Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Structural unemployment - Skills revisited

In a previous post I deferred to ONET's usage/definition of skill when throwing out an example. But when economists think of skills, the list in ONET is not I would think of as a skill. For instance, knowledge of Fortran or C++ would be considered a skill and a skill mismatch would arise if there were a lot of Fortran programmers looking for work when employers are demanding C++ programmers.

What would be considered skills for a programmer in this case is listed in ONET as tasks:
  • Write, update, and maintain computer programs or software packages to handle specific jobs such as tracking inventory, storing or retrieving data, or controlling other equipment.
  • Write, analyze, review, and rewrite programs, using workflow chart and diagram, and applying knowledge of computer capabilities, subject matter, and symbolic logic.
Or Tools/Technology:
  • Data base management system software — Microsoft SQL Server; MySQL software; Oracle procedural language/structured query language PL/SQL; Pick software
  • Data base user interface and query software — dBase Plus; IEA Software Emerald; Microsoft Access; Structured query language SQL
  • Development environment software — C; Microsoft Visual Basic; Tier generator software; Xerces2 Java Parser
  • Object or component oriented development software — C++; Greatis Object Inspector; PowerSoft PowerBuilder; Sun Microsystems Java
  • Web platform development software — Hypertext markup language HTML; JavaScript; Microsoft Visual C#; Progress WebSpeed Workshop
In the skills category, the following is listed (partial list only):
  • Programming — Writing computer programs for various purposes.
  • Reading Comprehension — Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work related documents.
  • Complex Problem Solving — Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
There appear to be at least two ways of thinking about skills - a broad set as ONET has listed above or in terms of Tools and Technology. The broader definition is something that is more transeferable while the second is not. When economists speak of a skill mismatch the second narrow definition is the one we are using.

Another way to think of skill mismatch is a change in job definition or tasks. Employers may for whatever reason expand the role of a programmer to include also other tasks such as those of database administrators. For whatever reason that this may occur, it can also be considered a skill mismatch because programmers are not necessarily trained as database administrators. (I could throw out a ridiculous example of employers wanting laborers who also happen to be able to play the harmonica.)

But whichever definition of skills is used, the argument that the current high unemployment rate is a result of a skill mismatch is not based on any evidence that a shift in demand of skills has taken place due to technology adoption (unlike the computerization era of the 1980s.) or some other as yet unidentified shift in demand

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