Who can predict job growth by sector in the next 10 years if the BLS can’t?

Derek Thompson points out that 2002 predictions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about job growth by sector for the next ten years turned out to be quite wrong:

What did BLS get right? At least two things: the unstoppable growth in health-care jobs (which it expects to continue) and the steady growth in leisure and hospitality.

What did it miss? Everything else, in particular (a) the boom in mining, led by the natural-gas revolution, (b) the utter collapse of the publishing industry, and (c) the Great Recession, which wiped out half-a-decade of economic growth. BLS thought we’d create 20 million non-farm jobs last decade. We created about six million. That’s a 13-million-job gap. 

Essentially, the BLS failed to anticipate the real-world surprises, which is another way of saying it is not psychic. It extrapolated the recent past (health care was expanding, housing was booming, the economy was recovering from a mild recession), baked in global and demographic trends, and voila, put out a plausible projection of the next ten years. This is a perfectly sensible way to predict the future. But then the real world intervened.

This isn’t supposed to be a post about how the BLS forecasting models are bad. It’s supposed to be a post about how predicting the future is impossible, even though predictions play a starring role in discussions about finance and government.

I think Thompson draws the right conclusions here: it isn’t necessarily about jobs but more about the difficulties governments and other organizations have in predicting even ten years into the future. The world is a complex place and this should push us to think about what we can know moving forward. This would be a great point to inject the writings of Nassim Taleb who has argued in several books that this is a huge problem: there are plenty of people, like on Wall Street or in Washington, who think the future is clear enough to risk a lot. Granted, the BLS isn’t going to lose much if their predictions are wrong but it could have a big effect on others. One example: students looking at what majors to select. In recent years, there are more and more articles that talk about the job fields expected to grow in the future. The argument is that students need to make sure they study for employable careers, particularly with rising college costs. But, they may pick a college or a major based on predictions that aren’t necessarily correct. Perhaps this lack of predictive ability is a good argument for liberal arts schools.

Knowing the difficulties of making long-term predictions, what can the average citizen do? Taleb would suggest hedging our bets, perhaps risking some when the negative effects won’t be that bad. (Taleb lays out this investing strategy in Antifragile: put a good amount of money in safe investments and then risk some in places where the payoff could be huge but you aren’t going to lose much if it doesn’t pan out.)

Thoughts on the fact that 35% of four-year degree students finish college in four years

Several low statistics about college completion tend to startle my students when I share them in class:

Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

When I’ve shared these figures with my students, they tend to be incredulous: most people they know go to college and complete it. Figures have gone up over the years but only about 30% of American adults have a college degree. For my students, they have never really known a world where they weren’t expected to go to college. While we might hold up figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as model entrepreneurs who were able to drop out of college, I would guess few people would counsel young adults to not go to college.

These figures can be taken in two directions. One option: these statistics are cited in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that calls for rethinking “our obsessive focus on college schooling” and moving toward an educational system like Germany that funnels students into different tracks, college being one of them, after high school. Proponents of this plan like to note that this would increase vocational and technical training, providing the skilled workers than a post-industrial economy needs.

On the other hand, one could argue that there needs to be a lot more support for completing college. This doesn’t necessarily just happen once a student arrives on campus though I think there is much colleges could do to foster a more academic atmosphere that is focused on learning and training as opposed to “having an experience” and jumping on the credentialism train (having a college degree simply so you can get certain kinds of jobs). Aspiring to go to college can be very good but it requires a conducive environment and much work before one gets to college. This whole matter glosses over a bunch of other social inequalities that then play out at the college level. Asking colleges to solve all of these problems is very difficult – one, education is not necessarily the magic bullet we as a culture can solve everything and two, college comes at the end of a long chain of previous experiences.

Another argument to be made in favor of college is that it isn’t just about getting a job. While some will argue this is a luxury, college should be a place where students learn to think and encounter the big ideas that make the world go round. For many students, this will be the only time in life where they will have the time to truly engage with the issues they will then face for the rest of their lives. I do teach at a liberal arts school so I’m betraying some bias here but there is plenty to be gained in terms of human flourishing at college as well as being trained in particular fields or disciplines and I don’t think this should just be available to the wealthy or those who have the time. (Granted, this sort of learning doesn’t have to happen in college but there are few other social institutions that provide this in adult life. And self-learning can be a great thing but you will would want to interact with others in meaningful ways about what you have learned.)

Of course, college can be quite expensive and this influences the debate quite a bit.

h/t Instapundit

Even Shakespeare doesn’t like McMansions

As the debate over the value of certain college majors continues, William Shakespeare responds and defends the liberal arts and also knocks McMansions:

See, when I wrote all those plays back in the day, I had no intention of helping the bright-eyed brats of the future find their way to high-paying jobs and McMansions in the ’burbs. No, I was after something else altogether. (If you don’t understand this, please do not feel alone; this great stage of fools is plenty crowded.) To be sure, one should not attempt to mine A Midsummer Night’s Dream for literal fortune, unless, of course, you’re in the tights-and-tunics trade. But that’s another matter…

Students can do worse than to take literature courses, like ones devoted to my work, or to that of Toni Morrison, or even to depressing saps like Melville. To study literature is to practice critical thinking; to write about texts is to hone writing skills. The very things that the masters of industry demand in their employees, no?

Shakespeare seems to have heard the selling points for a liberal arts education.

The phrase that interests me: “the bright-eyed brats of the future find their way to high-paying jobs and McMansions in the ’burbs.” This seems to be a broad indictment of how students (and others?) view college: it is about making money and living comfortably as one pursues the American dream. In contrast, the liberal arts promotes thinking and wrestling with the big questions that humans have sought to answer throughout history. But do McMansions and critical thinking have to be mutually exclusive? McMansion seems to refer here more to the homeowners themselves who are only interested in making money, getting ahead, and enjoying life. Is the opposite implication that critical thinkers would never purchase or build a McMansion because they would see its faults? Do critical thinkers (and liberal arts majors) only live in homes with character and history in the city?

Harvard Crimson makes a case for sociology

In an editorial about hiring more sociology faculty, the Harvard Crimson discusses the interest in and usefulness of sociology:

[T]his seems to indicate that the increase in sociology concentrators is based on actual interest in the subject matter rather than the perceived ease of the concentration or “herd” mentality—as seems to be the case with economics, in which the increase in concentrators has not corresponded with an increase in tutorial applicants.

Additionally, students across the college are increasingly interested in pre-professional studies—witness the popularity of the global health and health policy secondary and the new interest in a social innovation secondary. Although The Crimson Staff believes that the intent of the College experience is to provide a liberal arts education, sociology is nevertheless the best way to explore pre-professional interests within that framework. In the concentration, one can focus on topics such as “work, organizations, and management” or “health, medicine, and society,” which are good fits for students with a definite career interest in business or healthcare.

Is this increased interest in sociology among Harvard students mirrored elsewhere?

I also agree with this idea that sociology is a great preparation for “pre-professional interests,” particularly when students know they are going on for advanced degrees.

Sounds like a decent pitch to me – and it even has a dig about economics…

The Guardian on careers for sociology majors

I’m not quite sure how this made it into The Guardian but here is an article titled “What to do with a degree in sociology.” Here is a good portion of their description:

One is the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs with responsibility for overseeing emergency relief in disaster-hit areas, the other is a chart-topping singer-songwriter. But what Lady Amos and James Blunt have in common is that both are sociology graduates and have used the knowledge gained in their degrees to forge successful careers…

Sociology is the study of people and how we interact with one another…

Having a good understanding of human relationships can be a bonus in a range of careers, which is probably why sociology graduates can be found across all sectors including the media and arts.

Sociology graduates leave university with a broad range of transferable skills. These include being able to work to deadlines, make reasoned arguments and think creatively.Through doing presentations you will have learned how to present ideas orally and in writing, and developed strong research and IT skills. You will also be able to apply theoretical sociological perspectives to everyday life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, social and welfare professions were the most popular career choices for 2009 sociology graduates – typical jobs include social worker, counsellor and community development officer.

“As a discipline concerned with the study of people and society, it is not surprising that many graduates target people-focused careers such as social work, advice work, counselling, careers advice, youth work, housing and the probation service,” says Margaret Holbrough, a careers adviser at Graduate Prospects.

“Alternative careers can be found in educational, administrative or office-based roles such as teaching and lecturing, social research, human resources management, charity fundraising or within policymaking departments in local or central government.

“Understanding people within society can also be useful in careers such as market research, retail management, the police force and journalism.”

As with all graduates, a high proportion found work in the retail/catering and clerical/secretarial sectors, reflecting the need for many to take stop-gap jobs in the tough economic climate.

Starting with the coolness factor – you too can be a UN or music star! – probably doesn’t hurt. But once you get past the celebrity citations, this lacks excitement. While I would agree that sociology majors have a lot of “transferable skills,” this could also characterize students from a number of other majors. Indeed, a liberal arts college tries to give all of its students these sorts of skills: critical thinking, reasoning, and writing abilities.

Off the top of my head, here are a few things that could be added:

1. Sociology majors are uniquely trained in dealing with and understanding groups and interpersonal settings. While this is applicable to a lot of settings (particularly business), these skills are increasingly necessary in a globalized world where interpersonal interaction still matters and more cultures are interacting. While this major might easily lead into social service jobs, it also is necessary in many other jobs. As a second major, sociology is a great compliment to a lot of other options.

2. Sociology majors are taught to look for broad trends in patterns in society, moving away from anecdotal or individualistic explanations of social phenomena to data-driven descriptions and causal explanations. These data skills, taught in classes like statistics and research methods, should be helpful in a number of settings. Indeed, organizations today have a lot of data and information but often need skilled people to interpret this data. If we want future workers who can help us make sense of the world and not just keep the same old model going, sociology majors could just the people to look to.

3. Some of the comments at the end of this article belie some of the typical stereotypes of sociology majors: they have no “real skills.” Perhaps sociology needs a little imagination as a discipline: our majors could be at the forefront of society, not just working in important occupations that unfortunately are often undervalued as a society. What about using a “sociological imagination” in terms of careers? Could one be a sociological entrepreneur?

Former US Rep, Rhodes Scholar, says Rhodes Scholar applicants have difficulty addressing the big issues

One of the debates surrounding college education in the United States is about its purpose: should it provide more job training (specialized, professional programs) or a broader approach (liberal arts, interdisciplinary)? Heather Wilson, a former US Representative and Rhodes Scholar, argues that current Rhodes Scholar applicants (and college students in general) would benefit from a broader approach:

I detect no lack of seriousness or ambition in these students. They believe they are exceptionally well-educated. They have jumped expertly through every hoop put in front of them to be the top of their classes in our country’s best universities, and they have been lavishly praised for doing so. They seem so surprised when asked simple direct questions that they have never considered.

We are blessed to live in a country that values education. Many of our young people spend four years getting very expensive college degrees. But our universities fail them and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why.

Wilson suggests that ability or smarts are not the issue. Rather, it is a matter of perspective: why does a college student desire to become a world-class doctor or scholar? Can these students help address the questions that humanity has raised for millenniums?

This sounds like someone making a good case for the liberal arts. Instead of specializing at the undergraduate level (which comes in graduate programs anyway), students are encouraged to take classes in a number of subjects they may not otherwise encounter. Throughout this broader curriculum, students learn about the varied approaches for answering these big questions and how different disciplines would propose solving the big issues.

Sociologist finds many college students don’t learn critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills

A new book (Academically Adrift) written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska suggests that many college students don’t graduate with certain skills that colleges claim to be teaching. Here is a brief summary of the findings:

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

The study also showed that students who studied alone made more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups.

I wonder how colleges would respond to these findings. Within a 4 year institution (and across the spectrum of 4 year institutions), there are bound to be some students who do well and others who have more struggles. I wonder how much is in this data about the individual level characteristics of students and whether the authors suggest that spending more time doing school work would make a difference. Is it the college students who need to do more work, is it the professors who should be assigning more or asking for more, is it a campus culture that privileges other things over academic work (like extracurricular activities), or some combination of these three?

This suggests schools need to spend more time and effort on these particular skills and need to find ways to assess these (and the students’ progress or need for improvement) within their time at a 4 year institution.

The sociologists suggest there are some differences between disciplines:

Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.

So actually doing more reading and writing makes a difference, no matter what the discipline. What does this mean for liberal arts colleges – is it really the place where students develop these particular skills?

How the liberal arts can be good for a future in business

Edward Tenner argues that there is evidence that liberal arts degrees can be very helpful for business careers. Tenner considers the ramifications of one survey that showed that certain fields assumed to have direct links to jobs, like psychology, do not lead to satisfied majors:

The survey has clear implications for the humanities. Their degrees are not the prologues to flipping burgers that some people suppose. Many students are using degrees in humanities to launch satisfying careers. Why not study how their courses have helped them? Why not find better ways to link the humanities with business?

What might be most helpful for students is to hear this information directly from business owners and managers.

Starting salaries by college major

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has released a new study looking at 2009 starting salaries by college major. Average starting salaries for all graduates dropped a small amount from 2009:

NACE’s Fall 2010 Salary Survey shows that the overall average offer to Class of 2010 bachelor’s degree graduates stands at $48,288, compared with $48,633 offered to the Class of 2009. This represents a drop of 0.7 percent.

Liberal arts majors were below the average starting salary:

The average starting salary offer to liberal arts graduates—as a group—dipped 3 percent from last year to $35,508. Salary offers to sociology majors climbed 3.1 percent to $35,357 and history majors saw a slight increase of 0.7 percent to $38,731. Meanwhile, offers to English majors dropped 1.8 percent to $35,946 and offers to psychology majors fell 6.7 percent to $32,260.

The top five salaries? Four of five involve engineering – from number 1 to number 5, petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, mining and mineral engineering, computer science, and computer engineering.