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How many jobs do your skills prepare you for?

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
31 October 2019

When I was applying for jobs in London, an amazing place – although my economist colleagues just call it a ‘big city with a thick labour market’ – it felt like there were at least 20 other people who had the exact employment history suitable for each job on offer.

Back in New Zealand, employers are more likely to be aware of so-called ‘transferable skills’ – and more willing to look beyond specific job titles on your CV to understand how your experience in one job or profession could be valuable in their organisation.

Job cluster exercises

One way of identifying transferable skills are what are known as ‘job cluster’ exercises. These are analyses of large volumes of job advertisements to identify how many other jobs you might be suitable for, having already obtained the skills (either through training or on-the-job experience) in one job. They aim to highlight the transferability of skills across occupations that were traditionally not thought of as connected.

The Foundation for Young Australians analysed 2.7 million online job ads posted over two years. They found that when an “individual trains or works in one job, they acquire skills for 13 other jobs” and that “most young people are skilled for more jobs… than they or potential employers, actually realise” (Foundation for Young Australians 2017).

They identified seven new clusters of work in Australia including ‘generators’ (eg, retail, sales, hospitality), ‘informers’ (eg, education/business services), ‘technologists’ (eg, web design) and ‘carers’ (eg, medical, personal care).

In New Zealand, the Tertiary Education Commission analysed 1 million job ads and found that, on average, working or training in one job helps to acquire skills for 12 other jobs. TEC identify six clusters of jobs, including ‘operators’, ‘crafters’ and ‘healers’. Together, the ‘inventors’ and ‘organisers’ clusters represent about half of the total New Zealand workforce, and the report predicts that inventors will remain the dominant group in the future.

Job cluster exercises

Job cluster exercises are different to more traditional skills forecasting exercises (also called labour market information and intelligence exercises). These forecasting efforts are “systematic efforts to peer into the future” (Wilson 2013) and encompass a wide variety of techniques (eg, quantitative modelling, surveys, focus groups). They are mostly used to avoid mismatch between the offerings made available by education and training providers, and the skills demanded by employers. However they are not infallible and don’t get Dave started on the subject!

Harnessing the knowledge of job clusters

Knowing which cluster you fall into (in my case as a social scientist, likely an ‘inventor’ although I can see a fair bit of ‘organiser’ in my skill-set too) is one thing, but what to do with that information?

  • For a person already in work, the key seems to be understanding how upskilling or retraining might enable the most effective step from one job to another. This could take the form of new types of training or credentialing, like micro-credentials or online learning, especially where existing competencies are recognised, and training seeks to fill any gaps.
  • For individuals still at school or in training, job clusters could give a better sense of potential employment pathways. Outside a few regulated professions, the supposed good old days of working in one job for 30 years are long gone. Mapping qualifications onto job clusters could be a useful way to show young people how the choices they make now could affect the range of possibilities open to them in the future.
  • For employers, it might be more about understanding the very notion and value of job clusters so they are more open-minded about where their next employee may come from. For example, recognising that if they’ve got a talent shortage in their specific area, they can look laterally at candidates who share overlapping skills.

I don’t think job cluster exercises are a complete solution to skills mismatch problems in New Zealand, especially given how slowly things like new approaches to CVs take on.1 But, they could definitely be useful for helping people to steer a more fluid career path as labour markets change over time.

References
Foundation for Young Australians 2017, The new work mindset: 7 new job clusters to help young people navigate the new work order, Foundation for Young Australians, Melbourne, Australia.
Tertiary Education Commission 2018, Hidden links, new opportunities, Tertiary Education Commission, Wellington, New Zealand.
Wilson, R 2013, ‘Skills anticipation - The future of work and education’, International Journal of Education Research, vol. 61, pp. 101–110.

Note
1. I remember being encouraged to use a skills-based CV when I was an undergrad at uni over 15 years ago (as opposed to a traditional job history CV). This was despite being also told that such an approach was more difficult for many employers to get their heads around and it might not go down well! But who knows what CVs might look like in another 15 years’ time…

Image: On the job hunt in London

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