Those born since 2000, and probably earlier, ask whether there will be a job for them, will it be the type they want and will it support the lifestyle they will aspire to. Concern about the loss of future good paying and interesting jobs is uppermost in the minds of young people. It should be, as it has been for young people previously. What it should encourage is starting to plan for the future at a young age, or for parents and friends to do it, which many already do. The good news is that while it has always been a concern for young people, it has usually worked out far better than initially expected. Living standards, with the associated jobs, are higher today in almost all parts of a world in a much larger population than existed 50 and 100 years ago. Things have got better for many people, not only in Canada, but throughout the world.
Employment, and the associated income, results from what takes place in the economy, which depends largely on the technology used to perform different functions. Over the past three centuries, especially since around 1765, much of the global economy has moved from an emphasis on agriculture to manufacturing and now services. Each change has required people having a new or revised set of skills, which are acquired through early life schooling as well as lifelong education. The latter is more necessary today.
The first industrial revolution saw a movement from agriculture to factory production and the use of the steam power to replace man, animal (horse) and water power. In the second, factories became further established, the internal combustion engine introduced using petroleum energy, and the development of mechanized means of transportation on land, sea and in the air. A third industrial revolution is now underway, starting around the 1960s, with the introduction of computers and digital advances leading to new means of production, transportation and communication. At each stage new or revised skills are required by the labour force, as is the case today.
What matters for our purposes is not what the current revolution is called – the internet age, the nuclear age – but what skills are required and what aspects of education best develop these skills. Those properly trained have the best chance to prosper during their lifetime. While the current third revolution seems to be more disruptive, albeit with positive effects, than the second, it may be that the second beats the third on the disruption score. Today is too soon to make such an evaluation. What is happening is that the rate of change is faster than previously, meaning that people will have to adapt (retrain) during their working lifetime, which is longer now because people are living longer.
I had one job as an academic and two main employers, both universities. These were combined with two years of required national service in the army and various summer jobs as deckhand, tour bus driver, bank clerk, construction worker, liquor store and postal employee. My grandchildren can expect to have more main employers and/or to retrain for the careers they initially pursue.
Understanding the revolutionary process
Economists and historians have studied these revolutions and made certain generalizations. Joseph Schumpeter explains progress as follows:
“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”
– Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)
Schumpeter describes capitalist change as a “perennial gale of creative destruction.” This leads to a paradox of progress involving the demise of old industries and the rise of new ones as described by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm
Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil. Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.
Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress. Schumpeter’s enduring term reminds us that capitalism’s pain and gain are inextricably linked. The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the preexisting order.
The sad news for some is that certain jobs will be lost forever. The good news is that new jobs are created all the time. Public policy measures are needed to minimize the harm done by the losers. The job of individuals is to prepare, or like an athlete, train for the next event.
Some of the facts for Canada, but also for most parts of the world are as follows:
- The Canadian population and labour force has expanded enormously over the past century while the unemployment rate has remained in single digits, at times as low as 5%. There are more Canadians employed today than in the past as new technologies have been introduced. There has been no shortage of employment opportunities. They may not be the same jobs and some may not consider them as “good” jobs, but there has been no shortage of jobs leading to high unemployment.
- Women now constitute a far higher share of the Canadian labour force than previously, and this has not caused the unemployment rate to rise. And with the ageing of this population there will be more opportunities for employment by young people.
- An examination of the labour force by occupations reveals the changes. One glaring example is the proportion in agriculture in 1900 and now. It has declined from over 20% to less than 2% while the output of this sector has expanded enormously. This is due to the substitution of capital (machinery, fertilizer and seed improvement) for labour. In 2010, the average cow in Canada produced 22,000 lbs of milk per year versus 5,300 lbs in 1950, a 5% increase a year for each of the past 60 years. (I am unclear whether there has been rising unemployment in the cow population.)
- Allister Heath (Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014, B2) observes the following:
“Most of the jobs that allowed our ancestors to earn a living no longer exist, replaced for the most part by machines of various kinds, but more people in the UK work than ever before….In fact, many of the trades listed across the UK in the 1891 census no longer exist at all….In one hundred years’ time, many of the jobs we fill today will have gone the same way….The speed of the transformation has been phenomenal. Imagine someone from 1980 reading a jobs website today – not only would they have no idea what the internet was, they would barely recognize the jobs on offer.”
For some, the adjustment will be easier than for others. Typically, those younger and more recently educated and trained will find it easier to find a new job than older workers brought up using earlier technologies. For example, in the publishing industry metal print machines require different skills to electronic typesetting. The stoker on a coal-fired steam railway engine requires muscle-power, different from the skills needed by the driver at the controls of a diesel engine.
These examples illustrate the “lump of labour fallacy,” often alluded to concerning the employment opportunities available in the Canadian (and other) economies. There are no fixed number of jobs available in a dynamic economy where millions of new jobs are created each year to replace the millions lost due to various types of change.
Are there good and bad jobs?
Jobs can be described as boring or interesting, legal or illegal, well or poorly paid, but good and bad are not useful descriptive terms. Manufacturing jobs are sometimes labelled as good jobs in contrast to service sector jobs, but this is misleading. Some jobs in the manufacturing sector are poorly paid and others highly paid, depending on the skills required to perform them. Some in the service sector are paid low wages – fast food workers and retail sales staff for example, but doctors, software engineers and computer programmers may be highly paid as is the case for a wide variety of health related services.
Confusion is created by reports showing that industrialized economies have moved to 75% service sector jobs. Some of these are the hamburger flipping, barrista-type jobs, but many are service jobs which were formerly part of the manufacturing sector and are now conducted in separate facilities. When an accountant or lawyer moves from providing in-house services in the automotive sector to a standalone accounting or law firm, they become workers in the service sector as opposed to the manufacturing sector.
Much of the stated change in employment in these two sectors are a result of such corporate reorganizations. Some of the reorganization may involve outsourcing work to foreign firms. When higher paying service sector jobs are outsourced (foreign or domestically), they may not be replaced by equally high paying jobs. This is part of the process of “creative destruction.” A dynamic economy wins some and loses some and it will never be an equal balancing process.
How to prepare for the future?
Assuming that a person completes a typical junior and high school education, what comes next? University and/or community college are two possible institutional progressions. Alternatively a high school student may enter the workforce directly and receive some degree of training on the job. Combining education with work is another option as it links an apprentice-type process and provides the training which any employee will have to receive, whether preparing espresso coffees or articling to be a lawyer.
Apprenticeship is often thought of in terms of skilled trades, but it happens in all occupations in some manner particular to the occupation. A trainee lawyer, accountant, doctor, dentist and engineer goes through an apprentice process peculiar to the skills required for the job. All occupations have levels and types of skills and may be paid differently, but each one requires a screening process on entry, even if it just means being able to understand a language. An immigrant hired to stock warehouse shelves will need to understand and read the language used by the firm. Similar understanding in a different context is required by an immigrant surgeon where failure could be lethal.
What subjects, where and when to study?
(This section is a revised version of an earlier posting which included input from a number of former graduate students. Many of the ideas originated with them. I don’t expect them necessarily to agree with my treatment of them.)
The stages of life and education progress from kindergarten to primary and secondary school, university and/or community college to the workforce. Some go direct from high school to the work force. Lifelong learning takes place in a formal sense when adults engage in programs of continuing education of various kinds. Online courses make it easier and cheaper to undertake learning both in earlier and later years. How this will affect existing institutions is unclear.
There is an extensive literature on this general topic, and I am no expert, but we have all had the personal experience of the various stages of education, and may have children, grandchildren, relatives and friends who are going through the process.
While details of the present are fairly clear, looking ahead ten years is like looking into a fog, and may be as reliable as a weather forecast three months hence. As technological, political and economic events are moving very fast, continual updating of the present and near future is necessary. Just this week, a Malaysian airliner has been downed by what is likely a Russian supplied missile to Ukrainians. Earlier this year, Muslims formed a new country out of parts of Syria and Iraq. These are known unknowns.
The stages of the education progress from kindergarten to primary and secondary school, university and/or community college to the workforce. Some may go direct from school to the work force where they engage in some form of apprenticeship, the term used traditionally in the trades, but similar to articling procedures in the professions. Lifelong learning takes place in a formal sense when adults engage in programs of continuing education of various kinds. Online courses make it easier and cheaper to undertake learning at all stages of life. How this will affect existing institutions is unclear, but the best universities are becoming involved in some use of online education, and it will be seen as a means of cost savings for all institutions. Firms already use online education when they administer in-house training courses delivered online. What the future will hold for the educational process in general is only faintly understood….at least by me.
Passion and employment
- A recurring comment on the subject of what and where to study is that a person may decide to pursue their passion or employment opportunities. Pursuit of passion can lead to employment but often in a highly competitive environment where the financial rewards may be slim. Greater certainty is associated with taking a path towards an occupation or profession where the initial steps are clearly marked out. But the general advice given by some is to pursue what interests you – your passion.
- By passion, I mean someone who may want to become a musician, singer, composer, actor, athlete, writer, academic or artist. Many of these activities can be pursued as a hobby throughout life, but rewarding employment is more difficult. Some arts and sports may be subsidized by government, but the reliability of a steady income is not great. This is not an argument against following one’s passion, but to realize the likely impact on one’s future livelihood
- Less risk is associated with a university degree route which leads to some type of recognized certification – for example, lawyer, doctor, dentist, nurse, accountant, engineer, architect, economist, programmer, and business executive. An MBA degree is one popular option. If pursued, it should be taken at a first rate university, and on a full-time basis. It can provide entry into the first job, and the employee’s program may be subsidised by an employer. After any initial job, personal performance will determine advancement.
- Each person will have to discover and decide what their skill-set is. Don’t be surprised if you end up pursuing some discipline or activity about which you knew very little when entering university. While still in high school, you have limited knowledge about the different job opportunities and disciplines. I went from agriculture to commerce to economics in university. Perhaps a slow learner, but I did not appreciate what each possible occupation involved until I became more familiar with it. The UK system forces students to narrow their disciplinary focus by the time they enter university. The North American liberal arts approach starts with a wider exposure to disciplines and a narrowing of focus often at the graduate level. The latter suited me better, but both can provide satisfactory outcomes. The fact that there is choice is a good thing for those considering how to navigate the future.
- A BA program which does not lead to some professional certification has little employment value in today’s labour market. Only the truly exceptional are likely to have the same job chances as those following a more professional program. Many service sector jobs, such as in fast food and retail outlets now require a university degree. This is not because the job requires a degree but because labour market conditions allow employers to require this qualification.
- A valuable comment about universities is:
Go to the best school you can: This matters for three reasons. First, you will be judged by the university that you go to. The better the school, the better the first impression. Second, many opportunities arise later in life through the network of friends that you met at university, and higher-ranked universities tend to produce more valuable networks. Third, at better universities you are often (though not necessarily) exposed to and competing with a higher calibre of student. You will learn early what standards need to be met in order to compete.
7. High school marks should be evaluated and understood with care. There has been grade inflation, at least in the Ontario school system, and some of this carries over to early university years. Some argue that first year university has become a continuation of high school, or what should have been learned in high school. Graduation grades often fall one or two letter grades (A to B or A to C), between high school and university.
8. In school and university, it is useful to become involved in extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, newspaper, radio. These will widen your knowledge of what awaits you after university, and creates a network of contacts which can be valuable for the first job and throughout your life. Today, it is much easier to stay connected with former friends and colleagues. Increasingly, younger (and many older) people have electronic devices for communication and study by accessing internet sites.
9. A pertinent comment made about university study is:
As to implications for university studies, it is not so much what you study that matters, but that you study. What matters are the following skills that normally you will find in a proper university study: problem solving and analytical skills, ability to think strategically about given topics, ability to communicate well in English and at least one other language (the better you can express yourself, the better you can convey your message), moderation/negotiation skills, numerical/financial awareness (always good, even if in a non-financial area), exposure (to different disciplines, cultures, etc), ability to manage projects. The latter is really important – irrespective of the level at which one is in a job as it requires very good planning, target orientation, analytical skills, communication skills and a lot of direct/indirect leadership plus team work. Universities can also stimulate the latter through group work on given topics (versus only individual work).
What subjects to study?
- Here there is a wide variety of views, often made by those who have pursued a particular career path, and now look back on what they would have liked to have studied. I studied economics and now wish I had studied more history, demography and geography. I realize that this is not the stage that teenagers are at. They have to decide how to allocate their scarce time at university before they enter the labour force, so they need to know what line of work they might like to pursue.
- Before giving my list of subjects, note the emergence of online learning by way of MOOCs supplied by firms such as Coursera, Udacity, the Khan Academy, and Singularity University. While lifetime learning has always existed through correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK and courses provided free by MIT, it is now more readily available together with sites like TED talks. There is now even less reason why formal education cannot be an ongoing process rather than being compressed in the early years of life. MOOCs are changing the operation of universities. At present a large number of people enroll in MOOCs – why not, they are free – but less than ten percent complete the course and most of these are over thirty.
- At high school, the study of English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, the Arts (dance, drama, music, the visual arts), health/sports would be on my priority list. A second language (French, Spanish or Chinese), statistics and computer studies would come next.
- Mathematics is important both in itself but also for undertaking research, writing reports, and for interpreting and understanding other people’s research findings. An ability to write well in English includes writing clearly, grammatically and with correct spelling. Nothing undermines the value of a piece of written work more than if it is poorly written and presented. Even if it is submitted as a draft, it should be carefully edited before presentation, as a first submission of any kind leaves an impression which tends to stick.
- In my view, there are certain subjects which can be left to study at university. These include amongst others, psychology, sociology and economics. If taught in high school they are often taught poorly. In economics my lecturing experience was that first year university students performed better if they had not previously studied it in high school, where it may be taught by those with little economic training. I am now ambivalent about when economics should first be taught. Watching teenagers and preteens navigate the various payment plans for mobile devices, working at part-time jobs and often being mislead by those who employ them, I see a need and an opportunity to teach basic economic concepts at a junior school level. A group of economists at Rutgers University studies this topic and shows how children’s literature can be used to illustrate economic concepts.
Curiosity and creativity
- These are two words which frequently arise in the discussion of education, especially the need to encourage both of them. Kenneth Robinson (in a TED Talk) makes the case that the traditional educational path destroys the innate curiosity with which children are born. He uses the metaphor of Death Valley in California where there is typically no rainfall and nothing grows. One year there were seven inches of rain and the desert blossomed with flowers, suggesting that life is dormant until stimulated. The same he argues is the case with the educational system, which frequently destroys the creative instincts of children.
- Referred to as cognitive development, some suggest that curiousity and creativity can be addressed in part by exposing children to a wide range of experiences, including travel, learning a second language, developing a hobby, having a mentor, and providing an environment in which the child is encouraged to raise questions.
- Research on and answers to many questions can be undertaken now with the push of a button by accessing Wikipedia or using a search engine. The published volumes of encyclopedias and the World Book have been replaced by easily accessible online sources. TED talks are another way to expose students to researchers working at the frontiers of their specialty, and often have intriguing displays such as Hans Rosling on statistics. Programs like GIS for geography, Sketchup for land use planning, Tableau for maths and economics are available and necessary for those entering certain occupations.
- One implication of the foregoing is that parents and friends, as well as teachers, are needed to stimulate these forms of curiosity and questioning. Parents often say that teachers appear to be downloading teaching responsibilities to the home. This may be the case but education requires the input of both home and school. By being part of the educational process, parents may end up educating themselves. As a grandparent, I learn from finding out about the educational process in schools.
- Community colleges now play an important role in preparing people for rewarding occupations. Sometimes people can attend colleges after university, sometimes instead of university and sometimes the two are combined (as occurs now at Carleton and other universities). Earnings in the trades taught at colleges like electrician, plumbing, carpentry, heavy equipment operator, and cooking can be substantial.
Communications media and hiring
- In hiring, employers use the internet in two ways. First they hire firms to look for talented people online, in the same way that athletic teams use scouts to search for future stars. They may find a person who has started a business, written a program or authored articles which have been published. Some firms specialize in identifying people with certain skills.
- The downside occurs when information is found on the internet which compromises the candidate because of items appearing on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Nothing can be deleted from the cloud where most of these postings are stored. My rule of thumb is never to post anything on the internet that you would not want your parents or grandparents to see. This is true for emails too. You cannot assume that any posting is deleted forever.
- The big software employers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft run their interviewees through day- or days-long processes to determine how well they can express themselves, solve problems, brainstorm and organize information and research results. This means the loner tech geek still has to be able to work in groups and engage in confrontational creativity.
- The hiring approach used by Google ties in with the concept of emotional intelligence or political astuteness, meaning learning to understand what motivates people and organizations, and learning to judge how people are going to react and interact with each other. One example is a colleague who gives talks to government officials about their economic policy making and performance. He starts by telling what they are doing right and then proceeds to what needs to be changed. If he reversed the order or told them that many of their policies and procedures were self-defeating and possibly disasters, he would lose his audience… and not be rehired as a consultant.
- Seize any opportunity to engage in public speaking, this includes acting and improv. Making posters as notes for giving a talk is a way to start becoming comfortable talking to groups. Evaluating the talks of others teaches you the things that impress or annoy you. Ask your friends for comments, and do the same for them. Don’t be afraid of being critical in a positive manner.
- Paid and unpaid work at a young age is an indicator of a person’s willingness to become involved and active in a community. This has a positive payoff in later job interviews. Travel is a way of rounding out your education at any time.
- Careers to avoid include any activity which is likely to become automated or outsourced abroad. Assembly line work has and will continue to be automated; 3D printers will make possible parts production in small batches; online courses will displace teachers especially at all levels. Opportunities will exist for those giving the courses and making the machines which substitute for labour.
- Governmental bureaucratic organizations have a different work environment than the private sector. The military, schools, universities, non-profit organizations, NGOs, charities, religious organizations all have particular work environments. One way to learn about these is to read about them, and talk with people in these organizations and those who have retired from them. The best way to find out about a particular school, university or program is to talk to people who are in the program now and to those who have recently graduated from the program. A university’s or college’s general reputation will often be based on the past rather than the current situation, and it is the current information which a prospective student requires.
- Graduates in law, economics and other disciplines are found to be strong in theory but with little understanding of the application of their disciplines to the real world. Thus emphasis is needed on simulations, negotiations, mock trials, report writing, and use of technology to aid application of the theory.
- The last is not just the use of existing programs such as Power Point and spreadsheets, but some ability to write programs – in Estonia all children are taught to “code” starting in primary school. Unless involved in a computer program, students in Canada tend to learn how to use existing programs but not how to write programs to solve particular problems.
- Universities enroll too many students in arts programs which have a dead end as far as possible employment is concerned. Universities cannot tell students what to take any more than they can tell them not to smoke or take drugs, but they can and should advise them of the consequences of alternative choices. High school counselors can play a role here by being familiar with the job market. Note, if “dead end” results from following your passion, do so but understand the consequences.
- Select people whom you see as mentors or role models. Practice observation and asking questions about things you see. Drawing, painting and photography are activities which train people to be observant.
- Start a business at a young age, child-care, paper deliveries, cooking, in order to understand how to interact with the public. If this sounds too materialistic, parallel advice for arts students would be to learn a musical instrument, volunteer to act in plays or provide stagehand services.