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Seeking job satisfaction with a mix of skills

Rick Nelson, Executive Editor

Work continuously evolves, and for many the point to which jobs have evolved is not a happy one. Almost 90% of workers around the world are not engaged with or are actively disengaged from their jobs, according to Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of the forthcoming book Why We Work in a recent New York Times column, citing Gallup poll results.

The situation in the United States is not so grim. Justin McCarthy at Gallup wrote, “For the most part, Americans’ satisfaction with various aspects of their jobs is higher today than it was in 2005. But despite these improvements, no more than one in three workers is completely satisfied with their salaries, stress levels, chances for promotion, and retirement plans.”

Schwartz has traced job dissatisfaction back to the 18th century, when jobs became mind-numbingly specific. He cited Adam Smith describing in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations the operation of a pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head.”

We’ve automated pin manufacturing, but today’s equivalent might be filling in Excel spreadsheets. But that, too, may have run its course. Andrew Flowers at FiveThirtyEight quoted David J. Deming of the Harvard Graduate School of Education as saying, “The days of only plugging away at a spreadsheet are over.”

That’s a conclusion elaborated on in a paper Deming recently published. “In this paper, I show that the labor market increasingly rewards social skills,” Deming wrote. “Since 1980, jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth throughout the wage distribution. Moreover, employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.” Deming’s point is that cognitive skills are necessary but not sufficient.

There is evidence that work requiring social skills leads to job satisfaction. In Gallup’s survey of U.S. workers, the highest source of job satisfaction—at 72%—was related to relations with coworkers.

The good news for EE-Evaluation Engineering readers is that they may have already transitioned to more job satisfaction. In our recent salary survey, only 14% of respondents reported being somewhat or very dissatisfied with their jobs.

For others, the picture might not be so rosy. BSR, a global nonprofit organization that works to build a sustainable world, has issued a 32-page report titled Good Jobs in the Age of Automation by Jessica Davis Pluess. She noted that technology creates jobs, but those jobs may require cognitive skills that displaced workers lack. Whereas Deming posited that U.S. women with high cognitive abilities have leveraged their social skills to get ahead, Davis Pluess wrote that the women who make up the bulk of the light-manufacturing workforce worldwide may not have the education to undertake new jobs when their old jobs become automated.

Davis Pluess said companies often view labor and technology as opposite sides in a zero-sum game. “Adopting a more mutually reinforcing relationship whereby automation augments and extends the capabilities of workers could make automation a win for both workers and business,” she wrote, describing what BSR calls an “inclusive economy.”

More work needs to be done to refine and implement that concept to generate adequately compensated and satisfying jobs. Whatever our social and cognitive skills, “Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste,” as Schwartz concluded.

For more on this topic and for links to sources cited in this editor’s note, please visit my blog at the link below.

Rick Nelson, Executive Editor

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