Education and learning ability is key to top jobs

The highly paid jobs are always changing, so be prepared, says Richard Eardley

What should our children be studying now to make sure they get a job in 2020?

During this period of great upheaval, people are looking for answers, searching for the security of knowing what will come next, and, above all, are concerned for the next generation.

Although the answers are not straightforward, it does seem that the old platitude about accountancy being a safe bet has proven to be remarkably resilient. Over the past five years, employment levels in the accountancy profession have remained stable, boosted in part by banks looking to improve their ability to understand customers’ balance sheets.

In broader terms, globalisation and the computer revolution will largely define medium-term employment patterns across the world but especially in the small, open, export-led economy of Ireland.

Although many domestic firms are struggling, three out of four Irish exporters expect to increase sales next year. More sales mean more jobs, but not necessarily of the same calibre.

International evidence shows that, with globalisation and the increased use of technology, many mid-tier jobs are automated or outsourced, leaving only high-touch or knowledge-driven employment behind. High touch does not mean highly waged; quite often the opposite.

Cleaning, catering, personal services such as hairdressing, health and social care, building, and driving — the demand for these non-routine services has increased.

Knowledge-led jobs such as consulting, financial services, and medicine, are aided rather than threatened by automation. Therefore demand increases here, too.

The consequences of this are the polarisation of jobs into higher and lower wage brackets, with a drop off in demand for “traditional” mid-tier jobs — the production worker, the accounts clerk, and so on.

A 2010 study by Goos, Manning, and Salomons of the London School of Economic and Political Science demonstrated the developing “hourglass” nature of the European workforce.

From 1993 to 2006, the number of people employed in mid-tier jobs dropped nearly 20%, from 46% to just over 38% of the working population.

Numbers in the lowest paid jobs rose by 1.5%, while numbers in the highest paying jobs rose by nearly 20%. This last number should be encouraging, signifying meaningful job creation in the knowledge economy we hear so much about.

The problem for us in Ireland is that although we have lost huge numbers of mid-tier jobs, these have, from a statistical point of view, been replaced entirely with lower paid jobs, with the number of highly paid jobs falling away.

So while we suffer here from a general Western employment trend of losing mid-tier jobs, we have not been nearly as good as our EU neighbours at replacing them with high-level employment.

Globalisation and automation shows us that jobs in the developed world will be non-routine in nature and demonstrate high levels of either manual skills or high levels of knowledge.

So what advice would we give to next year’s undergraduates based on the above? The problem when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge to be able to perform one of these “jobs of the future” is that we do not actually know what these jobs are yet.

According to the Shift Happens videos on YouTube!, the top 10 jobs in demand in 2010 did not even exist in 2004.

“We are currently educating students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been invented to solve problems that we don’t even recognise as problems yet,” is the rather arresting standout caption in a captivating presentation.

This presents a bit of a dilemma for next year’s student — what to learn? What we can conclude is that how to learn is actually far more important now than what to learn. And it’s here that we are behind the curve against our European neighbours.

Go to France, Spain, Germany, or almost anywhere on the continent, and you will find a culture of continual education and improvement, with graduates progressing to master’s courses and following that with vocational education or broader business learning such as an MBA.

We need to learn that a highly educated and knowledgeable workforce is the primary driving force in creating the jobs of the future — not a resource to supply those jobs. Put simply, the jobs follow the people, not, as we intuitively think, vice versa. This is evidenced by the growth in higher earning employment in virtually every other part of Europe.

It does not matter so much what you learn as that you are committed to learn, and to learn long term.

Staff at Google come from all corners of the Earth and from a huge variety of disciplines and vocations, but they all have one thing in common — education to the highest level and continual investment in their own education.

Richard Eardley is managing director of professional recruitment company Hays


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