Arnold Kling  

Barbell Labor Market?

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Economics of Higher Education ... Incumbents and Government...

Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane predict that computer automation is leading to a split in the labor market.


Good jobs will increasingly require expert thinking and complex communication. Jobs that do not require these tasks will not pay a living wage.

Thanks to David Warsh for the pointer.

Every year, when I teach AP Statistics, I start out by giving a "commercial" for the class, where I claim that it teaches technical communication. Now, I can cite the Levy-Murnane book as reinforcement for my view that these sorts of communications skills are highly valuable.

For Discussion. What courses would you recommend to help students learn expert thinking (solving non-routine problems) and complex communication (which involves interpretation and analysis)?



COMMENTS (17 to date)
SomeCallMeTim writes:

Not an answer,but I'm curious about the general underlying claim: good jobs belong to those who understand technical fields like statistics.

I would think that jobs that are built around tightly structured languages (like many fields of math), which minimize the chance of misunderstanding, are more likely to be jobs that can be safely entrusted to a foreign country (India, China, Russia, Hungary, etc.). IIRC, Krugman makes the argument in one of his books (prior to the last one, which I haven't read) that good jobs are likely to be those that are required to be local.

Do you buy this claim about outsourcing, and if so, what do you say to the AP class?

Lawrance George Lux writes:

The primary classes missed by modern education are basic Logic courses. I think there should be a mandatory Logic course for every undergraduate year. The Science courses do no teach basic logic, simply the scientific method, which is a very aborted form of Logic. Math majors still have trouble setting up word problems, MBAs cannot specify all the basic components for a specific production activity, and Economists have difficulty in assigning weight to various elements of the economic matrix. lgl

Mats Lind writes:

"Jobs that do not require [expert skills] will not pay a living wage."

Where are the economic arguments for this!? Isn't a hairdresser or waitress much better off today than before all technical development that have occurred the last say 100 years? You are not using pure nonsense to market your courses, are you, Arnold?

Brad Hutchings writes:

Arnold, you almost make a case for the humanities and soft-science classes where everyone sits in discussion group and pontificates for an hour. Believe me, you can get through these with flying colors by being a little aggressive than the rest and being able to fabricate a little BS when needed. I don't think that shows any higher thinking.

In my alma mater's undergrad computer science curriculum, we had 6 or 7 tracks (hardware, software engineering, theory, AI, the rest escape me). There was an intro class, a depth class (or 3), and a project class for each track. The track I did the best in, not only did I ace the project, but I took it as a personal challenge one weekend early in the course to just finish it, and then found a bunch of ways to play and experiment with the project with all the time I had left.

Contrasting the computer science curriculum to humanities or the social sciences... I got the feeling with CS that there was a lot of material to master and then, when you got to the project classes, they began to care what you thought. In the humanities, the knowledge base was pretty indistinguishable from total BS, and they cared what you thought right away. Not that most CS majors can actually communicate though ;-).

Learn the core knowledge base first. Be comfortable with real facts and accepted methods of dealing with those facts. Then, and only then, try applying them to wider contexts. Didn't we all learn this from The Karate Kid?

Rick Stewart writes:

'What courses would you recommend to help students learn expert thinking (solving non-routine problems) and complex communication (which involves interpretation and analysis)?'

I am not particularly worried about smart people in the US not being able to find good jobs, regardless of a changing economy or overseas competition. The IQ scale has a standard deviation of 15, there will always be a relative paucity of people with IQs above 115. If they can write well, build and manipulate spreadsheets, understand the fundamentals of statistics including multiple regressions, and speak intelligently about basic economic concepts, I believe they will never lack monitarily rewarding work.

I also believe people who can manage other people will find themselves well paid. Every WalMart has a manager - s/he makes considerably more money than his/her cashiers. Unfortunately I do not believe this skill can be taught in a course, and I believe an examination of the career paths of WalMart managers will show they are primarily taught on-the-job.

As for the vast majority (or perhaps the barbell is equally weighted at both ends) of people not being able to make a 'living wage,' I find this doubtful. In the first place the use of the phrase 'living wage' implies what - they will die without public assistance? In the second place I see around me so many people who do not earn a lot of money, but are so obviously enjoying 'living' that I am sceptical of the concept, much less the nomenclature, of a 'living wage.' Humans are biologically programmed to enjoy life, and as material abundance grows (and will continue to grow) more and more of them will be able to do so, regardless of IQ.

Tim Shell writes:

I think studying the history of science would help prepare people for expert thinking. Almost every branch of science, at almost any point in its history, is dominated by an entrenched mainstream theory or viewpoint that is eventually discarded as being inadequate (Think Newton, Freud, Keynes, etc.).

Learning how an inadequate theory becomes the establishment view, how it resists challenge, and how it is eventually supplanted, gives you a lot of perspective when dealing with the currently dominant theories.

Sam Jew writes:

If we accept the premise of a barbell labor market (which I do personally) and skills of the upper end could be taught, the courses would become so over-subscribed so quickly by idiots looking for a quick buck, that the courses would effectively become useless.

Sam Jew writes:

One exception I just realized is cases where there's barriers to entry for the courses such that you have to be from the top-end of the distribution to begin with. i.e. Harvard MBA

Ellison Gates writes:

The interesting disparity is between what universities now teach in the humanities and what this book claims will be important.

In the humanities, you are taught to swallow large amounts of obvious crap with a smile on your face. In large corporations, acting in concert with others is the most important skill -- i.e., swallowing large amounts of crap with a smile on your face. Tim Shell is correct in his comment above: it's not so much the paradigm, as the fact that you're all rowing together.

How else do you explain 4 or 5 years of drunken partying, political correctness and Marxism raising the earning power by so much? It's like a team sport -- the all-important ball is completely replaceable.

Instead of statistics, I would require a project management course, with an emphasis on team communication, software planning tools, and project finance based on spreadsheet templates, with a final project that requires tight time management.

Dan Brown writes:

I would be surprised if the split in the labor market was as dramatic as predicted. After all, the labor market involves both supply and demand, and there must be a significant potential supply in the middle of the barbell, and someone will figure out how to use that supply profitably.

My occupation is near the top end of the training distribution - I'm the only person in my company without a PhD, and I spent over a decade working in research institutions in previous jobs. Recently, I've wound up managing a lot of manual work such as construction. This has given me a different perspective.

Computers are essentially eliminating the office. Factories still exist (heavily computerized), and field work exists. Office work is vanishing, because it is the most easily computerized. If you want a shipment of material to arrive for a job next Thursday, you can arrange it all over the Internet without having to talk to anyone. If you want the material installed, you're paying a good wage to someone to put it in.

There will be very good wages and exciting work for those building and managing the information systems. Those businesses might well have a barbell-shaped income distribution: highly-paid people at the top, and poorly-paid people at the bottom doing the things the computers can't do.

However, for the enormous number of people who don't work in offices, or who work in offices only because it was required in the past, computerization of the office is a liberation that improves the value of their job, regardless of what they do. People who sell or service no longer are tied to an office, and they can probably capture more income.

Universities generally turn out people who expect to work in offices, so universities might be much more preoccupied with the barbell distribution than most other people.

What I notice is the surprising number of people I encounter who are highly-educated, and have chosen to work with their hands. Computers have made that much better, making available to them far more information and materials than they had available before. This allows one or two people to do things that would have taken a substantial shop before.

So, my prediction is that the people who turn out happiest (as opposed to richest) from this transition will be those who don't want to work in offices, or who have lifestyles that don't fit well into offices. Of course, they will have to take advantage of computerization, but for them, it will merely be a tool that allows one person to have the resources of the entire industrial system at their disposal.

Sam Jew writes:
Of course, they will have to take advantage of computerization, but for them, it will merely be a tool that allows one person to have the resources of the entire industrial system at their disposal.

Yes, but only if that person also happens to be filthy rich.

Alex writes:

I will step right into it here. Univs are hide-outs and full-employment for profs who indoctrinate the too young and too inexperienced clueless; which has hurt the country and brought it down. Fifty per cent of the programs and subjects should have been eliminated thrity five years ago. Archaic system needed changing years ago to require several years of National Guard type intensive training (not dog type either) and survival skills for both sexes and all citizens [in order to learn to defend our borders]; and years of long-term work and apprentice experience with book learning part-time.

Sam Jew writes:

There is a truth to the indoctrination thing. But your suggestion of replacing universities with vocational programs is a horrible idea. Americans are already plenty dumb enough as it is.

Alex writes:

Sorry, but you're assuming vocational school vs. "book learning" while working and interning for years (maybe in several spots) is comparable to basic union apprenticeship.

Alex writes:

And, that makes for a more mature person receiving a college degree.

I would also require all -m. & fem--citizens to spend three years in National Guard in order to know how to defend the borders of this country.

Chris writes:

I think there will still be demand for the services of physicians in the 21st century. The question is whether it makes sense in view of the great opportunity cost of obtaining a medical education. I am noticing that most new medical students come from immigrant families or cultures where the prestige of being a doctor outweighs the considerable career disincentives in the modern healthcare system.

Alex writes:

Chris -- If you read later.

Research shows "quotas" have taken a remarkable number of spots away (from whites and asians) much more qualified. Also, another reason to be concerned about immigration.

Also, the hero worship adulation and absurd hours req'd. in training have deterred people. And, they should have split the money and hours a long time ago. The training is outdated. Further, smart people/peers want more control over their own health care. Good doctors are no better than a smart,good coach who has some experience along the way.

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