Jobs, Unions, and Professional Education

Inriguing story over at the The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann on a new study by Jeremy Greenwood (an economist at Penn) and Emin Dinlersoz (from the Census Bureau) on occupational change between 1983 and 2002. A good deal of the change in occupations had to do with changes in technology. As Weissmann puts it:

In roughly 20 years, entire categories of factory work nearly disappeared. If your job hinged on your aptitude with a shoe machine, it was in danger. Likewise if you worked a lathe every day for a living, or had a spot anywhere else on a classic production line, where dozens of hands handled simple, discreet tasks.

Many of the manufacturing jobs that were not eliminated by technology were outsourced. But what these technology jobs shared was unions.

The jobs that increased in those yeas were in a variety of industries. People who program and run factory machinery saw massive increases (on the order of 1700% growth). Computer systems analysts and scientists saw more than 500% growth. Lots of areas in health care grew. As did post-secondary and special education teachers and authors. Most of these areas have less than 20% unionization.

Why these new skilled workers are not unionizing is still a question. Weissmann notes that some economists think that among skilled workers, the hope of exceptional salary for one’s self trumps the guarantee of a good salary across the profession. The researchers suggest that diversity in the workplace mitigates against forming unions, which tended to be strong in homogenous groups.

Interesting thoughts. But I wonder if there isn’t another factor at work here, namely the changing nature of the professional education process. Looking at this list, it strikes me that many of the jobs that have become obsolete had required long training programs that were hierarchical and local. They required apprenticeships in which your trade from a few people within a small professional community. You spent years studying and only made it professionally when you passed muster with your superiors. The process was highly social, required admission to a small community, and was fairly closed to outsiders. A friend in Chicago in the ’90s was one of the first women in the pipefitters union. She learned the trade, but had to put up with a lot to gain acceptance and skill.

It strikes me equally that few of the things on the list of growing occupations have apprenticeships. Instead, while they are specialized, they are things that anyone can learn to do in many different places. The credentialing process for many jobs—whether in technology fields or otherwise—has shifted from professional groups to academic institutions as college has become more widespread. You no longer have to be engaged with a particular social group to enter a profession. As a result, the close ties that were built within a profession during the educational process process are no longer created. With no ties, there is less of a reason to join up in common effort. The material conditions of education may very well have a large impact on later unionization.

As we look toward the future, it is likely that the professional credentialling process will continue to broaden. As new, free models of post-secondary education begin to take off, we may see colleges and universities start to share the task of professional education with more narrow programs of job training delivered on-line. At that point, I think it is safe to say that we’ll see even less union participation.

That’s not to say that the shift in credentialling from apprenticeships to schools is necessarily a bad thing. The shift has meant that many professions have been opened up to a wider variety of people than more closed unions and apprenticeships allowed. That’s good.

On the other hand, we are left with the massive question behind these numbers that wasn’t mentioned, are the workers who are now not in unions worse or better off than the previous unionized generations?

In all, this trend bears more study.

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