Work in progress: the man whose job today is finding out what our jobs will look like tomorrow

If your job is your passion, they say, you’ve got the best job in the world. Professor Didier Fouarge, who works at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA) at Maastricht University, gives every appearance of being passionate not only about his job, but everyone else’s job, too. Whether you’re happy in your career or looking to make a change, or you’re a student curious about whether to pursue art or opt for accountancy, his forthcoming PAS Festival lecture, The Employee of the Future: Skills in Demand, promises expert insights on the changing workplace. MySBE asks him for a preview of what we’ll hear.

One of the best things about your research must be its universal interest; pretty much everyone has had some education, and most of us have or need a job.

Didier Fouarge: “I think we’re all interested in skills and employment. If you have to pay your mortgage, you need money to do it, and you need to buy your bread and whatever you put on your bread, and you want to enjoy life and go to the cinema. People should be concerned about keeping their job, and keeping their skills current so that they can hop to another job in case it’s necessary, if the demand for their occupation goes down, or because they get bored. Then you need to know, ‘How do I make this shift?’”

Is this something people give much thought to?

DF: “It comes and goes with the economic cycle. People get worried about their jobs when the economy is poor, and more optimistic when the economy goes up. In the short and medium term, I don’t know whether people have a good idea of the risks their occupations are in when it comes to automation, even though it’s a subject that has received lots of policy and media attention.

“Estimates of the risk of automation range between 9% of jobs being automated to 50% of jobs being automated in the future. It’s an area in which scientists are trying to develop good quantifications, and it’s probably good if other people start thinking about it, too. Suppose it happens to your job? Are you prepared for that? If not, what do you need to do to get prepared? Is it a question of investing in your human capital, taking courses, or of investing in other, maybe softer, skills that employers value? Or maybe taking on different sets of tasks in your current job, so you get to develop new skills not through courses but through work?”

Should we be more worried than we are?

DF: “There are two schools of thought. My reading of the data from the past is that things happen very slowly. There are gradual changes in the occupational structure, for example, and gradual changes in the educational structure. Some scientists say that the impact of the Industrial Revolution is nothing compared to what’s about to happen with artificial intelligence, and the capacities of computers to take over some of our tasks.

“Do we need to be more worried than we are now? I don’t know, to be honest. But we need to have a sound degree of awareness that you need to keep your skills up to date.”

You’ve been involved in many ROA studies done in collaboration with government bodies and agencies, including labour market forecasts and lifelong learning research. Is it fair to say that a lot of people are interested in ROA’s work?

DF: “Certainly they value the quality of the reports that we do. Ministries, other public bodies, and private enterprises see the value of having research done in an academically sound way. It’s also important for our university to do research financed by ministries in a way that we can be proud of within the academic world.

“We take on lots of projects with outside partners, and also often manage to take parts of these projects and develop them into academic publications. That’s a nice thing about the work we do: we have a very good degree of valorisation and relevance in our research, but do it in an academically sound way.”

“And journalists know where to find us. When they see work published by other institutes and are looking for academics to comment on it, or have questions related to the research that we have done, they approach us. We are also happy to help them solve a problem or better understand data they are looking at. The good contacts we have with the media also further ensure that the things that we do are seen in policy circles. They see your name, and your research, in newspapers.”

Can you point to things that government or businesses did or didn’t do because of your work?

DF: “It can often be very difficult to pinpoint the specific impact of the work that you do as an academic. But I do recall a couple; five or six years ago, we published labour market forecasts of shortfalls of technical personnel in the technical sector, and that planted the seed for other organisations to ensure that private and public organisations developed new initiatives to try and attract young people to the technical sector, the Techniekpact, and that really had a big impact.”

“More subtly, you can see that ROA has, from its inception, put a lot of effort into generating indicators of the appropriate balance between supply and demand in the labour market. There is growing attention paid to this type of indicator in policy circles, and ROA was certainly at the heart of these kinds of initiatives. It’s impossible for me to say that because we did that, policymakers picked it up, but we were certainly at the heart of these kinds of initiatives.

“You see that for the accreditation, for example, of new academic programmes, accreditation authorities look at the labour market forecasts that we do, so a university or HBO institution looking to start a new master’s or bachelor’s degree will have to prove its adequacy based on labour market forecasts from ROA. In this case, it may not be not changing policy, but it’s affecting the supply of education fields in the Netherlands.

“Including PhDs and postdocs and the secretariat, we’re only about 40 people at ROA. Some of us do purely academic work, some do a combination of contract research and academic work. It’s a club that does very topical work, purely related to labour and education. I think that’s ROA’s strength. There is no other institute in the Netherlands, I’d say, that is as topical as we are.”

You and many ROA colleagues are members of SBE’s Learning and Work research theme. What is your view of the value of interdisciplinary, cross-faculty research themes?

DF: “It’s true that the Learning and Work research theme is very closely related to the type of research we do at ROA. Nevertheless, we have also managed, via the theme, to work with people from across the faculty, who in their own disciplines do research related to that field. I think that’s of great added value.

“As an example, in January I submitted a proposal to the NRO, the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research, to investigate whether increasing the transparency of labour market outcomes by educational degree would change students’ choice of education. If you tell students that they’re going to choose a field that has no prospects, would they be willing to switch to another field that is close to their preference circle? That’s an idea I’ve been developing for the last couple of years, and because we are involved in the Learning and Work theme, I got in touch with the Marketing and Supply Chain Management department and the AE2 department to develop a research proposal including the tools that the marketeers would use in their own research. I think that’s something I might not have thought about doing had I been alone here in my room at ROA.

“I think this is one of the first formal initiatives from the Learning and Work group, a joint research proposal with ROA, Marketing and AE2. I believe there are plenty of things we can learn from one another. Even if we don’t get the funding, trying to set up something together is worthwhile in itself, because it could lead to joint initiatives in the future.”

Can such collaborations work structurally?

DF: “I don’t see why they wouldn’t. We already have collaborations with other people in other universities, so having opportunities for collaboration close by can also generate new ideas and new synergies. In the past two years, we’ve had a couple of students from the QE department, quantitative economists, working at ROA. I think that’s great, because it gives the students the opportunity to test their quantitative skills on real data, and it gives us a critical look into the data that we use and the way we do our work.

“It’s a win-win situation. You need to be open to such ideas, and it takes time. But you can invest time as long as you believe that in the long run, you’re going to get something positive out of the exchange. And we think we will.”

When you talk to neighbours, friends or family, are they keen to know about your work? There are many important subjects that people don’t want to think about, like pensions.

DF: “You do tend to put your head in the sand if your pension age is far in the future. Pensions are part of my own research, so I know it’s important. But if I’m being honest, my skills on pensions are better in my research than at home! But that’s another story.

“When you talk to people, especially if you give lectures in schools on the importance of making so-called optimal choices in terms of education, people are very receptive. Parents are receptive because they want their kids to have a job, and to be happy. The new research line I have been setting out with one of my PhD students is really about trying to see whether informing young people about job opportunities in specific fields can get people to switch. It’s important to have a degree, because it adds to your human capital value and gives some proof to potential employers that you are able to at least achieve something, but it also matters a lot which field of study you choose, because some fields are not in such high demand.

“Think of all automated types of functions and secretarial activities. You clearly see that there is a gradual decline in the demand for these kinds of fields, and young people need to be informed if, in the end, they might not be able to find a job there. So it’s important to understand how young people are weighing up their preferences and job opportunities, and what choices they make.

Many people are doing jobs that they never imagined they would, not just because the employment landscape has changed but because most of us had never heard about quantity surveyors or digital marketing analysts when our teenaged selves were being asked to make educational choices affecting our future careers.

DF: “That is true, so two types of information are important. One type is about the content of jobs: people need to understand what a specific job is. There is a misperception among young people about what working in the technical sector is like: they think you get dirty hands. It may be true of some jobs, but the car mechanics of the future, I think, are not going to get dirty hands, or only a couple of days a week. Or they may think that if you become a lawyer, you walk round in a black robe and plead cases all day, but it’s not true: most of the day, you’re reading files, it’s head work, and paperwork.

“It’s important to solve that issue, and my own field is to solve the other part of the problem: given that some jobs are in high demand and some in low demand, what happens if you inform young people about these demand components?”

Will they alter their choices?

DF: “It’s an interesting question. Last year I reviewed the research around it, and found that there’s not very much of it, and most of it is US-oriented, so we are now trying to fill in the gaps. I think we can expect in the next couple of years to have nice academic and policy-relevant publications in that field.

“The couple of things that we have done so far tend to suggest that students would be willing to shift from their first preference field of education to their second preference, if the first preference leads to no jobs and the second preference has good job prospects. Obviously, the distance between the first preference and the second preference jobs can’t be too big, because you’d run the risk of young people losing interest or dropping out of school. But I do believe that within individuals’ preference set, there must be something close to their first preference that has a better alternative in terms of employment, and if you make people aware of that, they might be willing to switch.

“That said, we need artists; it’s important for culture, but if I show you the labour market forecast for artists, the prospects are very poor, not only in terms of employment but also in earning potentials. My point is, if you choose that path, that’s OK, just go for it… as long as you realise that you run a specific risk.”

Whose job is it to inform students?

DF: “The government needs to develop the infrastructure so this type of information circulates. And young people need to be aware that it’s important for them to see this kind of information. One problem is that in the Netherlands, students have to choose fields of study at a very young age. And perhaps the brain at that age cannot process that amount of information.

“Maybe we need to find out more about the best way to present the information. Does it have to be a number, or does it need to be a short movie on a website? Or do you need to get that information presented face to face? Maybe having all these websites doesn’t help. We have lots of websites with labour market information, and maybe that simply isn’t sufficient; perhaps you need the right kind of people to explain it to young people.”

“In the end, not everybody ends up in the job for which they were qualified, and that has two reasons. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice and you have to take another kind of job, because there was no demand for your type of skills. This is what I’d like to minimise: raise the awareness that there is a negative risk that you don’t want to end up with. Investing in education takes a lot of time, and it costs a lot of money.”

What about transferable skills? Are plumbing courses really enough?

DF: “Some skills are transferable across jobs, such as the softer skills, but our research also shows that you also need field-specific skills in order to do the job. A welder needs to be able to weld. Maybe that technology is going to change in the next couple of years, so that person, although they need to be a good welder, also needs to think, ‘Maybe I also need to keep my skills up to date, because the welding machines or techniques or the metals needed to weld are going to change in the future’. So you need broader sets of skills like human and problem-solving skills, which make you more versatile in the labour market.”

One final question about the employee of the future: if the evidence showed that in the next decade there would be no more jobs for academics, or researchers in your field, what would you do instead?

DF: “I guess I’d take up one of my hobbies as an alternative. I could start cooking: I love making bread, and given that the quality of the bread in the Netherlands isn’t that great, I’d say there’s a market for it! Or I’d go back to my first hobby, black and white photography. These are fields where you can use your creativity. You need to be creative as a researcher, of course; you need academic skills, but you also need creativity to relate theories with one another and put your theories to the test of the data. That kind of creativity is also what you need to be a good photographer. I don’t know if I could earn a living, but maybe I’d do that!”


Professor Didier Fouarge will speak on “The Employee of the Future: Skills in Demand“, a free public lecture given in English and in Dutch at the PAS Maastricht festival on 7 September 2018.