An interesting report has just popped out from America. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has just published their Projection of Jobs and Education requirements through 2018. And it is a very interesting read. The report, called Help Wanted, is scathing in its criticism of previous job and education forecasts pointing out that the data is available to make better forecasts but the data is not used.

“Unfortunately, the poor quality of the official projections cascades downward through state and local data systems into the hands of policy makers . .. Ultimately, the official data misinform the educational choices and career plans of individuals. These are the wrong times for inadequate information on jobs and skill requirements… Educational and career planning need to catch up and adjust to this new reality.”

I agree completely with the above sentiments of the report authors but, as a foresight thinker, I disagree with their conclusions. Let me explain.

The report writers find that the historical data back to the 1970s (correctly) shows that jobs requiring post high school education have grown quicker than forecast and that jobs requiring only high school education have disappeared faster than forecast.  Their projection based on this is, of course:

“By 2018, about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better “ (in 1973 it was 28%).

The report goes on to say that recessions have been where this shake-out is most stark, because the jobs that disappear do not always return.

“In the past two recessions, the typical job loser was a high school-educated male in a blue collar job, such as manufacturing or construction, working in the middle of the country. In the past two recoveries, the typical job gainer was a female with a postsecondary education who lived on either coast and worked in a service occupation—particularly healthcare, education, or business services. That picture is not changing.”

In that single finding are a world future pain in areas like social cohesion and health outcomes. A future where a previously dominant group lose power, income and social standing is one fraught with turmoil and upset. That is not news. But the clincher for me is that last sentence.  What has happened over the past 40 years will continue into the future. But will it?

As you dig further into the report you find findings like these:

Hundreds of thousands of low-skill jobs in manufacturing, farming, fishing, and forestry have been permanently destroyed because the recession has further prompted employers to either automate those positions or ship them offshore to take advantage of cheap labor. Overall, we project 637,000 jobs in the Manufacturing and Natural Resources industries will meet such fates by 2018.

And where will the new jobs be appearing?  “The most intense concentrations of postsecondary workers are in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Education, Healthcare, Community Services, Arts, Managerial and Professional Office Occupations.”

In the 21st century, computers and related inventions are transforming the U.S. economic landscape—boosting productivity so companies can produce more with less and spurring an economic shift from Manufacturing to Services. That is why, when old-line Manufacturing and Natural Resources jobs disappear, they often don’t come back.

So the thrust of the report in simple terms is Primary and Secondary sectors jobs will continue to disappearing and the growth will be in the Tertiary sector. The historical data supports this, the logic says that this is valid and thus our future projection is a certainty.  This is about the place that a foresight thinker is looking for the exit from the theatre.

This is an utterly safe, logical, rigorous and evidence-based piece of policy analysis that makes perfect sense … and wait for it … only if the assumptions of the single scenario world of 2018 come true. And what are those (unstated) assumptions? They are quite simple really – in the future we won’t need to worry about growing, digging and chopping things up and then turning those resources into physical things because in the future it will be cheaper for someone else to do that for us. It’s all about cheap energy stupid, we have had lots in the past 40 years and we will continue to have lots into the future.

I’ve looked long and hard to find those assumptions stated in the report but I can’t see them. I guess the writers and the readers don’t need to be aware that other scenarios are possible.  It’s safe to assume that things will remain the same.

The future doesn’t always cooperate with those who play it safe. Billy Joel’s song Allentown described the young of Pennsylvania whose predecessors’ ‘safe’ future didn’t actually work out

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown

For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved.

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real

If you are looking for a contemporary image of how the future might play out when the ‘safe’ scenario doesn’t work out then check out Howard Kunstler’s post peak oil novel – The World Made by Hand which includes this memorable exchange between a young ‘tertiary  educated’ male whose education didn’t fit a low energy world that needed primary and secondary sectors skills rather than the safe future tertiary ones  and an older male whose life had spanned both worlds – pre- peak  energy and post-peak energy.

Shawn limped slightly.

“Did you hurt yourself?” I said.

“I fell off Mr. Schmidt’s barn roof.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Fixing it. What do you think?”

We walked a ways in silence. I hadn’t known him to be so irritable before.

“It’s been might hot lately,” I said.

“It’s not just the heat . Jesus, Robert, look how we live? I’m practically a serf. You know what a serf is?”

“Of course I do. I went to college,” I said and regretted it right away. “You know, Shawn, even back in normal time’s people got down and depressed. In fact, you could argue that people are generally better off now mentally that back then. We follow the natural cycles. We eat real food instead of processed crap full of chemicals. We’re not jacked up on coffee and television and sexy advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills –“

“I don’t want to debate.”

“I bet its true, though.”

“Find someone else if you want to have a debate.”

“It’s just conversation.”

“Whatever you call it, quit trying to persuade me that everything is great okay” he said and stopped in his tracks. I stopped too. His face was red and tendons stood out in his neck. He was a large young man, and he looked a little scary.

“You frustrate the hell out of me son,” I said.

“Do I? I work like a dog. Harder than this dog. From sun up to sundown, like a medieval peasant.  I do it with hardly any sense of a future, and the last thing I need is a lecture from the generation that screwed up the world.”

I can imagine all the safe reports that preceded that exchange between the past and the future. All the rigorous and evidence based data that was used to create a better future. Safe and sorry.