Workforce 2018: The Future is Now

The US economy is dragging and unemployment rates are at historically high levels, but this too shall pass. Carnevale, et al. suggest that the so-called Baby Boomers are rapidly leaving the labor market, and that by 2018, the US will face a serious shortage of people having the necessary expertise for the economy. This raises a couple of interesting questions. One concerns what the employers of 2018 will regard at the necessary expertise. A second question concerns what the high demand jobs will be in 2018.

Some people think that training in science, math, engineering and technology is critical for future employment. But it turns out that graduates of prestigious liberal arts schools like Amherst and Pomona have little trouble finding good jobs. Moreover, high tech companies place relatively little value on content knowledge, they are more interested in a candidate’s career potential (employability). Wagner reports that relatively few jobs actually require using mathematics, and that American executives mostly complain that new applicants are unable to grasp new situations and express themselves clearly – if applicants have “good attitudes” (employability), companies like General Electric can teach them what they need to know. Finally, salaries for well-trained engineers top out at around $130,000; thus, when ambitious engineers approach age 40, they try to move into sales or management. So much for technical skills training.

The first large scale study of what employers want was conducted by the US Department of Labor; the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) surveyed business owners, union officials, public employees, managers, and private sector workers to determine the performance demands of modern employment. The SCANS’ survey identified five broad categories of critical competencies as follows:

1. Being able to identify and allocate resources
2. Being able to work with others
3. Being able to acquire and use information
4. Being able to understand complex inter-relationships
5. Being able to work with a variety of technologies

The Department of Labor has always focused on cognitive ability as the key to employment, so identifying the ability to work with others as important is noteworthy.

Organizations used to recruit job applicants primarily through newspaper want ads, which reflected what employers want in new hires. Hogan and Brinkmeyer subscribed to newspapers from each demographic region of the US for six months, and clipped every major employment ad (N=6326). They then content analyzed the ads. Among their key findings: Interpersonal skills were considered essential for 71% of the jobs involving client contact, 83% of the jobs involving subordinate interaction, 84% of the jobs requiring management interactions, and 78% of the jobs requiring coworker interaction. Clearly, from the employers’ perspective, the most important single characteristic impacting employability is interpersonal skill. We doubt that these findings will change very much over time – the content of jobs may change, but a good employee is a good employee.

Boudreau, Boswell, and Judge report that ratings for “employability” during the hiring process predict compensation levels after people are on the job. This suggests that hiring and operational managers respond to the same aspects of an employee’s behavior, which is obviously something other than pure job performance. Van der Heijde and Van der Heijden show that the essence of employability is socially desirable behavior on the job – and by extension during the hiring process. Scores on their measure of social desirability predicted promotions, income, and time spent unemployed. This points to an important link between employability and career success – the link concerns the ability to put on a socially desirable performance during both hiring interviews and subsequent social interaction at work. Hogan & Shelton describe socially desirable behavior as a role performance designed to allow people to fit in and get along with those with whom they must interact. The evidence clearly indicates that the ability to put on a socailly desirable performance is associated with  a wide range of positive career outcomes, although academic psychology chooses to ignore this finding.

Employability and Career Success depend on behaving in socially desirable ways. To do this requires specific competencies:

1. Seeming smart
2. Seeming compliant and conforming
3. Seeming sensitive (interpersonal skill)

Job performance is largely defined in terms of supervisors’ ratings; in very general terms, supervisors like employees who seem smart – and this explains the consistent correlations between cognitive ability and job performance. Supervisors also like employees who are compliant, obedient, and conforming – and this explains the consistent correlations between measures of Conscientiousness and job performance. Finally, supervisors like employees with interpersonal skill – because they are rewarding to deal with.

This model also explains why so many high IQ people are unemployable. Some, despite their high IQs, don’t seem very smart based on the kinds of choices they make. Others are independent, non-conforming, and insubordinate. And still others are irritable, challenging, and disputatious – not rewarding to deal with.

As for the workforce future, consider the table presented below and its consequences:

Ten Occupations with the Greatest Growth Increase 2008 – 2018
(US total projected job growth = 10.0%)
US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Food Preparation and Servers 3,149,426 14.6%
Customer Service Representatives 2,736,825 17.7%
Long Haul Truck Drivers 1,845,612 13.0%
Nursing Aides and Orderlies 1,699,615 18.8%
Receptionists 1,302,100 15.2%
Security Guards 1,214,882 14.2%
Construction Laborers 1,180,571 20.5%
Landscapers and Groundskeepers 1,128,803 18.0%
Home Health Aides 1,058,041 50.0%
Licensed Practical Nurses 825,651 20.7%

We see three major consequences of these trends. First, selection will continue to be an important line of business, and the table contains the selection categtories of the future. Second, a key component of employability is flexibility, and that concerns being willing to consider employment in jobs other than those for which one has been trained. And third, interpersonal skill will be important for retention in any of these jobs.

References available