What It Takes for a Career to Emerge

I have spent most of this month researching and writing about emerging green careers for a book about that subject, and the effort has made me aware of the many factors that must be in place before an emerging career can reach the point where it can be adequately described in a career information resource.

The Title. Before we can describe something, we information developers must at the very least have a suitable  name to call it. This seems like an easy hurdle to overcome, but you’d be surprised how occupation names sometimes take some time to settle down. Sometimes a title that seems to make sense in an occupational taxonomy needs some adjustment to pinpoint the occupation accurately.

A case in point is Biomass Production Managers, one of several green occupations included for the first time in Release 14 of the O*NET database. The occupation is defined as follows: "Manage operations at biomass power generation facilities. Direct work activities at plant, including supervision of operations and maintenance staff."

It appears that the O*NET information developers decided to give this occupation a title analogous to the titles of some other managerial occupations in green power-generating facilities, such as Geothermal Production Managers and Hydroelectric Production Managers. The problem is that "geothermal" and "hydroelectric" are both adjectives, whereas  "biomass" is a noun with no adjectival form. Therefore, "Biomass Production Managers" can sound as if the worker manages the production of biomass itself, rather than the production of power from biomass. A better title for this occupation would be "Biomass Power Production Managers" or, even better, "Biomass Power Plant Managers."

The Work Tasks. Just as Aristotle said that characters in tragedy should be defined by their actions, so an occupation is largely defined by the work tasks that are associated with it. The one or two sentences that O*NET provides as the definition of an occupation typically consist of a summary of the work tasks, which are spelled out in detail elsewhere in the database.

Here again, one of the O*NET database entries for an emerging green occupation, Biofuels Production Managers, shows some evidence of a definition that is still in flux. The occupation is defined as follows: "Manage operations at biofuels power generation facilities. Collect and process information on plant performance, diagnose problems, and design corrective procedures." The problem here is that power generation from biofuels is almost unheard of in the United States. By far, the bulk of biofuels production is aimed at creating transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are shipped from the production plant and ultimately are pumped into the tanks of cars and trucks. Of the 14 specific work tasks listed for this occupation, only one mentions production of biofuels for the purpose of power generation: "Manage operations at biofuels power generation facilities, including production, shipping, maintenance, or quality assurance activities." And even this one seems mistaken, because "shipping" is an activity appropriate for liquid fuel as a product, whereas if the output were electric power, the proper word would be "transmission." It makes more sense for both the definition and this one task statement to be reworded so that "biofuels power generation facilities" becomes "biofuels production facilities."

My point in this and the previous example is not to find fault with the O*NET database, which I prize for its storehouse of useful information, but rather to show some of the growing pains that new occupations go through in the process of becoming defined.

Sometimes the occupational definition reveals an ambiguity that is inherent in the occupation, perhaps indicating a fault line along which the occupation may some day split. A good example is Geothermal Technicians, which is defined as follows: "Perform technical activities at power plants or individual installations necessary for the generation of power from geothermal energy sources. Monitor and control operating activities at geothermal power generation facilities and perform maintenance and repairs as necessary. Install, test, and maintain residential and commercial geothermal heat pumps."

Whereas the first sentence refers to a job performed at power-generating facilities, the last sentence refers to working with heat pumps that provide warmth and hot water for homes or businesses. One job is analogous to Hydroelectric Plant Technicians or  Power Plant Operators, whereas the other is closer to Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers. The two specializations share a common purpose—exploiting subsurface heat—but in the first case this heat is high enough to boil water or some other working fluid, whereas in the second case it is only modestly higher than air temperatures.

My guess is that, over time, as green energy catches on, this occupation will split into Geothermal Power Plant Technicians and Geothermal Heat Pump System Technicians.

The Preparation Pathway. Another crucial element for defining an occupation is the appropriate education or training route for career entry. As an occupation emerges, colleges begin offering appropriate majors, technical schools begin offering relevant programs, industry develops apprenticeships and perhaps certification standards, and in some cases governments impose licensure requirements.

The O*NET database does not include information on appropriate preparation programs (such as specific college majors), but it does suggest the level of preparation fit for each occupation. Therefore, it’s interesting to note that Release 14 has this information for only one of the nine emerging green occupations that I wrote up: Energy Auditors. This occupation, in fact, is probably the most fully emerged of the nine. Many educational and training programs are already in place, certification is also an option, and licensure is required in some jurisdictions.

For the other eight emerging green occupations, I had to search for colleges offering majors and industry associations offering training workshops. It was often enlightening to look at the help-wanted ads for workers and determine what level or kind of education or training is being asked for. I found a lot of variation, indicative of the continuing evolution of these occupations. (Of course, for some occupations the entry routes always remain highly diverse.)

Other Topics. It follows that while an occupation’s work tasks and preparation pathway are not completely jelled, other topics, such as the work conditions, skill requirements, and appropriate personality types will also remain in flux. The O*NET database does not yet provide these topics for eight of the nine occupations I researched (Energy Auditors is covered for some of these topics), and it’s probably premature for O*NET to do so. I gleaned what information I could on these topics partly by inference from the work tasks and partly by scouring the help-wanted ads.

For information on economic topics, such as income, workforce size, and employment outlook, I usually can turn to non-O*NET databases from the Department of Labor, but here again useful information was lacking. The bureaus within Labor that do salary surveys and make employment projections follow the Standard Occupational Classification framework, which does not yet include my nine green occupation titles except as specializations within catch-all titles such as Plant and System Operators, All Other.

For some earnings estimates, I was able to find reasonably close earnings figures for catch-all workers by zeroing in on specific industries where they would be most likely to be pursuing the green work roles. In other cases, I looked at help-wanted ads and industry sources for clues about earnings ranges.

Workforce size and outlook information were even harder to approximate. In some cases, I was able to find an industry estimate of how many workers are needed to staff a facility based on its output. For example, in plants that produce ethanol, typically three workers are needed to for each million gallons of output per year. Combining this figure with estimates of current and projected national outputs, I was able to give ballpark figures for the present workforce size and the anticipated job growth.

Of course, estimates of future production are based on shaky information. Future development of the industries that produce green energy will depend on many factors that are difficult to predict, such as the prices of competing energy resources, government’s commitment to shifting to renewable resources, and technological breakthroughs that may make green energy more economical. Projections of job growth are not foolproof for any occupations, but for green energy jobs they are especially unreliable.

But if you want to read about an occupation that is truly emerging, you have to accept that the definition, tasks, preparation routes, and especially economic information will not be as firmly established as they are for familiar occupations such as Welders, Accountants, and Dentists.

Look on the bright side: If you get in on the ground floor of one of these emerging occupations, you can help shape what it will turn into.

 

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