May 13, 2004
Where the Jobs Are
ob jitters are vexing America. Not even the striking gains in employment over the last two months have put an end to hand wringing over work being "outsourced" to low-wage countries. Americans had become used to shedding factory jobs, but the technology and service jobs now at risk were supposed to be secure, the guarantee of our future. So we're left to wonder: what will Americans do?
Well, just like previous generations of Americans, they'll learn to do something different from what they've done in the past.
Our history is one of a constant churning of jobs, with workers always finding the next step forward in the evolution of work — from farm hands to industrial workers to information handlers. They will do so again. As existing jobs succumb to shifts in technology and trade, the economy will adjust, creating new work that uses new skills and talents. Over time, workers move up what we call a "hierarchy of human talents" — they find jobs that demand higher-order skills and offer better pay and working conditions. As depicted in this chart, the hierarchy provides a guide to the traits and qualities that will dominate the next employment wave.
Over the past decade the biggest employment gains came in occupations that rely on people skills and emotional intelligence — like nurse and lawyer — and among jobs that require imagination and creativity: designer, architect and photographer. But not all of the new jobs require advanced degrees or exceptional artistic talent; note the rise of employment for hair stylists and cosmetologists.
Trying to preserve existing jobs will prove futile — trade and technology will transform the economy whether we like it not. Americans will be better off if they strive to move up the hierarchy of human talents. That's where our future lies.
W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm are, respectively, chief economist and economics writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Nigel Holmes is a graphic designer.