Technology: A New Occupation Or Just A New Job?

Does technological change have an impact on the creation or destruction of occupations and if so what impact does it have? 

An immediate response might look at a job like Social Media Manager.  The argument associated with this response identifies social media as a recent technological advancement in information sharing. 

This advancement has become so engrained in society that it has necessitated the creation of a job like "Social Media Manager." Using the same argument, we could identify "Podcaster" as a new job that occurred because of podcasting.  With these jobs in mind, it seems that technology is having a large impact creating new work each time it advances.

But is the creation of a new job or job title the same as the creation of a new occupation?  To answer this question, it helps to define terms. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (BLS OOH) Glossary articulates a job in terms of establishment, "a specific instance of employment; a position of employment to be filled at an establishment." 

Compare this to an occupation which BLS OOH articulates in terms of tasks, "set of activities or tasks that employees are paid to perform and that together, go by a certain name. Employees who are in the same occupation perform essentially the same tasks, whether or not they work in the same industry."

This distinction becomes clearer with an example. We have taken a Social Media Manager job posting from Careerbuilder.com and outlined the job requirements below, numbering each requirement: 

  1. "Position requires proficiency with social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and ideally, the platforms to manage them such as Hootsuite, and Facebook applications;
  2. Knowledge of social marketing and behavior change principles, particularly when social media is part of a larger strategy for reaching high-risk populations and their health providers;
  3. Experience with SMS campaigns and full array of social media;
  4. Ability to write clear and concise copy with attention to detail and target audience focus.
  5. 4+ years of experience required, including Federal health campaigns plus at least 2 years of experience developing social media content for consumers and/or health professionals.
  6. Experience in addressing infectious diseases, children's health, behavioral health, public health programs, and health professional education programs preferred.
  7. BA degree required, preferably in public health, communications, marketing, social work, or psychology."

At first glance this description looks very foreign. Could we go back in time to 1989 or 1962 and ask anyone in the job market to complete requirement 1, as listed? No. The same response applies to requirements 2 and 3, but requirements 4-7 are much broader in scope.

We can see the presence of requirements 4-7 in the population much earlier in American history.  The ability to write clearly for a target audience can be found in early American newspapering which started in 1690.  Federal health programs and experience with them have been in existence, in some form, since the establishment of a 1798 act providing relief to sick or disabled seaman from a federal network of hospitals. 

Infectious diseases have been studied by the Marine Hospital Service, precursor to the National Institute of Health, since 1887. It is hard to pin down how long Bachelor of Arts degrees have been handed out for the fields outlined in requirement 7.

The date depends on how you define college or university, but a few colleges argue they were the first: Harvard in 1636, William and Mary in 1693, and the University of Pennsylvania in 1755.  All three institutions identify that Bachelor degrees have been in the United States for a long time.

The only difference between a Social Media Manager and a general health communications position, which has been around for a long time in US History, are these social media references identified in requirements 1- 3.

What if we replaced these social media references of 1-3 with a broad phrase, "tools of the trade?"  In the case of requirement 2, we'll replace the actual words, "social media," as well as "social marketing." 

The newly constructed requirements now read:

  1. Position requires proficiency in the tools of the trade
  2. Knowledge of the tools of trade and behavior change principles, particularly when tools of the trade are part of a larger strategy for reaching high-risk populations and their health providers
  3. Experience with a full array of the tools of the trade

In fact, if you remove the references to topically available tools, this position does not sound too removed from a description of "modern publicity" published in the journal Electrical West in 1912:

"The modern publicity man realizes that there is a great deal of valuable news connected with every industry in which the public is vitally interested, and it is his first duty to see that editors and writers have complete access to this information.  He is naturally an expert on public opinion and in time becomes a sort of general utility man for the company‚ĶTherefore it is the first duty of every publicity man to explain the technical terms and details of such a newspaper story until the ordinary writer and the still more ordinary reader can comprehend."

All of this is to elucidate the difference between job and occupation. Jobs are far more responsive to changes in topically available tools, but the changes in the tools or even some tasks do not constitute a change in occupation. 

To put it hyperbolically, is a mechanic who uses a robot to help her work on a car, truly that different than a regular mechanic? No, both are still repairing and maintaining cars and with some additional training one person may be able to do the other person's job.

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christopher laubenthal

Christopher Laubenthal is a program officer in Education for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he works to explore topics around data, education, and human capital through grants and programs.