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Relevance, robots and rankings

Traditional classifications of graduate jobs are no longer fit for purpose, says Nick Petford.

What exactly is a graduate-level job, and who decides? I expect those untroubled by the finer details of university data returns will have a gut feeling for the former and care little for the latter. But with metrics from Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) surveys on graduate employability and salaries now being used to rank universities, it’s time for a wider discussion on who calls the shots.

The taxonomy of graduate and other career outcomes is defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency under the snappily titled Standard Occupational Classification: SOC2010. The system is based on codes that catalogue different levels of professional and other salaried occupations. There are nine major groupings, broken down further into sub-major groups, minor groups and the most granular, five-digit level. While three digits would signify a manager, five digits would signify the manager of say a bookshop.

The first three major groups comprise graduate-level jobs. These are: 1. managers, directors and senior officials; 2. professional occupations; and 3. associate professional and technical occupations. Major categories that don’t make the grade include caring, leisure and other service occupations (6), and process, plant and machine operatives (8).  At the bottom of the pile come elementary occupations (9).

Categorising future jobs

At one level it makes perfect sense to classify occupations in a way that allows them to be benchmarked against a required skill set. Where it gets interesting is in the exceptions to the rule, and how, in a future in which universities are having to prepare students for an increasingly fluid world of work, the current system can be kept relevant. Within the three graduate-level categories there are approximately 150 sub-divisions of “graduateness"—denoting what are considered graduate-level jobs—plus hundreds more occupations where a degree is not needed.

My personal journey through SOC2010 starts age 16 with 91340 (packers, bottlers, canners and fillers), then moves upwards to 82120 (van drivers) and finally 11150 (chief executives and senior officials). My non-graduate sister never made it past 92330 (cleaners and domestics). Some politicians and newspaper editors will be delighted to know there is a classification for Mickey-Mouse jobs (as opposed to Mickey-Mouse degrees) 92750 (leisure and theme park attendants).

Some of these bottom-of-the-pile jobs are exactly those championed by David Graeber, an American anthropologist and activist, in providing obvious social value. By contrast, in his world view, many of the higher ranked graduate occupations in the SOC classification are in fact “bullshit jobs” that add little or no value beyond that to the recipient.

Graduate job at the Queen Vic

Meanwhile, hotel and accommodation managers and proprietors (12210), restaurant and catering establishment managers and proprietors (12230) and publicans and managers of licensed premises (12240) are all classified as graduate-level jobs. Mick Carter, landlord of fictional East End pub the Queen Vic, is well sorted (2:2, University of Walford). The serious point is that given the growing importance of these codes to the future reputation of UK universities, far more scrutiny is needed over who decides on them and how, and when, they are revised. The current Standard Occupational Classification was compiled just four years after Twitter was started, which seems a long time ago.

One category missing, for example, is entrepreneurship. For simple classification purposes this is understandable but it highlights a fundamental premise behind the standardised, template-driven thinking behind these lists that to be a graduate is to end up a white-collar worker for someone else in the public or corporate sectors. Perhaps a future JK Rowling, a creative writing graduate, or Blur (Goldsmiths, 1989), would be captured under tag 341 (artistic, literary and media occupations). Who knows? I’m not suggesting we need a new SOC category 666 (covering Richard Bransons). But it is perverse that under the present classification, creative and industrious individuals who choose a post-university route in which job occupation and salary are initially precarious and hand-to-mouth, fly under the LEO median-earning radar. That could mean universities that are better-than-average at boosting entrepreneurial behaviour and risk-taking—something lauded and encouraged by government—risk being penalised by the government-endorsed metrics underpinning the Teaching Excellence Framework and LEO.

When the machines take over

But there is a more fundamental problem in store for longitudinal graduate classification schemes. How will these 20th century occupations stack up in a world transformed by artificial intelligence, robots and the internet of things? In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at the University of Oxford assessed how easily 702 different kinds of job in America could be automated. Their conclusion was stark—nearly half (47 per cent) were vulnerable to machines in the next few decades. That means for someone born now, and going to university in, say, 2036, the idea of a graduate-level job as defined presently may seem romantic at best. Also needing to be factored in is the rise of the gig economy, estimated at 16 per cent of US workforce and set to rise, there and elsewhere.

This year the OECD published a study showing 14 per cent of jobs across 32 countries analysed have a 70 per cent or more chance of being lost to automation. Overall it concluded 210 million jobs were at risk. While the picture is complicated, with variations across countries with different manufacturing bases and levels of GDP, graduate-level SOC categories in business, IT, science and technology, law and healthcare will take a hit. Not even teaching is immune. Universities need to be shifting their educational models to accommodate a world in which graduate-level jobs across the board are being replaced by machines.

As the fourth industrial revolution kicks in, much greater focus on soft skills such as systems thinking, collaboration and perhaps most importantly, resilience, will be needed at a time when young people seem vulnerable to a growing range of mental health issues. How universities the world over cope with this apparent tension could be one of the more pressing challenges in the next few decades. When the machines take over, value for money and perceptions of it may shift from universities sending graduates into high starting-salary jobs heading for extinction towards institutions adept in delivering skills that help students remain, well, more human.

Nick Petford is vice-chancellor, University of Northampton, UK