Fast Company

The Indispensible Reference

Tomorrow, the 2010-11 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook will be posted on the Web. It used to be the best-selling publication of the U.S. government. Now that JIST publishes it (based on the Web text, with some additional material), it’s JIST’s best-selling publication. Here are some important reasons why it has been so popular, why I am deeply grateful to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for providing this indispensible reference work, and why you should turn to it when you have questions about occupations.

(Many of the following statements are predicated on the expectation that the 2010-11 edition will follow the same format as the 2008-09 edition.)

The OOH is one of the few well-researched sources we have for occupational information that is written in prose, rather than presented as tables of numerical ratings. The writing style is usually just right for a very broad readership that includes students in high school as well as adult workers. The descriptions of work tasks include explanations of technical terms and industry jargon. They go beyond mere task statements to explain why the worker does these things. They sometimes give real-life examples of typical problems that workers face on the job.

The section on “Nature of the Work” also teases out the various specializations within the larger occupation covered by the article. Now that I’m on that subject, I should mention one possible quibble about the OOH: the level of aggregation that is used to group occupations as subjects of separate articles. The OOH taxonomy is not as fine-grained as the Standard Occupational Classification, not to mention the O*NET-SOC classification, which is even finer-grained. For example, SOC itemizes 18 kinds of engineers, and O*NET-SOC presently itemizes 40, whereas the OOH furnishes just one article called “Engineers.”

However, I understand that if the OOH had separate articles on each engineering specialization, much of the information in the articles would be redundant. In addition, most people preparing for a career in engineering have the abilities and interests to be able to aspire to several different engineering specializations as career goals, so they are likely to appreciate being about to compare and contrast the specializations, as they are able to do when one article covers all. In summary, then, I’m mostly happy with the level of occupational aggregation that the OOH uses.

It’s true that the OOH does not give coverage to certain occupations, apart from a brief definition, statistics for current employment and projected growth, and a statement of the “most significant source of postsecondary education or training.” Some of these, such as Hunters and Trappers, I don’t miss seeing described in detail. Others, such as Credit Analysts (which employed 73,180 workers in 2008), I’d like to see covered, at least as a specialization within a large umbrella occupation. I was particularly puzzled by the demotion of Clergy (starting with the 2008-09 edition) to the ranks of occupations not described in detail. It had a workforce of 670,100 in 2008.

The section on “Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement” has always been a strong feature of the OOH. Most other sources (including the OOH write-ups of occupations not covered in detail) go no further than assigning a single level of education or training as the appropriate level for each occupation. In this section, however, the prose paragraphs have sufficient room to be able to discuss as many optional preparation pathways as are commonly available. If work experience is desirable, this section explains what kinds of experience are most useful to have, not to mention the information about certification, licensure, and useful personal traits.

The section on “Employment” also has information about types of employers--not just workforce numbers--that is pretty much unobtainable elsewhere. Sometimes the names of employing industries (derived from the North American Industry Classification System) are a little difficult to understand for those who don’t work in the career information industry, but for the most part this section is easy to follow.

The section on “Job Outlook” also provides some unique information by explaining the economic forces that are causing the occupation to have a rosy or dismal outlook. For example, for Correctional Officers, it starts with the statistic for job growth, then states, “Increasing demand for correctional officers will stem from population growth and rising rates of incarceration” and proceeds to explain why more people are being imprisoned. This information not only lends credibility to the job-growth projection, but also allows readers to decide whether changing conditions, following publication of the book, have rendered the projection invalid. Sometimes this section acknowledges a reason for uncertainty, such as changes in legislation, so readers know they need to investigate the outcome of the possible game-changing factor.

Another vital topic that is obtainable almost nowhere else is an indication, where appropriate, of the level of competition that the job-seeker can expect. The Department of Labor is very good at giving figures for the demand for workers (projected job openings), but it is unable to provide quantitative data about the supply of workers for occupations. Nevertheless, in the “Job Outlook” section, you will sometimes find statements about the balance of supply and demand. For example, in the article about Correctional Officers, it says, “In the past, some local and State corrections agencies have experienced difficulty in attracting and keeping qualified applicants, largely because of low salaries, shift work, and the concentration of jobs in rural locations. This situation is expected to continue.” (This quotation points up one gripe I have with the editing of the OOH: their insistence on capitalizing “State.” In the JIST edition, we correct this practice.)

The OOH figures on earnings are based on figures from May of the previous year, so they are already about 19 months old when they first appear in December, and they go further out of date about six months later, when new figure appear on the BLS Web site. On the other hand, for some occupations, OOH supplements the BLS estimates with figures based on salary surveys of professional organizations. These often provide a level of detail--for example, earnings within certain specializations or industries, or for workers with certain degrees--that the BLS figures lack.

As I mentioned at the outset, JIST’s print edition of the OOH, which will be out in April, will include some additional material you won’t find on the Web site: a Personality-Career Quiz, an article on how to use the book in the classroom, and a section on emerging green occupations. Because the green occupations are new, reliable figures are not yet available for their earnings or employment outlook, and so we are not able to provide every topic of information that an OOH article normally includes. Nevertheless, these occupational descriptions are a useful introduction to a part of the economy that is likely to grow rapidly in the coming years and is attracting a lot of interest, especially from young people.

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