September 7, 2015
It can be heartening to learn that there will still be a role for humans in the forthcoming world of robots, drones and driverless vehicles. Inevitably, it is those skills that are hard to automate that will define many of the human jobs of the near future and so one of the skills that will continue to attract paid employment will be the ability to get on with other people. This skill has already defined the labour market for the past 35 years and helped to narrow gender differences in the job market. These are the main conclusions of a new report published by David Deming of the US based National Bureau of Economic Research. According to his working paper “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” which is currently awaiting peer review, nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that depend to a large extent on well developed social skills.
“Since 1980, jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth throughout the wage distribution,” he writes. “Moreover, employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill. The female advantage in social skills may have played some role in the narrowing of gender gaps in labour market outcomes since 1980.”
To analyse occupational skills, Deming grouped jobs into four types based on specific tasks. Routine tasks are repetitive and likely to be automated; non-routine analytical tasks involve more mathematical or abstract reasoning, such as computer programming; social-skill-intensive tasks require persuasion, social perceptiveness and collaboration with others; service tasks involve assisting and caring for others. Many roles require a combination of these tasks and so the study looks at the balance between them in specified roles and how they have evolved with the changing economy and the growth of automation and computers in the workplace. According to the study, The data show that social skill tasks grew by 24 percent from 1980 to 2012, compared to only about 11 percent for math-intensive tasks.
The report claims that most of the employment growth in jobs requiring cognitive skills occurred in those that also required interpersonal skills. while those with purely or primarily a technical focus with little emphasis on social skills have fallen away both in terms of remuneration and overall employment levels.
The report suggests that women are better able to capitalise on this shift than men. The study ranked the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills of more than 300 jobs according to the proportion of routine and social skills involved. In 1980, the typical woman’s job was below average in its requirement for social skills according to the scales devised for the report. Deming claims this would be roughly equivalent to a cook. By 2012 however, there had been a shift away from routine tasks which meant a typical job performed by a woman could be classified as a teacher. Over the same period, men had seen little shift in the balance of their tasks. The report concludes that this development is matched by developments in employment levels in jobs requiring more social and fewer routine or technical skills.
Deming is careful to offer a caveat for the potential stereotyping that this might suggest. Although he cites studies which confirm women’s greater propensity for higher levels of social skills, he also points out that personal choice is also a factor and he cannot be certain how this affects the findings. Deming also suggests that his work may have implications for the development of teams with individual members able to ‘trade’ skills to create a more coherent approach that makes best use of everybody’s strengths.