that account for the bulk of the difference: different training prior to receipt of the MBA (e.g., fewer courses in finance), career interruptions (usually the mommy track), and shorter work hours (also usually the mommy track). Those MBA mothers with high-earning husbands are most likely to quit working or opt for self-employment; the others tend to cut back on work hours. The reduction in participation and work hours is actually greater three or four years after the first birth than in the first couple of years. “It is as if some MBA moms try to stay in the fast lane but ultimately find it is unworkable.”

In pharmacy, women account for almost 70 percent of new degree recipients. Like veterinarians, pharmacists have shifted from being stakeholders in a business (more than 35 percent were self-employed in 1970) to being employees (0.6 percent were self-employed in 2008). Optometry has made the same shift, and women are now 66 percent of new degree recipients.

The report ends with a chart (below) that shows the 87 highest-paid occupations from 2006–2008, with different shapes representing different industries. (The chart is based on data from the Current Population Survey.) Horizontally, the further to the right, the higher the earnings. Vertically, the further below the zero line (which is near the top), the greater the earnings gap between men and women. You’ll note that, as a group, the business occupations (red squares) have the biggest gap.

Note also that the technology occupations (green triangles) have the smallest gap. As an explanation, the authors of the report speculate, “One possibility is that the technology occupations are so recent that their work organizations are structured to deal better with a labor force that needs greater work flexibility.” Regardless of the reason, this small gap is one more reason why women should consider STEM careers. For more on this topic, see Quick STEM Careers Guide: Four Steps to a Great Job in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math, due out next month.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New Insights into the Mommy Track, Part I

Women’s career issues are a frequent topic of this blog, and I have been thinking about them again while putting the finishing touches on a manuscript, Quick Nontraditional Careers Guide: Eight Steps for Defying Traditional Gender Roles, due to be published in June. I also wrote about these issues in the volume about nontraditional careers that is part of Progressive Careers. This week I also learned about two new research studies that cast additional light on this subject, showing that the consequences of the mommy track vary greatly. More highly skilled women, particularly in certain fields, suffer a greater penalty for choosing to have children.

David Ellwood, Elizabeth Ty Wilde, and Lily Batchelder, in “The Mommy Track Divides: The Impact of Childbearing on Wages of Women of Differing Skill Levels” (PDF), wanted to know why childbearing by female college graduates has declined so much. Among those born in the early 1940s, nearly 50% of them had borne children by age 25, and only 18% were childless at age 40. Among the cohort born 20 years later, only 20% had borne children by age 25, and more than 25% remained childless at age 40. By comparison, in both generations, women who were not college graduates bore children earlier in life, with little generational difference in their timing.

The researchers hypothesized that the college grads were postponing childbearing to allow themselves time to establish a career and thus minimize the wage impact of the mommy track.

The researchers used data from a longitudinal study, dividing the women into low-skill and high-skill groups based on their performance on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. (They used that rather than college attendance, because early childbearing clearly can and does influence education.) They then compared the income trajectories of the two groups and found that the low-skill group had a trajectory that not only was flatter (as would be expected) than that of the high-skill group but also less affected by child-bearing. Having children later or not at all improved their earnings only modestly. For the high-skill women, however, the income rise was steeper but leveled off when they bore children, a mommy penalty that persisted even a decade after childbirth. But by postponing childbirth, the high-skill women had achieved a higher pre-child earning level and therefore leveled off at a higher plateau. In other words, for high-skill women it pays to establish a career before having children (if ever). This would explain the historical fertility and timing differences mentioned earlier.

Another interesting question is why women’s earnings suffer after child-bearing. Is it because they shift to part-time work or a less demanding occupation, leave their employer (thus losing human capital), or drop out of the workforce entirely (thus forgoing work experience)? The researchers found that all these behaviors have an impact, but there is additional impact that can’t be explained by these. Even women who stay full-time in the same occupation with the same employer suffer a 14% loss in earnings. Evidently, some other factor, such as discrimination or a perceived loss of career commitment, is depressing earnings.

It’s useful to note what the researchers found about high-skill men’s earnings. Like the high-skill women, those who postponed parenthood had higher earnings, but the arrival of parenthood had a much smaller impact than it had on the women. Most interesting was the finding that men who remained childless had the lowest earnings of all in the high-skill group. There’s a chicken-egg problem here: Does fatherhood make men strive more, or do low-earning men make less attractive partners for starting a family?

Apart from its findings about the wage penalty of the mommy track, this study produces two disturbingly different portraits of child-bearing behavior. One, among low-skill women, consists of child-bearing at a young age, much more often outside of marriage, with low earnings and little prospect of a large increase in earnings later on. The other behavior, among high-skill women, consists of child-bearing by a typically married couple in their peak earning years. You can imagine very different outcomes for the children in these two scenarios.

In next week’s blog I’ll write about a different study that looks at how, among highly educated women, different occupations cause the mommy track to have different impacts.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Advice to PhDs in the Humanities

Last week I was invited by the Career Services office at Rutgers University to be part of a panel speaking to humanities PhD candidates about careers outside of academia. I was at the receiving end of a similar panel discussion many years ago, when my PhD degree was new, so I was happy to pay back the debt I owed. I’ll give you the gist of what I said last week.

Your career will change many times during your working lifetime, and you will find ways to pursue interests you don’t expect to pursue. You also will find the need to develop new abilities and use abilities you don’t realize you have. But your immediate need is to find a job that matches the interests and abilities that you can identify now. You should start by clarifying these interests and abilities.

The panelists I listened to when I was a new PhD referred to a career-development book that helped me but that now is definitely showing its age. I’d rather you buy my books, but I’ll explain to you what specific career-development exercise in that book helped me. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. In the leftmost column, write the names of some jobs you have held or work-relevant accomplishments. In my case, I had done some college teaching and had written my dissertation. In the middle column, write the major tasks that you did in these jobs. Regarding the dissertation, I mentioned settling on a topic, identifying research resources, taking notes on research, organizing the notes, organizing what I wanted to write, and so forth. In the rightmost column, identify the skills you used to accomplish these tasks. Then notice which skills turn up most often and decide which you enjoyed using most. That should point toward your goals for your next job.

In my case, I realized for the first time that teaching did not satisfy me as much as researching and writing. That became my job target. At this time, my wife was working at Educational Testing Service and was passing on to me the job postings that she considered relevant to my background. I rejected two of these because they didn’t fit this new career goal, but the third was for a job researching and writing about careers for the SIGI computer-based career information system. I’ve been doing variations on this job ever since.

However, I’ve had to develop many new skills along the way. One of these is working with technology. In the early days of the SIGI system, we typed up information and handed the paper to the person who operated the ridiculously complex mainframe text-entry program. After a couple of years, I was given the responsibility of developing a database about college majors and learned a crude text-editing program. But the technical specifications for the database kept changing, and I needed an efficient way to be able to manipulate the text to match. My boss convinced me to take a computer-based course in BASIC to learn the skills to do this. Several years later I took three one-day courses, paid for by ETS, to learn Microsoft Access, a skill I still use almost every workday. I taught myself Excel from a manual.

I had struggled with math in high school and had avoided it in college, so I had assumed I’d never find a workplace use for my interest in technology. But now I was able to find an outlet for this interest and develop the appropriate skills. I’ve also needed to develop my writing skills in ways that I didn’t expect. Writing the narrative screens (as opposed to career information) to develop the SIGI PLUS system, I had to find ways to get my points across and extract input from users in an interactive format with highly limited space. Once ETS decided to get out of the career development business, I had to learn a different style to write books for JIST, my current employer. Actually, writing for JIST demands not one style but several. My recent book 2011 Career Plan called for a pushy style quite different from what I’d used previously, and I needed to use a simplified style for the Quick Green Jobs Guide and other booklets in that series.

As a JIST author, I also have needed to develop skills related to promoting my writing, such as the ability to make a good impression in a television interview.

Our economy does not have many obvious career paths for humanities PhDs, or in some cases the obvious careers don’t have a good outlook. When you look for work, it probably will help you to think not in terms of occupations but in terms of skills you want to use. I was not looking for “career information developer” as a job, and I would have missed the opportunity at ETS if I had confined my job-hunting to the obvious research-and-writing occupations such as journalist. You can increase your options if you avoid stereotyping yourself with a pat occupational label.

Because your career path is not obvious, your career is going to have many ups and downs. When you encounter adversity, don’t lose faith in your long-term prospects. When I was downsized from ETS, my 16-year-old daughter said to me, “Think of this as an adventure, Dad.” And it does help to put your career downturns into the larger context of the narrative arc of your life. Think of your immediate career difficulties as a plot complication and not as a tragic denouement.

The other really important lesson to take away is the importance of networking for finding jobs. Although I found my job at ETS through a job posting, this is no longer the most effective method. I found my job at JIST through networking with a JIST author whom I knew from a professional association. I started as a consultant, preparing the data-intense content for books, and I gradually increased the amount of prose I wrote and the number of hours I worked for JIST.

In my panel presentation at Rutgers, I discussed networking at greater length, but I’m not going to discuss that here because it would duplicate other blog entries.

My story was not greatly different from what the other panelists had to say. Although the specifics of their careers differed from mine, we all pursued new interests and developed new skills over the course of our careers, and we got hired for almost all of our jobs through networking. Humanities PhDs have tremendous potential for rewarding careers if they are willing to do the work (which never ends) of discovering and fulfilling their potential.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Classroom Subjects versus Workplace Skills

Education is supposed to prepare us for our careers, but sometimes there appears to be a disconnect between the two. While in college, we are often forced to take certain required courses although we can’t see how they can ever help us in our careers.

Some of these courses may contribute to noncareer goals in life, such as being good citizens. History and political science courses obviously serve this purpose, and I wish that some of the people who are presently shouting about the Constitution had a better grounding in those subjects. Courses in the arts and literature may contribute to our leisure-time enjoyment of these fields.

But let’s set aside these “area requirements,” as they are often called, and focus on the required courses within college majors. Even some of these seem to contribute little to preparing for the putative career goals of your major.

This is true for math courses in particular. Sometimes it seems as if everyone studies more math in college than they ever will use in their careers. I was struck by this thought as I worked on Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major: How to Confidently Pick Your Ideal Path, which is due out in April of next year.

However, there are good reasons why so many math courses are required.

The curriculum developers who design the majors want you to be able to understand the people you’ll work with. In many jobs, you do not use a lot of math but work with people who do, so with a background in mathematical concepts you can understand how these other workers produce their results and can tell the difference between meaningful and misleading results. You can challenge the output of those workers and ask them intelligent questions. For example, market research managers need to understand the procedures of the statisticians who design market surveys. Physicians need to understand the procedures of the medical science researchers who make new discoveries about disease processes and pharmaceuticals. Many different kinds of workers need to understand how to interpret statistics about their field, and you can’t really understand the meaning of a statistic unless you know how it was derived, including the sampling method that was used. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the importance of the sample in studies.)

Another consideration is the hard-to-predict outcomes of your career. While you’re still in college, you may not know that you’re going to specialize in research, which requires quite a lot of math in most industries. Or you may not realize that you’re going to change careers 10 years out and will be able to retrain much faster if you have a good command of math.

Math is not the only subject that college students need more than they may realize. Employers often find that new hires are woefully deficient in verbal skills. A 2007 report (PDF) by the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed several recent studies and found “simple, consistent, and alarming” indications that the reading and writing abilities of workers are not meeting the needs of employers. A 2004 survey by The College Board of 120 corporations in the Business Roundtable found that one-third of workers fall short of employer’s expectations for writing skills. The survey also found that writing is a regular part of the job for two-thirds of all employees. So if you think that your major requires you to take more English courses than are necessary, maybe you’re not aware of what level of writing skill your career goal actually will demand. And, as with math skills, the success of an unanticipated future change in your career may hinge on your verbal skills.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Inside Look at Your Skills

Imagine this scenario: You are being interviewed for a job, and after the usual questions about where you see yourself in five years and what your biggest weakness is, you are given a referral slip and told to report to a hospital for an MRI scan of your brain. The results of the scan will determine whether or not you get the job. What’s at issue is not your health; they’re not looking for a tumor or aneurism. Instead, they’re looking at the condition of your brain in order to decide whether you have the abilities and temperament to do the job.

This may seem bizarre, but it appears to be the logical consequence of some recent research. One study (PDF), by a team at the University of California, Irvine, found significant correlations between the shape of the gray matter in people’s brains and the scores those same people received on a battery of tests that are sometimes used in vocational guidance to measure work-related competencies. (The test battery was developed by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.) Another team of researchers, at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, used brain scans to identify people’s tendencies toward career-damaging psychological states. One of these researchers predicted that brain scans will become routine in job interviews within five years.

I’m very skeptical about such claims. The research of both teams was able to predict only a small number of factors related to work. Human beings are more than the sum of our parts, especially in social situations such as work. It’s unlikely that in our lifetimes brain scans will be able to predict how a person will perform in the detailed aspects of an actual work environment.

On the other hand, it’s only fair to note that the traditional job interview also does not have a very good track record. What does the interviewer really learn by asking you what kind of car you consider yourself to be? (An article in Psychology Today demolishes this and other wacky interview questions.)

In fairness, I should add that bad interviewing is a two-way street. Most job-seekers probably concentrate excessively on responding to the interviewer’s questions and thus forget to ask important questions that would get at the suitability of the job. Why not ask where the interviewer sees the company in five years? CareerBuilder has several suggestions for questions such as this.

Who knows, maybe in Holland they really will be scanning job recruits’ brains five years from now. In Europe, handwriting analysis is already widely used in hiring decisions.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Too Many College Grads?

This week’s blog is inspired by my friend Rich Feller, who wrote to ask for my reaction to an opinion piece that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article, called “Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?” argues that too many people are getting bachelor’s degrees. It touches on some issues I discuss in my book about the pluses and minuses of various kinds of postsecondary education and training: Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Route That’s Right for You.

The heart of the article is a table (below) showing 20 occupations that normally require considerably less preparation than a college degree. For example, Parking Lot Attendants typically need only short-term on-the-job training to do the work. The table shows, for each occupation, the number and percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree (or higher). (For convenience, I’ll refer to “a bachelor’s or higher” here as “a college degree.”)

table from article

The numbers are disturbing. For example, 14% of Parking Lot Attendants have a college degree. Among Bartenders, 16% do. The author of the article goes on to argue that our society is putting too many people through college, including many who should not be there.

I have many objections to the methodology and implications of the article. First, a certain number of artists and other aspirants to highly competitive fields will always be working in occupations for which they are overqualified. This is also true of recent immigrants, who lack English skills or recognized credentials, as one comment on the Web page noted.

Second, the table is based on figures from 2008, a period of great job loss. Many people, out of desperation, were taking jobs for which they were overqualified. I looked at older figures and found that the percentage of college grads in the same 20 occupations had increased by 3% from 2004 to 2008. I acknowledge that even the 2004 percentages were much too high. But this entire past decade has been an era of tepid job growth. In an economy with normal job growth, we won’t see this level of overqualification. And how are we going to get to a better economy without a good supply of highly skilled workers?

The figures in the article don’t necessarily demonstrate that a college degree is not worthwhile. At best, you may judge from the evidence that some college degrees are not worthwhile. Everyone has heard stories about liberal arts graduates who have trouble getting hired in a college-level job. It’s likely that many of these overqualified workers chose an academic specialization that holds little appeal for hiring managers. But, as someone who holds only liberal arts degrees, I maintain that many of the overqualified workers with the “wrong” degree simply aren’t savvy about how to position themselves for employment in fields for which they supposedly are not equipped. I’d argue that what we need is not fewer college grads, or even fewer college grads in the liberal arts, but rather more help with career development and job-hunting.

I can counter the figures in this article with a different set of figures, from a chart (below) maintained by the Department of Labor at a site called “Education Pays.” The chart shows that people with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 5.2% in 2009, at a time when the overall rate was 7.9%. Certainly, some of these employed college grads were in overqualified situations, but overall their average weekly earnings were $1,025, compared to $626 for those with only high school. I have followed this chart for many years, and the advantages of the bachelor’s degree are actually growing. So college does seem to be preparing people for good jobs.

Education Pays

Now, let’s switch the perspective. Instead of looking at policy decisions about what’s good for society as a whole, let’s look at career decisions that individuals must make. This is the perspective from which I write my books.

Seen from this point of view, getting a college degree is often an excellent choice. (It’s certainly not the only excellent choice, as I make clear in the Quick Education and Training Options Guide.) One of the people who commented on the article said it very well:

“I work in human resources now for a public university, and I can tell you that college degrees are basically an arms race. No, you may not need a degree to perform the task at hand, but you’re competing against people who have degrees. If you don’t have one too, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Ditto raises and promotions, in which education level is a significant factor. This is true across multiple industries, not just higher ed employment.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Innovation and Job Opportunity in Manufacturing

One of the central points in my new book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, is that it’s important to upgrade your skills if you want to compete in the economy of 2011. The book has many specific suggestions for how to do this. But maybe you’re wondering why a high level of skill is so important.

It’s because of the current nature of our economy. The days are long past when an American kid fresh off the farm would be put in front of a machine that stamps out auto parts (or something comparable), could learn how to use that machine in a few minutes or hours, and would take home a comfortable paycheck at the end of the week. Those hayseeds-turned-factory-workers are now working in China and other low-wage countries.

But does that mean manufacturing in America is dead? Not at all. Manufacturing was actually one of the first industries to bounce back from the depths of the recession. It has seen its growth slowing in recent months, but no more so than almost all other industries. This week, Ford Motor Company reported that it just had its most profitable quarter ever, netting $1.69 billion and paying down it debt faster than planned.

Innovation is what has kept American manufacturing successful and will allow manufacturing to continue to provide jobs. It’s particularly striking to see how manufacturing compares to other industries in a study (PDF) by the National Science Foundation that looks at innovative products and processes. NSF surveyed 1.5 million for-profit companies and asked them about their practices for the years 2006–08.

The study found that “22% of the manufacturing companies introduced product innovations (one or more new or significantly improved good or service) and about 22% introduced process innovations (one or more new or significantly improved method for manufacturing or production; logistics, delivery, or distribution; support activities).” Compare this to the mere 8% that is reported for both kinds of innovation in the nomanufacturing industries.

I’m particularly interested to note that the 22% figure applies to both kinds of innovation. It indicates that the high level of innovation is motivated by more than just the need to compete with low-wage overseas workers. If wage competition were the only issue, American manufacturers would simply be upgrading their processes--for example, using more robots or economies of scale. But American manufacturers are being equally innovative in the products they offer. New products open new markets and draw new purchases from existing markets.

What does this mean for job opportunities? If all the innovation were happening only in manufacturing processes, most of the resulting jobs would be for engineers and engineering technicians. But new product development (NPD) is a multidisciplinary field that also involves marketing managers, technical writers, artists, commercial designers, logistics specialists, cost estimators, and perhaps even anthropologists. (Not long ago I did a presentation for an NPD team, and the most effective presenter that day was an anthropologist.) NPD work is highly collaborative, so it requires excellent people skills and communication skills. It also requires a high level of creativity.

So America’s most innovative industry sector is going to need a wide variety of highly skilled workers. This drives home the most important point in 2011 Career Plan, that today’s economy requires you to hone your skills.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Green Jobs Satisfy in Many Ways

This week has produced some interesting news about green jobs. This subject is dear to my heart because I’ve been writing about it, most recently in Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career. I’ll also be speaking about it on November 1 at the STEMtech conference hosted by the League for Innovation in the Community College.

One of the most intriguing things I’ve read about green jobs this week was in a USA Today article that I learned about from a JIST colleague, Athena Wampler. The article, “Are workers in green jobs happier? Study offers clues,” reports on research by two academics at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. The research project, called “Business for the Greater Good,” is being done in cooperation with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which is working with dairy farmers to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from their farms.

One of the researchers, Ante Glavas, commented that “We’re finding that people who work for green companies have a pride-in-ownership mentality and are happier and more productive.” In fact, he said, workers who feel they are contributing to the greater good can be as much as 40% more productive.

This study provides an interesting new way to look at the economic benefits of green business practices. Most other studies focus on results such as the cost savings from recycling, conservation, and use of alternative energy. Or they may estimate the economic impacts of global warming. The Notre Dame researchers focus instead on the productivity of workers. Their study is a reminder that one of the principles of career development--helping people find meaning in their work--makes good business sense.

Another lesson to take away from this study is that the shift to a green economy is happening for a wide range of reasons, not simply because it’s better for our planet. This lesson was reinforced by a news story in The New York Times, “In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy.” It reports on how six towns in Kansas competed to achieve the greatest reductions in energy use. A small nonprofit group, the Climate and Energy Project, understood that many Kansans are skeptical about global climate change and resent large-scale government intervention. So the group appealed instead to the values of “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction, and economic prosperity.” They emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on foreign oil, the opportunities offered by green jobs, and the concept of stewardship of God’s creation. As a result of the program, “energy use in the towns declined as much as 5 percent relative to other areas--a giant step in the world of energy conservation, where a program that yields a 1.5 percent decline is considered successful.”

Another new development was the release of a bibliography listing dozens of reports about green industries and green jobs. Compiled by the O*NET Development Center, this list of references (a PDF) includes URLs for almost all of these reports.

For more about green jobs, look to the latest edition of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly for an article about wind service technicians. Or look at what the Solar Foundation reports from its 2010 National Solar Jobs Census: a workforce of 93,000, with a projected increase of 26%, representing 24,000 net new jobs by August 2011.

Green jobs are the wave of the future because they can be very satisfying. They offer people a sense of purpose in their work as well as growing job opportunities.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Career Tips to Increase Your Visibility

In one of my recent books, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, I make the point that one way to improve your job security is to make yourself more visible. My blog this week enlarges on this topic.

The basic point is that your employer will value only the employees they are aware of; likewise, prospective employers will be much more likely to hire job applicants who are familiar to them. You may be doing superlative work and you may have a dynamite performance appraisal or resume for showing off your accomplishments, but employers don’t like to have to read these documents. You need to find other ways to make your employer (or prospective employer) aware, on an ongoing basis, of your outstanding skills and achievements.

In the book, I suggest that the reader “start an in-house Web page, newsletter, or bulletin board showcasing the project you’re working on and soliciting suggestions from people outside the project. This will encourage them to buy into the project and make your efforts look not purely self-promotional.”

Blogging is another platform, and you can use it to build a national reputation. Focus your blog on some niche in your industry that you are well-informed about. If you can’t think of some such topic or you don’t have time to maintain a blog, consider being a frequent commenter on an existing blog. Anyone who follows a blog over time starts to recognize and appreciate the particular expertise of the people who are frequent commenters. That could be you.

Much of the impact of blogs is achieved passively; that is, blog readers come to your blog, and that’s how they become aware of you. However, you can use your blog for making active connections: Include interviews. Record a telephone interview of someone who is of interest to your readership (making it clear to the subject that you are recording the conversation), transcribe the interview, and post it on your blog. With a somewhat higher level of tech savvy, you may be able to post the interview as a podcast. Each time you do an interview and make it available, you will be connecting not only with your readers but also with the person being interviewed. This increases your visibility two ways.

Twitter is often referred to as “micro-blogging.” You can use it like a blog to make yourself a highly visible hub of information, and Twitter has the advantage of being very brief, so it can reach readers who are carrying smart phones or who simply don’t like to read long articles.

Still another way to make yourself a wellspring of information--and therefore more visible in your industry--is to publish a business directory. (I learned this idea from my cousin, Arlene Hershman, former editor of Dun's Business Month.) Assemble and publish a directory of facts about businesses and/or people in your industry. Obviously, it helps to focus on some specialized industry niche or to include some facts that are not available elsewhere (or not available in a single place). Doing the research for this directory provides an excellent pretext for you to contact everyone who matters in your industry (visibility-enhancer #1).

Being the conduit of this information is visibility-enhancer #2. Although you can get exposure by posting the directory on the Web, you may consider using teasing as a strategy: Post only a sample of your contents and make would-be readers pay a nominal subscription fee or at least register with you to get the full directory. By requiring your information-consumers to do this, you make them (a) pay additional attention to who you are, (b) place a higher value on your content, and (c) identify themselves to you, so you have a valuable list of subscribers. You need to assure your subscribers that you will not sell this list, but you may want to use the list yourself. It can expand the base of people or companies you can call for research purposes. Better yet, it can expand your network of contacts who will be helpful for future (or present) job-hunting.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Be All That You Can Be--In a Green Job

I’m paying extra attention to news about alternative energy now that my new book, Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career, has come out. You may have heard the news this week that solar panels will be installed on the roof of the White House. These units will supply both electric power and hot water. But you may have missed a more important item of green news: The military has started to invest heavily in alternative energy. This trend will have great impact on the growth of green jobs.

The armed forces are not promoting alternative energy as a symbolic gesture or as a matter of ideology. They’re not even doing this to prevent global warming. The policy makes good sense for purely military reasons.

One reason Alexander the Great was able to conquer Afghanistan was that his transport vehicles (horses) could live off the land. Nor did Alexander need energy for any purposes other than the campfires that could be supplied by local firewood. Modern military history, by contrast, has seen many armies made terribly vulnerable by long supply lines. Our military needs fuel not only to power vehicles but also to keep generators pumping out a steady supply of electricity. The Army buys gasoline for a little over $1 per gallon, but the cost of trucking that gallon to distant bases in Afghanistan can reach $400. Tanker trucks chugging through mountain roads are prime targets for Afghan insurgents. (Also for angry Pakistanis.) In fact, one Army study found that an average of one soldier or civilian is killed for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s why energy created at the point of use can be so valuable to a military campaign. Company I, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines will be using the following equipment, according to the story in The New York Times: “portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; solar chargers for computers and communications equipment.” This will be the first time that alternative-energy equipment will be taken into a battle zone.

The Times reports that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships. The Navy has already commissioned an amphibious assault ship that’s hybrid-powered. The Air Force is testing mixtures of biofuels with jet fuel and will have all its planes certified to use biofuels by 2011. The one alternative-energy source notably absent from the military’s plans is wind turbines, which are extremely bulky and work best on the hilltop locations that are hardest to defend.

Secretary Mabus notes that as the military’s use of green energy sources ramps up, the price will come down and infrastructure will be put in place. That will make these technologies more affordable and practical for the civilian economy. That, in turn, means more jobs for green-energy workers.

But the article fails to note one very important consequence of this military policy: The military will be training large numbers of green-energy workers. Civilians often forget that the military is a major educational institution, one that actually pays its students. As the armed forces adopt alternative energy technologies, they will become important sources of worker training for these technologies. As military personnel cycle out of their stints in uniform, they will enter the civilian workforce with the skills required to install solar panels, process biofuels, service hybrid power plants, and perform many other green job functions.

I expect that a future edition of 150 Best Jobs Through Military Training will include Solar Photovoltaic Installers, Biofuels Processing Technicians, Geothermal Technicians, and other green-energy occupations.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Three Kinds of Green Jobs

You've probably been hearing people tossing around the term "green jobs." This can be a slippery term, so in my forthcoming book Quick Green Jobs Guide: Six Steps to a Green Career I make a point of explaining what a green job is. It's important to understand that the term applies to a lot more jobs than just installing solar panels.

Every big shift in the economy creates many new job opportunities. Think about what happened when computers arrived. They created many new occupations, such as computer programmers and computer systems analysts. But more important was the way technology changed existing occupations. By 2001, 56 percent of all workers were using computers, but only a small fraction of these workers had the word “computer” in their job title.

Something very similar is expected to happen to careers as we shift to a green economy. The U.S. Department of Labor identifies three kinds of occupations that will contribute to the green economy:

Green Increased-Demand Occupations: These existing jobs will take on many new workers as green practices and technologies expand. The work itself and the skill requirements will not change much. Examples: Boilermakers, Chemists, Electricians, Forest and Conservation Workers, Locomotive Engineers, Power Distributors and Dispatchers, Rough Carpenters, Structural Metal Fabricators and Fitters, Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists.

Green Enhanced-Skills Occupations: These existing jobs will experience changes in work tasks and skill requirements as we shift to a green economy. They may or may not see increases in employment. Examples: Aerospace Engineers, Construction Managers, Financial Analysts, Geological Sample Test Technicians, Landscape Architects, Machinists, Marketing Managers, Plumbers, Storage and Distribution Managers, Urban and Regional Planners.

Green New and Emerging Occupations: These jobs are being created to do new kinds of work or meet new skill requirements. Examples: Biofuels Processing Technicians, Biomass Production Managers, Chief Sustainability Officers, Energy Auditors, Fuel Cell Engineers, Logistics Managers, Methane/Landfill Gas Generation System Technicians, Precision Agriculture Technicians, Solar Photovoltaic Installers, Weatherization Installers and Technicians.

These definitions point to an important truth: Most green work opportunities will be in existing occupations. That’s why it's important to become informed about green jobs even though the green economy has not fully emerged yet.

To see the information the Department of Labor has about green jobs, go to the O*NET site at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Recession Has Ended?

By now you’ve probably heard the news that the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. That’s the verdict of the economists on the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research. This means we have already been in a recovery for 15 months. Why doesn’t it feel like that? And what does this mean for your job prospects?

Many of the indicators of recovery that the economists examined show that this recovery is weak. For example, the gross domestic product in the second quarter of this year advanced only 1.6 percent, a slowdown from the 3.7 percent of the first quarter. In July, existing home sales were at their lowest level in a decade.

But not all indicators show weaknesses. To me, the most startling figure is that corporate profits last quarter ($1639.3 billion) were only 1 percent lower than they were at their pre-recession peak ($1655.1 billion). They have risen steadily for the past six quarters. In other words, companies are sitting on a mountain of cash.

That’s why it’s all the more startling that job creation has been so dismal. In fact, we have actually lost more jobs than we have gained since the recovery began.

You may be wondering how corporations can be making such big profits while economic growth is tepid and so many people aren’t working. The reason is productivity gains. American workers who are still employed keep on producing more output relative to what they’re paid. It’s important to understand why this is happening. Some of it is because the workers are putting in longer hours. Some of it is because businesses have invested in machinery and computers that increase workers’ output. And much of it is because we have a leaner, meaner workforce. So many low-skill workers have been laid off. The work that they used to do has either been shipped overseas or is being done by machinery and computers operated by high-skill workers.

Here’s an indication of how lean and mean our workforce has become: Workers over 25 who have a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent in August, while those with only a high school diploma had a rate of 10.3 percent. Compare that gap of 5.7 percent to the gap of only 2.6 percent when the recession began. Figures for the duration of unemployment tell a similar story. In August, the median duration of unemployment for the college grads was 18.4 weeks, compared to 27.5 weeks for the high school grads. Three years ago, there was only about one unemployed day of difference between the two groups.

There’s little reason to think that this lean, mean workforce will be able to get fat and lazy anytime soon. A report this week from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco says that "capital utilization" (i.e., investment in machinery and computers) has been one of the main drivers of recent productivity growth but notes that the level of investment has been below historical averages. The report concludes that businesses will be able to squeeze still more productivity out of the employed workforce through increased capital utilization rather than through increased hiring.

What is the implication for your job prospects? To be part of the leaner workforce, you need to be meaner. By “meaner,” I don’t mean more ruthless (although you do need to be aggressive in your job-hunting), but rather that you need to be one of the high-skill workers. You need to aim for the highest-skill work that you’re capable of and--better yet--you should plan to upgrade your skills. If you’re still in school, plan to get a higher-level degree than you might have had in mind originally. If you’re out of school, think about formal or informal training to upgrade your skills. And be sure to do more than thinking and planning. Commit to some specific action.

This is the central theme of my latest book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, and it’s why I take a rather pushy tone in that book. It’s also why so many of my recent blogs have been about the theme of improving your skills. Your job survival in this economy depends on taking action to be one of the highly skilled workers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 4: The Bachelor's Degree

In my book Quick Education and Training Options Guide: Choose the Career Entry Route That’s Right for You, coming out in October, I discuss various ways people can improve their skills through education and training. I cover many kinds of formal and informal training, including apprenticeship, military training, and self-instruction, among others.

Although I do not, by any means, single out the bachelor's degree as the best kind of preparation, I make a good case for it. I point out that a bachelor’s degree can provide you with many advantages in the job market. In fact, some jobs require it. For example, to become licensed as a professional engineer or a public school teacher, you generally need to have a bachelor’s degree from an approved program. In many other occupations, there is no legal requirement, but employers will not consider job candidates who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree, sometimes in a specific major. Accountants, foresters, and financial analysts are examples of careers where a specialized bachelor’s is expected. In still other careers, a bachelor’s is not required but preferred.

Then I give specific reasons why a bachelor’s degree is such a valuable credential:
  • It gives you broad and deep knowledge of the field. A bachelor’s degree program has requirements that ensure that you will learn more than you could in a two-year program or from on-the-job experiences. It helps you understand theoretical issues that are the basis of problem-solving techniques and creative thinking.
  • It gives you a foundation for further learning. Our economy is changing so rapidly that workers need to continue learning throughout their careers. Even if they do not pursue higher-level degrees that require the bachelor’s as a foundation, they will need to take courses or pursue informal learning to remain productive as their jobs evolve. But continuous learning requires skills that go beyond the immediate demands of the job—skills in critical thinking, writing, math, and research methods. That’s another reason why employers prefer bachelor’s degree holders over people who have taken courses related only to the entry-level job.
  • It represents a commitment of time and energy. Four years is a long time to devote to any effort, and employers appreciate people who have made that commitment and have seen it through to completion.
  • It gives you knowledge beyond your major. Students often wonder why bachelor’s degree programs include requirements for courses in departments outside their major--such as literature, philosophy, history, public speaking, political science, the arts, or science. A bachelor’s degree is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen, not a robotic worker. Employers believe that bachelor’s degree holders have a broad understanding of the society in which business is conducted. People with the degree have explored enough different subjects to be fully committed to their career specialization yet have the flexibility to adapt as their career undergoes change. For example, if your job should open to an international market--as happens so often these days--knowledge of geography, history, comparative religion, and foreign language can be very useful.
  • On average, it leads to better-paying and more secure jobs. Bachelor's degree holders averaged $53,300 per year in earnings in 2009, an advantage of $26,692 over high school dropouts. Their unemployment rate was 5.2% in 2009, compared to 14.6% for high school dropouts. These advantages are actually growing over time.
  • It enriches your life beyond your job. The same breadth of learning that will make you a better learner and a more flexible employee also will help you to appreciate all aspects of life. It will give you a context in which to get more out of experiences such as a nature walk, a conversation with a person much older than you, a movie, a visit to a foreign country, a political speech, or a news article about an emerging technology.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 3

In two previous blog postings, I wrote about getting ahead in your career through informal learning. This kind of learning is a frequent method for advancing a career, and so I cover it in some detail in my new book, 2011 Career Plan. But, in the same book, I also discuss formal coursework. This does not always have to mean earning a college or graduate degree. It can consist of a single course.

About 15 years ago, I was fortunate to get my employer to pay for me to be trained in Microsoft Access. I had three days of training in the basics and, later, two days covering intermediate topics. What I learned in these two courses I now use on the job virtually every day.

Here are some of the features of a formal class or program that differentiate it from informal learning:
  • The learning goals are clearly spelled out.
  • The instructor (whether it’s a human, a computer program, or a booklet) has a reputation for knowing the subject and being able to teach it.
  • There’s some way to measure how much you learn.
  • When you’re finished, you get some kind of recognition for what you’ve learned—for example, a piece of paper or a mention on your performance appraisal.
The last bulleted item is what makes this form of learning especially valuable to you.

However, some courses are a better choice for your career than others. Following is a checklist that I developed for the 2011 Career Plan to help you assemble the facts about a course or workshop and decide whether or not it’s a good choice.

Facts to Know Before Signing Up for a Course or Workshop

__ The expected learning outcomes of the course are clear to me.
__ The learning outcomes match the skill needs of a current or potential employer.
__ The learning outcomes contribute to a skill I want to develop.
__ The learning outcomes do not repeat what I already know.
__ The course has no prerequisites I can’t meet.
__ I have evidence that the course provider can teach me successfully. (Examples: reputation of provider; testimonial of a course completer; demonstrated skill of a course completer; recommendation by my employer.)
__ I will learn more or better than I could by teaching myself instead.
__ I will be able to show evidence of how the course has improved my skills. (Examples: certificate of completion; documentation of a completed project.)
__ The course is offered at a time convenient for me.
__ The course is offered at a place convenient for me.
__ I can afford the cost of the course (perhaps by getting my employer to pay).

Note that you don’t have to check off every statement, but the more you agree with, the better. If several of the statements are not checked, maybe this course is not a good move for your career.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Importance of Outlook Information

In my new book 2011 Career Plan, which comes out this month, I focus on industries and occupations that are projected to have high growth. This week, I fielded an inquiry from a journalist who wanted to know whether growth projections are actually useful in career advice. Read on to see what I told him.

First of all, to understand the outlook for an occupation you’re considering, you have to be careful not to go solely by the figure for growth. You also need to pay attention to the projected number of job openings. Growth and openings are not the same thing. Consider the occupation Hydrologists, which is projected to grow at the outstanding rate of 31.6 percent. There should be lots of opportunities in such a fast-growing job, right? Not exactly. This is a tiny occupation, with only about 8,000 people currently employed, so although it is growing rapidly, it will not create many new jobs (about 1,000 per year). Now consider Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Vocational Education. This occupation is growing at the sluggish rate of 5.6 percent. Nevertheless, this is a huge occupation that employs more than one million workers, so although its growth rate is unimpressive, it is expected to take on more than 93,000 new workers each year as existing workers retire, die, or move on to other jobs.

In fact, some very large occupations have so much job turnover that they provide tens of thousands of job openings even though they’re shrinking in size. Size of the workforce is not the only cause. Occupations that are easy to get into and/or low-paying are also easy to walk away from, so Home Health Aides, for example, has huge turnover. Contemplating such career options, you have to ask yourself whether you’re looking for a long-term career or a job where most people sojourn only briefly.

Next, consider the possibility of local variation. A national boom in an occupation may bypass your region. You really need to check with local employers to get a sense of the local outlook, unless you’re planning to cast a nationwide net in your job search. Something similar applies to variation by occupational .specialization. Here again, it helps to talk to employers in the specialization that interests you.

Then there’s the question of personal satisfactions. It’s true that you won’t get any satisfactions (earnings, working in your interest field, leadership, helping others, prestige--you name it) from work if you don’t have work. This is one reason why job opportunity is so important. However, if your personality is comfortable with taking risks, you may strive for an occupation with a somewhat poorer-than-average outlook because of the potential for a high payoff in satisfactions.

When I write my books, I don’t encourage people to defy the odds, because the books are aimed to do the most good for the greatest number of readers. However, there are always people who are the exceptions to the rule, who beat all the competition and get the job even though only a handful of openings are available. (Maybe you saw the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.”) These people either are risk-takers or they have extraordinary abilities or credentials. They are uncommon enough that I don’t usually address them in my books. If they do read one of my books, they probably have enough well-earned self-confidence to be able to ignore my warnings about limited job opportunities.

Another minority of readers whom I choose to neglect are those interested in doing work that almost nobody else wants to do. They may be willing to pursue a highly specialized occupation, such as repairing antique clocks and watches, or an occupation with work conditions that almost everyone else finds repulsive, such as cleaning up houses where obsessive cat collectors have lived and died. The job outlook for such occupations is actually good because there is almost zero competition for job openings, but the number of job openings is so minuscule that the occupations are not worth including in a book of general interest. Like the ├╝bermenschen I discussed in the previous paragraph, these uncommon people probably will find their way to their obscure career goal without needing my help.

So, in conclusion, outlook figures are very useful, but be aware of figures for both growth and openings, verify them as they apply to your region and specialization, decide how much risk you’re willing to undertake, and weigh how much you’re willing to do the unconventional.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Measuring the Importance of Postsecondary Education

One of the purposes of my forthcoming book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, is to exhort the reader to get additional education or training as preparation for a career move. I describe several routes to career entry, such as on-the-job training, postsecondary technical school, and college degrees. Although I mention the advantages and disadvantages of each skill-building route, I don’t point to any single route as best for all people. That would certainly be bad guidance. But the point is that some education or training beyond the high school diploma is vital. (I make the same point in another book, Quick Education and Training Options Guide, which is due out in October.)

This argument gains a lot of reinforcement from a fascinating research study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce: Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018. (You can get the PDF of the full report or the executive summary at

The report, by Anthony P. Carnevale (full disclosure: he was a colleague of mine at Educational Testing Service), Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, forecasts the demand for workers with various levels of education. The researchers show that the jobs (that is, paid positions, not occupations) normally requiring an associate degree or higher increase from 28% of the total mix in 1973 to 56% in 1992, 59% in 2007, and a projected 62% in 2018. Over the same interval, the fraction of jobs for people with only a high school diploma falls from 40% to 28%, and for high school dropouts from 32% to 10%.

They also show that postsecondary education is increasingly important for entering or staying in the middle class, which they define as the middle four deciles of household earnings. In 1970, 46% of high school dropouts and 60% of high school graduates were in the middle class. By 2007, these proportions had dropped to 33% and 45%. There was also some erosion among college grads, as people with the bachelor’s went from being 47% in the middle class to 38%. But the bachelor’s-holders were moving upward, not downward. The percentage of bachelor's-holders in the upper three deciles of household earnings increased from 37% to 48%. Similar changes can be seen in those with a graduate degree.

Looking at wage trends, they found that from 1983 to 2008, among prime-age workers between the ages of 25 and 54, earnings increased by 13% for high school grads compared to 15% for those with an associate degree, 34% with a bachelor’s, and 55% with a graduate degree. Over a lifetime, they estimated earnings (in current dollars) of $1,767,025 for high school grads, but almost double that ($3,380,060) for those with a bachelor’s.

The researchers point to the changing nature of our economy, only accelerated by the Great Recession, as the force that is increasing the demand for--and remuneration of--workers with postsecondary education.

They also make a related point: that our current postsecondary educational system will not produce enough workers to meet this demand. This idea goes beyond the purview of 2011 Career Plan and therefore doesn’t get a full discussion in this blog. Nevertheless, it’s a very important point, and I may return to it in a future blog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One of the Hottest Career Fields for 2011

In my forthcoming book 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, I devote one chapter to the hottest fields of 2011.

If you’re planning for a career move, it makes sense to focus on a field with a lot of potential. As the economy heats up, it doesn’t work like an oven that browns all the biscuits at the same rate. Some industries are much hotter than others. So it makes sense for you to focus your 2011 career plan on a field that is expected to offer lots of job opportunities.

In the book, I provide information about 11 hot career fields. Following is some information about the hottest field of all, management, scientific, and technical consulting services. (The following discussion draws heavily on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Guide to Industries.)

Firms that offer management, scientific, and technical consulting services influence how businesses, governments, and institutions make decisions. Often working behind the scenes, these firms offer technical expertise, information, contacts, and tools that clients cannot provide themselves. They then work with their clients to provide a service or solve a problem.

Usually, one of the resources that consulting firms provide to clients is expertise—in the form of knowledge, experience, special skills, or creativity; another resource is time or personnel that the client cannot spare. Clients include large and small companies in the private sector; federal, state, and local government agencies; institutions, such as hospitals, universities, unions, and nonprofit organizations; and foreign governments or businesses.

The management, scientific, and technical consulting services industry is diverse. Almost anyone with expertise in a given area can enter consulting, which means that it can be a good field to move into after you have acquired a lot of skills and knowledge in some other industry.

Management consulting firms advise on almost every aspect of corporate operations: marketing; finance; corporate strategy and organization; manufacturing processes; information systems and data processing; electronic commerce (e-commerce) or business; human resources, including benefits and compensation; and many others. Scientific and technical consulting firms provide technical advice relating to almost all nonmanagement organizational activities, including compliance with environmental and workplace safety and health regulations; the application of technology; and the application of sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Consultants work slightly longer hours than most other workers, and occasionally they work evenings or weekends under stress to meet hurried deadlines. Consultants whose services are billed hourly often are under pressure to manage their time very carefully.

Workers enter this industry via a wide variety of routes. Although employers generally prefer a bachelor’s or higher degree, most jobs also require extensive on-the-job training or related experience. Advancement opportunities are best for workers with the highest levels of education.

Some consultants start their own firm as a self-employed, one-person operation, eventually taking on a small support staff.

Employment in this field is projected to grow by 82.7 percent from 2008 to 2018. All of the following occupations are projected to grow within this industry by at least 100 percent. Note that the following facts about these occupations apply only to workers within this industry.

Occupational Growth Within IndustryWorkforce Size Within IndustryAverage Earnings Within Industry
1.Network Systems and Data Communications Analysts148.2%6,560$74,410
2.Industrial Engineers111.8%5,070$82,440
3.Financial Analysts104.1%9,120$74,380
4.Customer Service Representatives104.0%27,980$31,520
6.Public Relations Specialists104.0%8,350$57,530
7.Training and Development Specialists103.9%6,640$60,420
8.Computer Software Engineers, Applications102.4%11,660$89,190
9.Computer Software Engineers, Systems Software102.4%11,420$94,170
10.Compensation, Benefits, and Job Analysis Specialists102.1%5,200$60,340

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earnings are national estimates for May 2009.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 2

In the previous blog, I wrote about getting ahead in your career through informal learning, either by asking co-workers for help or by creating a program of self-instruction, ideally with a study partner. (These are some ideas I include in my forthcoming book, 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves for a Solid Future.)

Independent study is particularly useful if the skill you want to master is on the cutting edge of technology and classes are not yet available. People who work with computers do this constantly; in fact, their jobs are in danger if they don’t. Years ago, I taught myself how to use Dan Bricklin’s Demo Program, which was the best program for creating demos during the DOS era, before Windows and Visual Basic. I learned by ordering the software (and getting my employer to pay), studying the manual, and experimenting with a project.

This last element of the learning process--applying it to an actual project--is vital. You won’t retain mastery of the skill unless you have occasions to use the skill. This is part of the reason I can barely make out the Arabic alphabet these days, although I studied the language for awhile. As my visits to Saudi Arabia grew further apart, my occasions to use Arabic diminished. Nowadays the only practice I get is with the occasional taxi driver.

By contrast, my skill with the Demo program kept getting better and better for a few years, because I had repeated projects to use it on. When I first learned Demo, I used it in an actual development project I was involved with at work. Because the project would benefit from my use of a demo, my boss was willing to let me learn the skill during the workday. I improved my skills in subsequent projects. Later, I learned Visual Basic the same way and continue to use it now.

Using the skill in a project overcomes one of the downsides of informal learning: that it does not give you a tangible credential in the same way that a formal course does. Once you've used the newly learned skill in a project, you can get recognition for the skill on your performance appraisal.

To encourage skill growth through informal learning and on-the-job experience, in 2011 Career Plan I include a sample e-mail message that a worker can send to his or her boss asking for such an assignment:

E-mail That Requests Skill-Testing Assignment

I have been working on improving my ____________________ skills and would really appreciate some feedback from you regarding these skills. I believe a good way for me to get this feedback is to tackle a work task that requires these skills at a level beyond what you’ve seen me do in the past. If I handle the task correctly and demonstrate the skill, please let me know I’ve done so. If I make any mistakes, I want to know about them, too. Please let me know not just what I’ve done wrong, but how I can do the task better. I promise I won’t be defensive about your comments.

I’m not asking for extra pay for doing this, and doing it would not imply I’ve been promoted. I also assure you that I won’t let this extra task interfere with my usual work assignments. If necessary, I’ll work on this task outside of my regular work hours.

Please give some thought to what task would be appropriate—a challenge, but not so difficult that I’m guaranteed to fail. If you’re not sure, I can suggest some possible tasks that you can choose from. I’ll be happy to answer any other questions you have about this experiment.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Improving Your Skills, Part 1

This blog is a departure from my usual focus on career information. It’s about career advancement. Many people who want to get ahead in their careers think their only option is to get an additional college degree, certification, or other formal credential. In my book 2011 Career Plan: The Best Moves Now for a Solid Future, due out in September, I explain some other strategies for getting ahead.

You advance in your career by improving your skills. Degree programs and other formal courses are not the only way to do this.

Let’s face it, nobody knows exactly what to do on the very first day at the worksite. Every new worker needs at least a little informal on-the-job training from experienced workers. Why should this end once you’ve learned the job? When you see co-workers using a skill that you don’t have, ask them to show you how. Most co-workers will be happy to teach you, if it doesn’t take up too much of their time.

Another way to learn informally is through independent study. In fact, this may be your only option if the skill is so arcane that local classes are not available. A few years back, I was involved in a project for a university in Saudi Arabia and realized it would be useful for me to learn some Arabic. This was before 9/11, and it would have been difficult for me to find an academic course in the language, so I undertook a self-instruction program using a textbook and homemade flash cards.

I managed to teach myself a smattering of Arabic, but the program eventually ran aground because I lacked a study partner. Study partners help reinforce each other’s learning and keep the learning program on track. Without a study partner, you’re more likely to give up quickly.

In 2011 Career Plan I include a checklist of characteristics that are good to have in a study partner:

Characteristics of a Good Study Partner

__ This person is interested in learning the same skill that I want to learn.

__ For the skill that I want to learn, this person is now at roughly the same level.

__ For the skill that I want to learn, this person has roughly the same aptitude for learning.

__ This person is as committed as I am to keeping the study program going and staying on task.

__ This person and I can agree on what book (or other learning resource) to use in our program of study.

__ This person and I can get along reasonably well.

__ This person’s schedule and mine allow time to meet regularly for study sessions.

__ This person is able to find time to do the homework required between meetings.

When you’re filling out this checklist, it helps if you know which statements you feel positive about. However, you may be unsure about some statements. For example, you may not know how committed the study partner is until you have started studying together. If you feel neutral about some statements, you may choose to give the person the benefit of the doubt, start studying with this person, and eventually decide whether the arrangement is working out.

On the other hand, if you already feel negative about several statements, maybe you should consider finding someone else as a study partner