Specialisation

Some of you may be aware that I’m undertaking an Open University course in the field of engineering. It’s only an introduction course and has a little bit of a cross-over from a course I did some five years previously – Working with our environment: Technology for a sustainable future. I’m also part of a small group at Cambridge Regional College that has embarked on a post-16 teaching qualification “Preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector” (or “Petals” as the acronym is called).

Both of these are completely outside of my previous academic and working fields – which makes them all the more exciting. Much of my previous work in the realm of academia has been along the lines of writing essays citing what other people wrote before coming to a conclusion on what those other people wrote. It’s important – especially in acknowledging what we’ve learnt and who from, but there was something deep down that failed to satisfy me in all of that…something that I’ve struggled for many years to put a finger on.

How long do past qualifications count for anything? I graduated nearly ten years ago. My A-levels are even more of a distant memory and one of my GCSEs – in information systems (from the mid-1990s) is now hopelessly obsolete as to be worthless. That’s an open question for anyone who has been in a position to employ anyone – how far back through someone’s record do you look?

In my wanderings through the jobs sections online and in various outlets in my locality – Cambridge – there are a number of very specialised posts which require various advanced levels of experience and qualifications. Perhaps this is a reflection of the types of organisations that have clustered around the science parks around the city. Although pretty much all of these vacancies are ones that, as things stand I am hopelessly under-qualified and inexperienced for, seeing the various specialisms described did make me ponder about the process of changing careers in an increasingly specialised world.

In the mid-late 1990s both school and college advised all of us there that the idea of having a job for life was going to become more and more rare – and that theirs was going to be the last generation to enjoy the benefits of both stable careers and stable pensions. This chimed with my early experiences of studying economics and the basics of ‘freeing up’ labour markets to make things better for business and employment. This was before the times of realising that any economic theory that does not put the interests of the people and the planet first is a bankrupt one.

I tried out a number of different roles, jobs and voluntary opportunities in various sectors. Ultimately I made the choice ten years ago that a career in the civil service was one that I wanted to pursue. When I finally got onto the civil service in 2004 and then onto the Fast Stream in 2006, it didn’t even cross my mind that at some stage I might be forced out in the face of a tidal wave of redundancies. At the same time, the concept of social media was one I had next to zero awareness of. Having come out of the civil service, I now face the challenge of trying to sell myself and the skills that I have to a world out there that has different needs to the skills and services that I’m able to provide – hence one of the reasons for ‘retraining.’

This then brings in the issues of time and costs of retraining – both of which are not cheap. As our lives become more complicated and more complex, as our demands and expectations continue to rise and as the global store of knowledge becomes ever greater, jobs that previously existed disappear from existence and ones that did not exist have appeared – but not necessarily to take their place.

For example I used to work in a bank where my day-to-day job involved data inputting. Firms would send over or fax over filled-out forms directing the bank to make payments for goods that had been shipped over from abroad. That sort of job is hard to find now – technological improvements now allow firms to do this over the internet and even automate some of the processes without the need of a bank clerk (as I was at the time) to input all of that into a system.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts for the reasons that I took some time out from the world of work before looking around for new work and a new career path. At the moment my options are fairly open – in part because I’m lucky to have the support of family and also because my redundancy settlement has covered the initial costs of retraining.

But what about those who have neither the time or the money?

This is one of my big concerns about the Government’s stupendously flawed decision to increase the fees in the manner that they have done – i.e. on the back of a small poorly-resourced study that is dwarfed by the directions of future funding and the impact on future generations its recommendations will have. No administration of any political colour should be making such seismic decisions on the back of such paltry studies. What’s even worse is that the Open University have had to compound all of this by sending up its fees at an eye-watering rate.

This is compounded by the full fees that students looking to retrain have to pay if they happen to have a higher education qualification / degree in a previous subject. Thus as a society we have found ourselves in a position where we no longer have jobs for life and that the costs of retraining have been placed on individuals rather than the state or the employers that demand a more skilled workforce.

And there is the paradox. Firms want to have an increased workforce yet at the same time they want lower taxes. Some firms and individuals are also prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to significantly reduce the amount of tax that they pay. Pressure both to reduce tax rates and the levels of big money tax avoidance and tax evasion has had a hand in increasing the pressure on public finances (though I’m sure you can come up with your own lists, ranging from botched IT programmes to ill-thought-out wars in foreign fields). My question is why politicians and we as a society have allowed the burden of training and retraining adults beyond secondary level education to transfer onto individual citizens?

That’s not to say employers don’t invest anything in their employees – they do. This is one of the reasons why the Browne Review was such a missed opportunity. We’ve seen report after report from various big employers and their trade associations complaining about the lack of even basic skills amongst both the general workforce and from graduates too. The Browne Review could have provided an opportunity to turn all of that around.

Was there an opportunity reform the tax system to incentivise firms – in particular small and medium-sized firms –  to invest in the training and education of their workforce? Was there an opportunity to incentivise some of our brightest minds and hands from all sectors of the economy to do some day-release placements in our schools, colleges and universities?

Another thing to mention about the specialisation debate: Being trained to do a job and being educated to become an engaged and active citizen are not the same thing. (I refrain from using the word “good” because it’s too value-loaded). I’d like to think that with research we go where the knowledge and the evidence takes us, rather than going where some people will think it will automatically make money. Think about the CERN project.

Finally, as human beings we are complex creatures. (“No excrement Sherlock!”) Hence the need (I think) of acknowledging people’s multiple interests and not pigeon-holing people into one tiny field. I’ve met a number of people over the years who have reached post-doctoral level (mainly in the sciences) who have subsequently found there have been no jobs left in their field because they have become too specialised. The stress of having to apply for one short-term research post after another doesn’t do anyone’s mental health any good, and also runs the risk of losing the ‘corporate memory’ of what has previously been discovered. How do we resolve that? Interested in your suggestions.

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3 Responses to Specialisation

  1. Andrew Bower says:

    So you think an economic theory is ‘bankrupt’? That’s a bit like saying the laws of thermodynamics are bankrupt. Which of course is exactly the way people who go for central planning think. Economic theories might be right or wrong but they can’t be good or bad.

  2. Frances Coppola says:

    Andy, economics is a human science, unlike physics. If there were no humans, the laws of thermodynamics would still exist. If there were no humans, the laws of economics would not. So if an economic theory fails to put the interests of the human species at the centre of the debate, it has nothing useful to offer. That is I think what is meant by bankruptcy, in this context.

  3. Pingback: The curse of debt | A dragon's best friend

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