Growing Job Demands Fall Harder on Some
As technology transforms the work world, jobs that were once routine might now require good interpersonal skills or the ability to quickly adjust to the situation at hand.
The people bearing the brunt of these challenges are the same people who were already at a disadvantage in the labor force: workers who never attended college.
New research on more than 700 occupations found that the types of jobs held by workers with only a high school education have become more difficult in recent years, which has sharply limited their job opportunities. The opposite is true for college graduates, whose jobs have gotten easier, opening up new opportunities for them.
“The changing nature of work over the past 15 years may have deepened inequality across educational groups,” according to the study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.
The data for this research came from an occupational database, as well as a one-time survey fielded by RAND in 2018 that asked workers to assess their current mix of natural abilities – as distinct from skills learned on the job – in four areas. The first area is cognitive abilities, which include communication and mathematical acuity. Physical abilities range from strength to flexibility. Sensory abilities include hearing and depth perception. Psychomotor refers to hand-eye coordination and fast reaction times.
The researchers first identified the abilities required to do more than 700 jobs held by the workers in the survey, as detailed in the federal government’s occupational database, and compared the current requirements with the 2003 requirements for each job.
The abilities required of workers with no more than a high school degree increased in all four categories. Construction workers are a good example. Their need for writing proficiency has increased dramatically. And today’s warehouse workers must move at breakneck speed to keep up with the sophisticated technology being used to fill orders for overnight delivery.
Contrast these workers to the college graduates, whose job requirements have lessened in three of the four categories. Only their need for sensory abilities, such as hearing and depth perception, has increased – and not by as much as the workers who didn’t go to college.
The researchers also found that the shifting job demands have very different implications for each group’s employment potential.
For the college graduates, not only have their occupations gotten easier over the past 15 years, but the share of U.S. jobs suited to their abilities has increased, expanding their employment opportunities. But the share of jobs suited to less-educated workers has stagnated or possibly declined since 2003 as their jobs have gotten harder.
Workers lacking a college education are a shrinking share of the labor force. But there are still millions of them, and they have “been penalized by the changing nature of work,” the researchers said.
To read this study, authored by Italo Lopez Garcia, Nicole Maestas, and Kathleen Mullen, see “The Changing Nature of Work.”
The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.