The changing labour market and the future of career development
By: Sareena Hopkins
Date: 17 Apr 2018
Category: Article reviews
As Yogi Berra prophetically claimed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” In many corners of the world, we are seeing dramatic changes in the labour market with far-reaching implications for students, workers and work-seekers. People are increasingly caught in precarious work (i.e., jobs that are temporary, contract, part-time, low paid and low skilled) and, in many regions, unemployment, and/or underemployment are on the rise.
The length of time it takes a young person to transition from school to decent work is increasing; more young people are remaining dependent on their families for financial support, taking over basements and making parents increasingly nervous about their own retirements.
The consequences for youth mental health are significant. In a Canadian survey of youth aged 18-24, nearly 90% reported feeling uncomfortable levels of stress. When asked why they were feeling so stressed, 86% in this age group attributed the stress to underemployment and uncertainty about their futures.
In the immortal words of Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on?”
At the risk of over-simplifying, and borrowing heavily from the work of Tom Zizys, I suggest that at least three major trends are actively influencing the emergent labour market:
- 1. Technology
There is huge hype and wildly divergent predictions about the impact of technology and automation on work. One could argue that technology has been displacing workers since the Stone Age, but in fact its aggregate impact has historically been an increase in jobs rather than a decrease. For example, with the advent of the cotton gin, textile industries reduced the need for cloth weavers. But cloth became much cheaper and people began buying more clothes, which resulted in an increased demand for designers, seamstresses, tailors and sales clerks. This trend has continued with technology often not displacing, but rather changing the nature of occupational roles.
Recently, however, technology has begun to replace a much wider range of functions in the labour market, including those in knowledge-based domains that might have been considered “protected”. According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, we are seeing a “decoupling” of productivity and employment as technology enables us to do “more with less”.
In 1960 General Motors needed a workforce of 600,000 employees to post its $7.6 billion in annual profits. By contrast in 2015 Apple posted $18 billion in quarterly profits with only 93,000 employees. When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, it had only 13 employees!
- 2. Business Practices
Business decisions are increasingly driven by the imperative to deliver the best short-term return to shareholders. In practical terms this often results in downsizing, outsourcing and moving to low-commitment or no commitment employment arrangements. In short, it results in less labour market stability and more precarity.
A widget making company a few decades ago not only hired widget makers, but also hired people to support that main function (to clean their office buildings, landscape around them, feed workers at the company cafeteria, keep the books, service the machinery, do research and development, warehouse and ship the widgets…the list goes on). This meant that someone without expertise in widget making could join the company and potentially move up through hard work and the training offered by the company.
Today’s companies look quite different. While they still may make widgets in house, they outsource just about everything else - effectively divesting themselves of any responsibility for these workers. In practice, this means the chances of someone breaking out of precarious, low paid work into something more stable and secure is diminishing.
- 3. The Sharing Economy
The sharing or gig economy is growing. Companies like UBER and Task Rabbit contract independent workers not just by the day or hour, but by the minute. On the positive side, the gig economy gives consumers what they need when they need it and potentially puts control and a fair share of wealth back in the hands of the worker. The danger, however, is that, left to its own devices, the sharing economy can lead to an erosion of worker rights, employment standards and protections. Some argue that we are moving dangerously away from the decent employment practices that have been built over the last 100 years.
So… why should the career development profession care about these labour market trends?
I believe these trends are bringing the career development field to a tipping point - a moment of crisis, or opportunity, that calls for us to reassess the status quo. Our work matters. It contributes positively to people’s health, happiness and livelihoods and, more broadly, contributes to stronger communities.
The nature of emergent labour market trends shows there is an even greater need for our contributions, but these trends also call for a rethink of how we practice. Our profession needs to teach our clients radically new skills, offering them new strategies, challenging harmful myths and labour market practices.
As a profession, we are the critical intermediary, linking citizens with learning and work. That makes us uniquely placed to not only help individuals more strategically, but also to influence the educational and labour market systems they move within and across, potentially making these systems more effective, efficient and ethical. We are at a point in history where we could significantly increase our influence, if we were prepared to expand our scope of practice and extend our expertise in new ways. Here are just a few examples of how this is already happening around the world:
- Our field’s training and professional development is expanding to include multi-disciplinary learning such as labour market trend analysis, policy development and implementation, marketing/public relations, partnership building and the role of learning and work in mental health;
- The career development profession is actively building its evidence base, conducting and publishing rigorous research that demonstrates the impact of career interventions on a wide range of positive changes in students/clients;
- Career development practitioners are raising public and political awareness of key client issues and the value of career development in addressing urgent socio-economic challenges;
- Career development practitioners are positioning themselves as policy advisors, offering concrete policy solutions to all levels of government;
- Our profession is contributing to an international “decent work” agenda, thinking through what constitutes “good work”;
- Career development practitioners are profiling and supporting (through strong referrals) employers that offer “decent work”, shining a spotlight on the benefits of strong employer practices;
- Career development practitioners are demonstrating to employers the return on investment of offering career development to their staff;
- Our profession is partnering more directly with educators, co-delivering career education in the classroom and co-locating to provide professional career services in schools;
- Our profession is working more closely with mental health professionals, recognising the critical contribution our field has to make in prevention and re-stabilisation.
Historically career development has been rooted in a one-to-one counselling tradition. This has served our field and our clients well, as our work is underpinned by well-developed relational skills and a deep appreciation of the career development process. I believe it is time to take these solid skills and expand our scope of practice beyond our traditional roots. In doing so, we will not only serve our individual students/clients better, but we will also extend the reach and impact of our field.
 Sun Life Financial. 2012 Canadian Health Index Report. Sun Life Financial, 2012. https://cdn.sunlife.com/static/ca/Learn%20and%20Plan/Market%20insights/Canadian%20Health%20index/Canadian_Health_Index_2012_en.pdf