Labor listings called too broad


June 22, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

A high school student interested in a career in the life sciences, touted as the key to Baltimore's economic future, consults her school counselor about job possibilities and training. What does she find?

A U.S. directory lists 28 job definitions in the biological sciences, 22 of which have not been updated since 1977. A U.S. occupational outlook handbook says the overall field offers 65,000 jobs, but these are not broken down into specific areas, such as biotechnology. The official description of the educational qualifications needed to work in biological sciences is uselessly broad, ranging from "6 months up to and including a year" to "over 10 years."

The result? A confused and frustrated student. Multiply that student by millions, and you end up with an emerging work force that is woefully underinformed.

It's hardly the prescription for upgrading worker competency, says a local economist who is preparing a plan to enable the federal government to track more accurately what is happening in the fast-changing jobs market.

David W. Stevens of the University of Baltimore is to deliver his statistical reform proposal to an international conference convened by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington tomorrow. It is the product of 25 years spent analyzing labor force data and could help reshape the federal government's overall system of job classification.

"It is totally different from the approach in the past in terms of how the system has worked in this country," said Brian MacDonald, organizer of the conference.

Dr. Stevens, 55, executive director of the Jacob France Center, a research unit of the university's Merrick School of Business, proposes that information in the federal government's "Dictionary of Occupational Titles" and "U.S. Standard Occupational Classification System" be much more focused. His statistical blueprint, requested by the U.S. Labor Department after he presented an academic paper on similar reforms in Canada, would create a core of several hundred job categories that would be studied in detail, including a more precise number of jobs and description of the qualifications needed. The rest would be less deeply surveyed.

"We hear all the time that we are training people for the wrong things. What this would allow is a much more current, more accurate description of the real job requirements combined with the count of how many job opportunities are there," he said.

In contrast, he said, the current system, as operated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tracks 13,000 types of jobs, but fails to provide the detailed, up-to-the-minute information to help job-seekers know where to look, employment counselors identify the most promising opportunities, and teachers emphasize the most helpful courses.

Its shortcomings are particularly evident in the Baltimore area's life sciences push.

"The whole area of biotechnology and genetic research is just totally under-represented," he said.

"It falls down on its ability to tie this descriptive information about job requirements and candidate qualifications with the number of jobs available. You need a two-tier system," said Dr. Stevens, who earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Colorado in 1965.

He also serves on a senior scholars' panel organized by the University of Pennsylvania's National Center on Education Quality, which is studying the end result of community college and vocational education.

One finding: 30 percent of students continue working for the same employer after graduation, suggesting they are honing their job skills rather than seeking degrees. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of evening courses catering to students who work during the day.

"The average age of enrollees in these programs is going up. What I call the old linear notion that you go to school, you go to work, and you retire, is fast receding to the museum. Now it's a combination of school and work which is much more important these days," Dr. Stevens said.

He is also analyzing the shifts in the Maryland labor market, which is experiencing a boom in service jobs, notably in the business-service and medical sectors.

"Those who have been here for a long time tend to focus on the pain of structural changes, the pain of decline of the steel industry and heavy manufacturing," said Dr. Stevens, who moved to Maryland from Columbia, Mo., in 1989. "But the newcomers didn't see that pain and that wrenching structural change, how it occurred. We certainly see some of the residual of that, all the human results of that, but we also see a potential work force in the city that is available and that is underutilized."

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