The rate of growth in the number of high paying jobs in the US has steadily declined since 2000, which some attribute to automation. Historically, analytical skills like mathematics, physics or other STEM variations have been rewarded with much revered “dream jobs” – steady, high pay and status. Computers today, however, have become ever more apt at solving complex analytical tasks. You still need competent people plugging in the numbers, programming the computers and so on, but you no longer need a whole team of engineers to crunch numbers. Instead, social skills have become increasingly important according to David Deming, an associate professor of economics at Harvard who studied how the labor market has changed since the 1980s and built a model that showed which are the desired traits employers look for today.

good people's skill

Image: KCCC

A while ago, ZME Science reported the findings of a group from Oxford which claims half of all current US jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation. What robots aren’t good at – not yet at least – is human interaction. This is still our ballpark, and jobs involving “people’s skills” have become more valuable. That’s not to say, of course, that cognitive intensive jobs aren’t sought after. They’re still the highest earning jobs in the labor market, it’s just that, according to Deming, analytical skills have to be coupled with emotional intelligence to be successful. In other words, to land those “dream jobs”, you know have to also be a people’s person.

Deming mined data from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network surveys of worker occupations and grouped tasks in four categories:

  • routine. These kind of jobs are typical of an assembly-line worker, for instance and are at a high risk of becoming automated.
  • nonroutine analytical. This is where a programmer or a doctor might fall in, for instance; jobs that require abstraction skills like math or other science.
  • social-skill-intensive. Any manager needs to be able to coordinate teams and be aware of social cues.
  • service-intensive. This typically describes jobs that involve caring and responding to the needs of other people.

Most jobs involve a combination of all of these task groups, with one of them standing out among the others. What Deming found is that social skills have become increasingly important across most jobs. Lone wolves or rogues can still land high paying jobs – if they’re that good – but “people who know people” have a competitive advantage. Not only this, but jobs which require people skills above all else have experienced the most growth. Such is the case with doctors, social workers or management consultants. Purely technical jobs like electricians, mechanics, accountants or clerks fared poorly both in prospects and pay.

Women, which research shows tend to have a higher emotional intelligence and interpersonal relations competency, have gotten the most jobs that require people’s skill. Moreover, since the labor landscape has shifted, the gender gap in historically male-dominant jobs has narrowed. In 1980, the typical woman’s job was below average in its requirement for social skills. Now, the typical woman’s job is in the 66th percentile of all jobs in requiring social skills (from cook to teacher, say), reports FiveThirtyEight Economics.

Deming’s paper was published in the National Bureau of Economics Research.

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