How Many Kinds of Work Are There?

We humans love to classify things. Show us a diverse collection of objects or concepts—be they animals, cloud formations, rocks, literary works, beers, shoes, or personalities—and we’ll devise a taxonomy to classify them. This is certainly true of the world of work; several classification schemes are presently in use. Today’s blog is about one that has recently been revised and one that is over 1,500 years old (and still being used).

 Federal law mandates that all occupational information be reported under the Standard Occupational Classification. Before the initial release of the SOC in 1980, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Employment Service used different taxonomies, and information could not readily be compared between the two without the use of crosswalk tables. This disconnect continued even after the release of the SOC, until the SOC was mandated as the one standard taxonomy.

Because the world of work does not stand still, neither can the SOC taxonomy. As the U.S. economy changes and creates new occupations, the SOC needs to be revised regularly. Of course, revisions affect many departments in the government, so each time the SOC is revised, an interagency committee meets and deliberates over what should be added, removed, combined, split, or renamed. The 2010 release of SOC has recently been published, and I was curious to see what indications of our changing economy I could see in the revisions from the previous release.

Advances in technology are responsible for several new occupations in SOC 2010: Solar Photovoltaic Installers; Wind Turbine Service Technicians; Radio, Cellular, and Tower Equipment Installers and Repairers; Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists; and Genetic Counselors. Because health-care duties formerly handled by physicians are now being shifted to lower-cost workers, the new taxonomy needed to add Ophthalmic Medical Technicians and several advanced practice nursing occupations: Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners. The category of Therapists now includes Exercise Physiologists. Audiologists, formerly part of Therapists, now is a category in its own right, on a par with Pharmacists and Podiatrists and indicative of its increased level of professionalism. (The doctoral degree has become the standard qualification.) The graying of America is reflected in the addition of Hearing Aid Specialists. Our increased concern with homeland security necessitated adding Transportation Security Screeners.

It’s interesting to contrast the SOC with another occupational taxonomy that was finalized roughly during the time of King Arthur and has not been changed since: the 39 categories of work according to traditional Jewish law. Everybody knows that the Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest from work. What you may not know is that this prohibition necessitated a definition of what constitutes work. It happens that the same word, melakha (which translates roughly as "workmanship") is used in the Torah for what God rested from on the seventh day and also for the work that went into the construction, furnishing, and provisioning of the Tabernacle that the Children of Israel created in the wilderness, following the exodus from Egypt. Therefore, Jewish law defined the different kinds of work (the plural, melakhot) by itemizing the tasks that created the Tabernacle. So, for example, the taxonomy includes carrying, igniting a fire, knotting, harvesting, grinding, shearing wool, writing, and building, among other tasks.

As I noted earlier, this taxonomy has not been changed in all these years. But neither has the highest level of categories in the SOC, which consists of 23 groups, such as Management Occupations and Protective Service Occupations. The difference is that the SOC taxonomy specifies lower levels of detail, whereas Jewish law leaves the specifics open to interpretation and therefore does not create a structure that has to be updated in response to changing social conditions and technologies. For example, after the invention of electricity, the category of igniting a fire was interpreted to include using electric power, because electricity is equivalent to a spark or because using it means closing a circuit, which is taken to be a kind of construction or completion. In this example, we can also see the problem that emerges when the taxonomy’s specifics are left open to interpretation, because some progressive scholars of Jewish law reject the equation of electricity with fire and permit its use on the Sabbath.

But let’s set aside these squabbles over interpretation and reconsider the basis of the taxonomy of the 39 melakhot. You may think that the traditional religious attitude toward work is that it’s a curse that was imposed on Adam, and my previous two blogs (about job dissatisfaction) indicated that for many people it is. However, the basis of the 39 melakhot suggests that all work has the potential for holiness. It can serve a purpose greater than just putting bread on the table. I think that many workers are dissatisfied because they feel the work they’re doing lacks a larger purpose. I would advise these workers to think about a job change or a career change that provides that purpose.

To that end, I guess this is as good a place as any to plug one of my books, 150 Best Jobs for a Better World.

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