Science Careers Blog

August 2009

August 31, 2009

We Miss You Bell Labs

Last week, on the Science Careers forum, the discussion turned briefly to jobs for physicists in industry. As a physicist who once sought employment in industry, I took an interest. The conclusion: These days, too little basic research is done in industry. There are too few physics jobs in industry.

Also last week, Business Week published a piece by Adrian Slywotzky on a related topic. "Where Have You Gone, Bell Labs?," the headline cried, wondering whatever happened to those industrial labs, the breakthroughs they facilitated, and the millions of new jobs those breakthroughs led to. This is one of those rare articles that says what needs saying so completely, there's not a lot left to say. America needs jobs--badly--and her chief engine of job creation--investment in basic research--is in decline.

I think Business Week may have a smart new editor somewhere in the organization, since this is the second article in a few days (here's my blog entry about the first) that questions the conventional wisdom that global structural changes are behind the decline in America's leadership in technological innovation and its economic consequences. While very different in their specific topics--the first focuses on call centers, the second on basic research labs--the two articles share a premise that declining competitiveness can be traced not to changing global fundamentals but to choices America--specifically American companies--have made in recent decades. We can't compete in service industries because we have failed to invest in  people. We can't compete in technology jobs because we have failed to invest in the development of knowledge and tools.

Is the argument correct? I suspect that 10 economists would have at least 7 different opinions. But to me it just seems right, like a return to fundamentals that deep down we always knew still applied. Doing what has always worked--investing in knowledge, new tools, and people--just seems like a promising strategy; though globalization no doubt complicates things, maybe a return to fundamentals will work just like it used to.

Here's a sort of corollary: Between World War II and the new millennium, the financial industry grew from a 3% share of American economic activity to more than 8% (source: Thomas Philippon, NBER Working Paper No. 13405). In other words, 5% more money was tied up in making money by manipulating money than 60 years before. That extra 5% of GDP--in case you were wondering, that's about $700 billion every year--was in financial instruments instead of other kinds of economic activity, such as the creation of actual new products and useful stuff and the research and development that goes into it.

So maybe, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the financial sector will shrink back to a more reasonable size and physicists will once again be able to find jobs doing physics, figuring out how to make money for companies by making things instead of figuring out how to make money for companies by making money. There's nothing wrong with being a quant (a/k/a, quantitative financial analyst)--you certainly can make the case that physics has done more harm than quantitative finance, though I like to think it has also done more good. But my main concern, as always, is with careers. Maybe we can have a new era of Bell Labs and Xerox PARC and other great corporate laboratories. It would be really great, in my opinion, if more physicists could make a living doing physics.
One job market indicator we follow on Science Careers is the number of online job ads, which is tracked monthly by the Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute. In August, the number of online advertisements for scientists posted healthy gains over July, although the number of employment ads for engineers remained flat.

Judging by these numbers, the job outlook for scientists appears to be improving.  In August the number of help-wanted ads for computer scientists and mathematicians rose by 9,000 to to almost 407,000. The number of ads for life, physical, and social scientists rose by 4,200 in August, to about 71,000--a healthy 6% increase. In both cases, the number of new ads were greater in August than July.

Keep in mind that these could reflect regular seasonal changes, since academic jobs in particular tend to have regular hiring seasons. We're not expert enough yet to compensate for seasonal differences. We'll see how the trends play out over time.

For engineers and architects, however, the outlook is not as rosy. The number of employment ads for these jobs remained at 117,700 in August, the same as in July. This number is still below the 121,700 jobs for engineers and architects posted online in June.

New online ads for health care professionals and technicians (on the one hand) and education workers (on the other) show sharply contrasting trends. Employment ads for health care practitioners and technicians rose by nearly 53,000 in August to more than 574,000, the largest jump for any occupational group this month. This increase reversed a decline of nearly 4,000 ads from June to July. The number of posted education, training, and library jobs fell by 3,300 in August, to 68,000, which almost wiped out a 3,700 increase in job ads in July.

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The Conference Board also calculates a supply/demand rate as an indicator of job-market strength, comparing the number of job seekers, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to the number of online employment ads.  The higher the rate, the more job seekers per ad and the worse the market is for job hunters. There's a one-month delay in reporting these data. In July, the number of job seekers increased in most categories, which indicates finding a job in July remained a challenge, even in fields in which job ads increased.

By this measure, computer scientists, mathematicians, and health care practitioners/technicians had among best job markets in July. In both cases, they had rates of less than 1, which means the number of online ads exceeded the number of job seekers. Life, physical, and social scientists had about a 1-to-1 ratio of job ads to job seekers in July. Other career groups, however, faced tougher job markets. For engineers and architects, the number of job seekers in July exceeded job ads by a 2-to-1 margin. Education, training, and library workers faced even worse prospects: a nearly 5-to-1 ratio of job seekers per online ad.

Overall, the number of online ads increased nationwide to nearly 3.5 million in August, an increase of more than 169,000 compared to July which barely registered an increase over the previous month. In July, however there were overall 4.4 job seekers per online employment ad, about the same as the 4.5 per ad recorded in June.

A survey of hiring managers in the United States suggests that there will be more employment opportunties in the next year, with technology jobs among the first to recover once the economy turns around.

This year's Employment Dynamics and Growth Expectations (EDGE) report, from staffing consultant Robert Half International and CareerBuilder.Com, says more than half (53%) of the respondents expect to hire full-time employees over the next 12 months. The report cites technology, customer-service, and sales as the departments that will add positions once economic conditions start improving. Currently, employers are first looking for staff in sales, customer service, and marketing; technology jobs are likely to follow.

The EDGE report indicates employers will focus on working-level rather than management jobs. About a third (32%) plan to hire professional staff and almost that number (28%) intend to add entry-level workers. In their hiring, employers plan to look particularly for candidates with initiative, problem-solving creativity, and multi-tasking abilities.

Employment opportunities should also increase for temporary and part-time staff. Some 4 in 10 (40%) hiring managers anticipate hiring contract, project, and temporary workers in the next 12 months. About the same number (39%) expect to hire part-time staff. Only about a quarter (23%) of employers have no hiring plans in the next year. Nearly half (44%) expect the 2009 stimulus bill -- officially, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- to create job opportunities in their organizations over the next 2 years.

Also surveyed were people already in full-time jobs. About 9 in 10 said they were satisfied with their current work situation, but nearly half (45%) expressed an interest in changing jobs once the economy improves. The survey asked employees about the factors that would keep them at their current employers and, not surprisingly, the factor cited most often was salary (49%). Another 20% chose benefits and perks. Among the on-the-job perks considered most important to employees were technology upgrades (79%) and tuition or training subsidies (61%)

The survey for the report was conducted by telephone with 500 hiring managers and 500 full-time employees in April and May 2009.

August 28, 2009

Treating Employees Well

This column in Business Week describes a call-center business where employees are offered full health-insurance benefits and can earn 6 figures. The idea is to treat employees as valuable assets instead of as faceless commodities to be exploited.

The column focuses on the conventional notion that we can't compete with low-wage countries (to which U.S. jobs are often outsourced), which, argues columnist Vivek Wadhwa,  is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of competitiveness and of our competitive advantage. "With smart processes and the proper incentives, U.S. companies can keep jobs here in America, and do so in a way that is actually better for the company and its employees," Wadhwa writes.

The company in question, IQor, Inc. (the link is to the Business Week "Company Overview"), which, as Business Week writes, has seen its revenues increase 40% annually for the last 3 years. Its salaries are nearly 50% above "industry norms." Aside from the call-center work, the company provides support for a number of "back-office" tasks in the finance, media, and telecommunications industries--"work that's largely been relegated to the scrap heap in the U.S., considered a source of little more than low-wage, low-value, and low-self-esteem jobs." And, just like call centers, many of those jobs have been off-shored. IQor has 11,000 employees worldwide, but its U.S. operations have grown fastest.

The notable thing is that the company has succeeded by treating its employees well. No, these are not future scientific stars. But they are, nonetheless, the keys to the company's performance. And the way to attract and keep the best employees--and to extract maximum performance from them--is to treat them like stars, not interchangeable parts. "To ensure that employees don't feel like a job at iQor is a dead end, the company creates career path programs that clearly lay out a worker's road to advancement. IQor regularly promotes employees who started out working the phones to management." The result is low turnover and high performance."iQor invests in its people, and doesn't view them as expendable or replaceable. The company values tenure and seeks to promote from within its walls, a hallmark of companies with strong cultures."

So what's this got to do with science careers (or with Science Careers)? Well, consider the implications for academic science, where a relatively small fraction of the workforce--namely, the PIs--make as much as half what IQor's top call-center employees make.  If treating a worker like a valuable employee helps a call center's productivity and bottom line, imagine what it could do for scientific productivity--the ultimate knowledge work. 

For years we have written that the key to extracting the most from knowledge workers is to treat them well, help them feel comfortable, and see to it that they have the support they need to focus on their work (without sacrificing their families and personal lives). The competing perspective--that workers are like machines, or interchangeable parts of machines, to be driven as cheaply as possible--never made much sense in a scientific context, though that's still how some administrators and policy makers seem to view postdocs.

IQor demonstrates that it might not make much sense even in a call-center context--and that this might be a key idea for America's future competitiveness.

Hat tip: Slashdot

Companies contracted by the federal government for information technology (IT) services say they have run into a campaign by their agency clients to hire away their IT professionals. In some cases, a few federal contractors claim, the agencies' tactics are unethical.

In a story appearing yesterday in Federal Computer Week (FCW) magazine, Stan Soloway, CEO of the industry trade group Professional Services Council, claimed that agencies are resorting to what he calls "heavy-handed tactics" to steal away IT staff from contractors

Soloway cites a major military command -- he did not say which one -- as having "a list of 750 contractor employees that they are one-by-one recruiting specifically." Soloway says agencies are offering top dollar for contractor staff, in one case as high as a GS-15 salary ($98-127,000 per year), the top non-executive government pay grade.

Anne Reed, president of the government contractor Acquisition Solutions Inc. called the situation "the Wild West." She told FCW that agencies have hired away several of her key IT pros at higher pay and with more authority than what Acquisition Solutions could offer. Reed adds that had she matched the government's pay offers, she would not have been able to bill the agencies for the employees' work.

Reed accused some agencies -- again unnamed -- of under-handed tactics such as spreading false information about contracts being canceled, making employment offers from the agencies more appealing. Soloway says contractors and private-sector clients often have non-solicitation clauses in their contracts that prevent their business customers from hiring away staff. Soloway's group has proposed adding a mutual non-solicitation clause to government contracts.

The FCW article did not address how the IT professionals, whose skills are now in high demand and who are reportedly being offered more money, feel about the situation. They may have a different take than the contractor executives quoted in the article.

For the first time in 5 years, admission offers from American universities to foreign grad students--including science and engineering students--dropped compared to the year before. Grad-school applications from foreign students increased slightly for the 2009-2010 academic year, but the increase was the smallest since 2005. These findings come from a Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) survey released last week.

The number of applications from foreign students rose 6% in social sciences and psychology, but life sciences applications remained flat and physical sciences, earth sciences, and engineering applications rose just 2-3%. In 2005 and 2006, these fields recorded double-digit increases in applications.

U.S. graduate schools offered fewer admissions to these students, a trend reflected in most other disciplines as well. While the number of offers to social science and psychology students increased by 1%, offers to life science students dropped by 1%, and engineering, physical science, and earth science offers dropped 4% in 2009. Overall, the number of offers to foreign grad students was down 3% compared to 2008.
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The number of grad-school applications from South Korea and India were both down 16%  in 2009. Applications from China, and from Turkey and the Middle Eastern countries, were up by double-digits over 2008. Offers to Chinese grad students increased 13% in 2009. For students from Middle Eastern countries and Turkey, offers rose 10%. . The survey report does not give data on students from Europe or the other American countries.

Universities with the largest numbers of foreign grad students continued to offer more foreign science and engineering students positions in their graduate departments. The 25 institutions with the largest foreign-student enrollments made 10% more admission offers to engineering and life science students from overseas in 2009, while social science and psychology offers increased by 5%. For foreign physical and earth science students, the number of offers barely increased (a 1% gain). For institutions with smaller numbers of foreign students enrolled, the numbers of offers were either flat or declined in 2009.

CGS conducted this survey in June, the second of three surveys of international graduate students conducted each year. The first survey in February provides a snapshot of initial applications. The last survey, in October, assesses foreign-student enrollments.

August 21, 2009

Disaster-Proof Your Career

With summer and tropical-weather season upon us (1 June to 30 November), the blog Career Hub this week, offers advice on keeping your career on track should a hurricane hit.

Some of the blog's advice applies to anyone in an area threatened by tropical weather: board-up windows, stock up on water and flashlights, have an emergency contact plan for your family, and follow evacuation orders. For those with jobs, Career Hub also recommends checking into your employer's disaster plans, for back-up operations and emergency contact numbers. We would add that those working in labs should have plans for the care of lab animals and securing potentially dangerous materials.

Even if you re able to stay in your own home or go to work after a storm, Career Hub reminds job-hunters to be prepared for an extended period without electrical power, landline telephone, and Internet access. Keep contact lists in electronic form, if possible in a third-party directory (e.g., Hotmail, GMail) that has regular backups, since local Internet service providers may be flooded out or have their power cut off. Store electronic copies of your resume and other important documents, such as references, in online storage services, such as Skydrive or Google Docs. Another Career Hub tip: use the LinkedIn "recommendations" feature for documenting references.

If you're on the job market and you have to evacuate, be sure to take along proper interview attire. A prospective employer will probably understand if you showed up for an interview in jeans, but why take the chance? Also have on hand your documents indicating citizenship or residency, identity, and employment eligibility to complete an I-9 form for employment verification.

While Career Hub focuses the advice for those in areas prone to hurricanes, it can apply as well as to Tornado Alley in the spring or the vicinity of the San Andreas fault any time of the year.
A new study of networking shows that white men get more job leads than women or Hispanics in their routine conversations. The study, authored by North Carolina State sociologist Steve McDonald and two colleagues, surveyed a national sample of 3,000 respondents to find out about the amount of job information people learn in their day-to-day conversations.

The advantages for white men are particularly pronounced for management jobs. White men, McDonald reported, receive more job leads in their routine conversations than white women or Hispanics of either gender, but about the same number of leads as African-American men and women. White males, however, receive more job leads when they are high-level supervisors, whereas African-Americans generally learn about new jobs while in non-managerial positions.

McDonald and his team found that some of these differences in job leads could be explained by differences in the extent of networking among white males compared with networking among women or minorities. The white males in the study tended to have more and better contacts in different fields of employment than Hispanics. However, white men and women had equal amounts and quality of networking, yet white males continued to get more job leads in their routine conversations. McDonald couldn't explain the greater number of leads for white men in management jobs.

The findings will be published later this month in the journal Social Problems.

A survey report released in June by Yaffe and Company, Inc., reveals that fully 2/3 of private colleges and universities have plans to freeze or reduce compensation: 67% of institutions intend to freeze salaries and 9% intend to reduce them, the survey found, while 24% intend to increase salary. 80% of the institutions that say they intend to freeze salaries intend to do so across the whole institution, while 15% will freeze only the salaries of top executives.

A few more details can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education (you'll need a subscription or site license for access), and a sample of the survey can be downloaded in pdf form from Yaffe's Web site.

Alexandra Levit, the Wall Street Journal's careers columnist, offers advice this week on salary negotiation, geared to tough times. Levit stresses the importance of getting the best possible salary deal upon hiring. In this economy, she observes, "raises are small and promotions are often slow in coming..."

But, in this economy, when jobs are not plentiful, is it still wise to wheel-and-deal on compensation? Levit advises readers to still negotiate, but prepare well. Levit tells of a health-care professional in Boston who was hired for a new job and was prepared to accept the employer's first offer, even though it meant a salary cut. But before taking the offer, she did some homework, writing out a list of ways she could add value to the position. She called the hiring manager and presented her case. The result? She got the salary she was seeking. "The advance planning made me feel a lot more confident going into that conversation."

In preparing for salary negotiations, Levit advises, find out what the industry is paying people in similar jobs. Web sites like can help, but you may need to supplement the public data by talking frankly with friends doing that kind of work. You also need to know compensation practices of the industry and the type of organization doing the hiring. Some businesses offer bonuses based on profits or sales (at least in good times), for example, while government positions often have built-in annual salary increases.

Dave Jensen's two-part series for Science Careers on salary negotiations talks about preparing for and dealing with offers from science and technology employers. Part 1 of the series discusses salary negotiations in general, while part 2 describes the finer points of academic and industry compensation practices. Chris Golde's article, "Be Honorable and Strategic," provides advice for scientists negotiating for academic jobs. While written before the worldwide economy went south, these articles can still help negotiators get what they need in today's job market.

Today's New York Times tells how some recent American college graduates are finding better job prospects in Shanghai and Beijing than in Chicago and Birmingham. Chinese employers apparently value the Americans' entrepreneurial attitudes and practices, which, they say, are not often found in Chinese workers.

China has so far weathered the global recession better than the United States, and the job market there is not nearly as dire. As China's total economic growth rate (measured by the Gross Domestic Product or GDP) declined to 7.9% in the last quarter, the United States suffered through a 1% decrease in GDP. Unemployment in China's urban areas is reported at 4.3%, less than half of the U.S. rate of 9.4%.

A Science Careers feature in December 2006 outlined many scientific opportunities in China, but according to the Times, it's American business skills and attitudes Chinese employers now want to tap into. The story quotes a partner in the Shanghai branch of McKinsey and Company, an international consulting firm, who says that more young Americans are coming to China to take part in the country's entrepreneurial boom, particularly in the energy sphere, a field where graduates with science and engineering degrees often have an advantage.

Americans, the article says, are more likely tan their Chinese counterparts to take initiative, a trait observers quoted in the article attribute to the differences in education systems. In the United States, students have more incentives to experiment and take risks, while Chinese students are encouraged more to defer to their instructors.

Jason Misium, a recent Harvard graduate with a degree in in biology, has started an academic consulting business that helps Chinese who want to study in the United States. Misium tells the Times he found it easy to start a business in China, financed with his own savings.

Apparently, Americans find career progression more rapid in China, compared to the more sluggish United States. A 23-year old graduate of Barnard College in urban studies, recently hired as program director of a dance company in Beijing, tells the Times, "There is no doubt that China is an awesome place to jump-start your career. Back in the U.S., I would be intern No. 3 at some company or selling tickets at Lincoln Center."

New research shatters the myth that university engineering students are more likely to drop out of their undergraduate programs than other majors. That same research, done by  Matthew Ohland, an associate professor in Purdue University's School of Engineering Education, and others, also shatters another myth: that women are more likely to drop out of those programs than men.

Ohland manages the MIDFIELD (Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development) database, with 70,000 engineering students from 9 institutions in the southeastern United States. Only the southeast is represented because the database is new and so far only these 9 schools, including two historically black institutions, have joined.

Ohland and his team report that engineering retention rates over the traditional 8 undergraduate semesters varied considerably among the 9 schools, from 37 to 66 percent. But overall dropout rates among student engineers differed little from other disciplines, and women dropped out at approximately the same rate as men.

The problems, the research suggests, is not that people drop out of engineering, but that nobody steps in to to replace the ones who drop out. About half of graduates awarded bachelors degrees in the social sciences started in the social sciences; that percentage rises to 60% for other sciences. But Ohland found that almost all engineering students--93%--started in engineering; very few students, in other words, started in other majors then moved into engineering. "The road is narrow for students to migrate into engineering from other majors," Ohland notes. Recruitment in general--including recruitment from other majors, the research suggests--is particularly important for increasing the percentage of women, who comprise only about 1 of every 5 engineering students.

Ohland traces some of these recruitment problems to university policies. Only one institution, for example, offered a common calculus course for all disciplines. There, if a life-science student at that school wanted to transfer into engineering, he or she could apply the credits from that calculus course. At most of the sampled institutions, however, different departments required calculus courses. At those institutions students who wanted to move into engineering might have to repeat (a different version of) calculus.

Ohland's team's findings have been accepted for publication in Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Other results from the research were published last year in Journal of Engineering Education.

Keeping track of current trends in job markets is a difficult business. One approach that's more promising than most is tracking online job ads. Long-term trends in technology (e.g., the rise of social media and the decline of static ads) may skew the results over time, but month-to-month trends are likely to be meaningful.

The Conference Board tracks these statistics, and their index of online help-wanted ads for July had a little good news for scientists and health care professionals, but bad news for engineers and architects.

The number of online employment ads for life scientists, physical scientists, and social scientists increased by 2,300 to nearly 67,000 in July 2009 compared to June--a healthy 3.5% increase. Ads for computer scientists and mathematicians increased slightly, with about 1,100 more jobs listed in July 2009, to 397,800. In both of these categories, the numbers of online help-wanted ads exceeded the number of job seekers reported for June by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for that month. That's the good news.

The bad news is for engineers and architects, who face much bleaker prospects, according to the Conference Board. The number of online employment ads for engineers and architects declined by 4,000 in July, to 117,700. Worse, in June there were about about 1.6 job-hunters for every online ad.

Related categories had mixed results. The number of online education, training, and library employment ads increased by 3,700 in July, to 71,300, but it's still an extremely tight market: There were still 4.7 job seekers for every online ad in this grouping. In contrast, there were more than 2 ads for each job hunter in the health professions and practitioners group--but the trend is in the wrong direction: In July, the number of ads in this category dropped by nearly 4,000 compared to June.

The Conference Board is a private business and economic research institute. Its index of online help-wanted ads is published monthly.