Posted tagged ‘employment’

Careers to avoid?

October 10, 2010

A few weeks ago I wrote about a survey in the United States that had identified certain ‘hot’ careers for which there would be demand over the coming period. Now there is also an American report about jobs for which there is likely to be less demand over the next few years and which might not therefore represent good career choices. The careers in question are:

• Reporters and correspondents
• Insurance underwriters
• Computer programmers (but not software engineers)
• Judges
• Chemical engineers
• Advertising and promotions managers

Of course if this is true in the United States, it may be different on this side of the Atlantic. But the overall problem with career choices is that they are often influenced by current media coverage or news items, and these may not be a good basis for choosing a degree programme. So while journalists may not be so much in demand now (due to the effect of the internet), this may not be true in four years time when today’s university entrants will be graduating.

However, it is also clear that the structure of employment is changing, and obviously this will have an impact on the availability of jobs in certain sectors. Watching these trends, and knowing how to interpret them intelligently, will become a very important activity and skill for careers advisers in schools and colleges. And understanding them will be important for university strategic planning.


Understanding the labour market of the future

September 6, 2010

A significant amount of higher education policy globally is derived from certain assumptions about how the labour market will develop, and how people can be educated and trained to maximise their opportunities and improve economic prospects. In that context, an analysis published in the American newspaper The Seattle Times makes for interesting reading. The broad thrust of this is that the segment of the labour market that supplied a large proportion of jobs until recently – middle range employment in industry, services and public administration – will decline dramatically. Future job opportunities will lie mainly in highly skilled employment, or in lower wage jobs in industry and services.

There is of course a view that the education itself can influence what employment will look like, because investors will go to countries where educational attainment most nearly matches their labour needs. Ireland may want to position itself as a country with high value skills and significant educational quality, though bearing in mind that it may be risky to plan a market around supply rather than demand.

Of course the Seattle Times picture may be wrong, or may be wrong for this part of the world. But it seems appropriate that before we set new higher education participation targets we have a clear idea of what kind of jobs will be there for our graduates, and to what extent our education system addresses likely labour market trends. I’m not sure we have done that kind of analysis.

Counting the jobs

March 10, 2010

Today’s Irish Times has given us a preview of the Innovation Taskforce report due to be launched tomorrow. There is some interesting stuff in it going by the newspaper piece, and I shall be at the launch and will report and assess afterwards.

However the Irish Times headline, which has the report suggesting that 120,000 new jobs can be created if we seriously become an innovation centre, prompts me to reflect on how we now make the connection between what is described as ‘innovation’ (which has become over-used as a term and as such has been deprived of much of its meaning) and job creation. Indeed, we should probably be hesitant about referring to job ‘creation’ at all, as it conjures up images of a planned economy based around production, rather than an economy based around trade and consumption. Whatever we may feel about this ideologically – and I may confess to just an occasional twinge of nostalgia for a more employment-focused strategy – in reality ‘job creation’ is no longer an option that is open to us if we want to remain (or become) solvent as a country. What we can, and should, do however is to create conditions in which jobs are likely to emerge, whether in old-style employment or in self-employment; and to create the conditions in which such economic activity confers acceptable conditions and enables attractive lifestyles for people in general.

That is why, I believe, we need to be careful about promising to ‘create’ jobs, partly because it distorts the focus of what we must do, and partly because it is setting ourselves up for a fall. So for example when the TCD-UCD ‘Innovation Alliance’, which prompted the establishment of the Taskforce, promised to create 30,000 jobs, this was for me an unwise element in what was otherwise a good idea. We need to find a mindset in which ‘innovation’ is pursued as a stimulus to trade and business – as well as improvements in public services and social initiative – rather than as a framework for jobs. The latter are much more likely to emerge if we let go of such old-fashioned concepts.

I say this in part because I believe that generating economic activity has as its main purpose the facilitation of employment and work for as many as possible; it is why we do it. But at this stage of our development this means creating the right conditions in which individuals and organizations (including the state where appropriate) make large and small investments, which in turn will allow the greatest number of people to escape from economic inactivity and poverty. But if we start by counting the jobs, we may end up not counting very many.

My goodness, we’re struggling with the innovation idea

June 2, 2009

For about the last four years we have, as a country, been courting the idea of innovation as the driver of the economy. Maybe it all started when we read Michael Porter’s argument that as an economy matures it needs to move from being investment-driven to being innovation-driven. As we digested this, our approach to competitiveness was adjusted, and the government adopted the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation. More recently we have obscured the innovation agenda slightly by moving the language to concepts such as a ‘smart economy’ – which sounds good but doesn’t really disclose through the label what it means; but on the whole the innovation agenda is still alive.

At any rate, I hope it is, because there is no shortage of people wanting to have a go at attacking it.  Most recently this has been Constantin Gurdgiev, the editor of the magazine Business and Finance, though in this case writing in the Sunday Times newspaper. I don’t believe that the Sunday Times has published the piece on its website, so you have to go with my summary for the present.

In a nutshell, Gurdgiev believes that as a country we are seriously wasting money. He argues that all the investment in Science Foundation Ireland will yield peanuts in terms of start-ups and commercialised intellectual property. He believes that doubling the number of PhD graduates (a key goal of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation) is ‘patently absurd’; and he argues that our universities are nowhere (and will be nowhere) in terms of global competitiveness. I am finding it more difficult to identify what he is arguing for (as distinct from what he is arguing against), but it seems to be more focus on ‘communications services’; he also mentions ‘marketing, sales and distribution.’

The first thing to say about all this is that we are actually going to go nowhere at all if we are not single-minded about what we are doing. If we adopt scientific innovation as our iconic aim today, but drop that tomorrow in favour of, say, being the home of global PR, and then something else next month, we won’t be much good at any of them and we won’t be taken seriously. This country put innovation – understood as investment in high value science and technology – at the heart of its development plan three or four years ago. This is not an agenda that produces all its benefits in eight months, and we had better stay consistent, because if we give any indication of loss of resolve now we lose all credibility. Companies have invested in R&D located in Ireland on the basis that we are investing in innovation, and right now there are people in laboratories all over Ireland working on discoveries that will provide both technological innovation and commercial focus. All of that can easily travel somewhere else. And we would have very little to replace it with.

We need to get out of the mindset of bean counters, in particular the idea that what we must count is jobs. Innovation is not in the first instance about jobs. It is about economic progress, and about work, and about wealth, and about social benefits. Some of that my result in what traditionally we have called jobs, but even where innovation creates jobs the link may be too indirect to allow anyone to count anything much. But what innovation will deliver is a potential for serious economic growth. Jobs are a by-product of that.

If this country dodges the demands of an innovation economy, then we had better get ready for sustained decline. We have no other offers on the shelves, and none we could put there with much credibility. We need to be consistent, and we need to stay the course.

Still working?

June 1, 2009

For a while in the 1980s and 1990s there was a school of thought that in the new millennium work and employment would be all different. For a start, there wouldn’t perhaps be that much employment any more, most people would be self-employed; and there wouldn’t be a need for so many economically active people, so many of us would be able to – have to, even – live a life of leisure. One of the proponents of this particular outlook was the management guru Charles Handy, who set out his stall in books such as The Future of Work (1984). If we are to have a stable society in the future, Handy argued, we would have to stop thinking about permanent jobs for everyone and retirement at 65.

That kind of analysis, popular for a while, disappeared from view from the mid-1990s as the global economy boomed and as the labour market sucked up whatever people it could find to staff the growing industries of ICT, life sciences and so forth. But now, as we observe the new recession and witness a wave of lay-offs and contractions, is this kind of thinking going to come back?

I confess I was never sold on the life-of-leisure-and-no-full-time-jobs idea. For too many people their sense of identity and self-esteem comes from their jobs. Also, while the recession may be putting pressure on employment, a more natural state of affairs during global growth will, I think, still be labour market shortages. On the other hand, the world changes all the time and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the nature of employment will also undergo some change. And it is clearly observable that the traditional ideal of working in one organisation for a lifetime is no longer typical. And tied into all this is the question of whether trade unions will be continuing advocates for what many would now regard as restrictive employment practices – many are already moving well away from that.

Whatever work will look like in the future, we do need to ask ourselves questions about it. Many things hang on it – how we should organise education and training, or how we should structure pensions and retirement. We are not asking these questions enough. And we need to.

Regulating employment

April 3, 2009

Right up to my last year as a law student I didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I had been doing my bar course – i.e. I had been preparing myself to become a barrister – but I was not pursuing this with any real enthusiasm. But then I had a conversation with one of my lecturers, and this had a profound effect, persuading me that I wanted to be an academic, and that my chosen field of expertise would in the first instance be labour law. The lecturer concerned was Kader Asmal (a South African in exile) – who later became a Minister in the post-apartheid government. And so I went to Cambridge and did a PhD on freedom of association, that is the right to trade union membership and to participate in trade union activities.

In 1980 I then became Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, and for the next decade I was a labour lawyer in a business school. During that decade a number of global trends and events changed many of the assumptions underpinning labour law – in fact, it ceased to be ‘labour law’ in many universities and became ’employment law’. The assumption common until then – that the law’s role was to protect trade union membership and to allow collective bargaining to regulate employment – was overturned. Instead there began a kind of intellectual and policy struggle between those who believed that the law should set out a detailed and expanding framework of rights for workers in relation to such matters as dismissal, discrimination and health and safety, and those who believed that employment rights were a basis for restrictive practices and anti-competitive conditions. These arguments were often conducted not by lawyers but by economists.

Also at the heart of this debate was the question of whether the role of law was to protect producers or consumers. This was particularly an issue in the event of industrial action that affected consumers, above all in public services.

This debate has never been successfully concluded. We have no social consensus around it. If employment regulation provides job security, is that still in the public or national interest if the impact is to raise labour costs to where they are not internationally competitive? But if the price of competitiveness is insecurity and low wages, is that justifiable? Or if new work practices are needed to keep a company viable, is it the law’s job to secure that viability, or to protect the interests of employees who find the new practices unacceptable? We have no answer to these questions.

As we look for new models of economic conduct and aim for a recovery from recession, it may become increasingly important that we do have a much clearer view as to how, how much, and for what purpose employment should be regulated by law. That task has barely begun, but is urgently needed. Once we have an answer, it may help us also to come to a better understanding of how employment law should be taught in our universities.