The Decline of Professions
Текст: Aydar Fahrutdinov | 2017-03-03 | Фото: Zurijeta / shutterstock; ОАО «РВК»; Maxim Lysenko, Erica Guilane-Nachez, Monkey Business, xy, lightpoet / dollarphotoclub; Alexey Kirillov. | 49775
The system of professional division of labor in its modern form took shape in the industrial era, when basic principles of production management were described and a lot of new professions emerged, mainly ones connected with design and maintenance of all the newly created machines. Since that time there were no significant changes in that system, only some occupations naturally died out, while other ones were being born. Today this results in compiling all sorts of profession catalogs and lists like “Top 10 Most Sought-After Professions That Didn’t Exist 10 Years Ago”. However, experts begin to talk about the fact that today the labor division system as a whole needs serious amendments or maybe even rethinking the very notion of profession. Why this need arose in the first place, we found out in our conversation with a systems engineering expert Anatoly Levenchuk.

– Anatoly, you were one of the first people to talk about the need to rethink and remodel several basic components of the professional labor division system. Why is there a need for that? Why, for example, occupational classification is becoming irrelevant today?

It is part of human nature to classify everything. It’s one of the possible ways of understanding the world, comprehending complex objects and keeping them within view (take Mendeleev’s periodic table, for instance). As a result, all of the surrounding reality is being categorized and typified. And we can typify or divide into categories almost anything – any complex object and even each of its parts. Due to that every item is placed on the right “shelf” inside our minds. But modern experience shows that when the world begins to develop rapidly, then an initially correct structure of these shelves can become wrong. That is, you created these shelves for one thing, but then life changed, and suddenly this same object is being used for completely different purposes, and something else in it becomes important for you. It works even with something like manure – some people would search for it under “sewage”, while others – under “fertilizers”. This is why the occupational classification idea fails everywhere in the world now, and ideas of ontologists (whom I also belong to) are slowly beginning to dry out. Case in point: you might remember that there used to be a lot of catalogue websites in the Internet some time ago. Yahoo, Yandex and many other search engines used to work by way of cataloging information and presenting website indexes. But as soon as we got the access to all kinds of information without these reference catalogues, indexes and classifications were no longer needed. Now, to find any information that we need, we use full text search, i.e. we simply input the needed phrase into the search box and get the answer. You make a request, you take a glance at the results, and if the results don’t satisfy you, you change the request and do it again. And there’s no need to browse any website indexes.

The job market was also formed in such a way that professions had their indexes. It’s quite natural: when a profession had existed for many years, it was absolutely clear what exactly the person of this profession did. But at some point we started to increasingly often come across a situation when a certain set of skills would exist for a long time, but the professions relevant to that set of skills would disappear. And a person had to collect a new set of skills for every new work situation.

The employers don’t pay any attention to occupational classifications anymore. Any manager understands that he must use the services of his employees very actively. And this is where problems arise: let’s say, someone hires a logistics analysis specialist who is going to work with software and construct effective dispatch routes, and then they suddenly send him to participate in negotiations. Why wouldn’t they send him? They think he knows the route, so he is the one who should conduct negotiations. But that’s not a part of a logistics specialist’s job, is it? It is not, but that doesn’t mean a logistics specialist won’t do that work. So today they often hire people for a certain scope of work rather than for a certain professional occupation. A professional coater of cranberries may be easily sent to harvest cranberries or sell cranberries, and nobody cares that it’s not a part of his job. Or take IT specialists, for instance. “IT specialist” sounds like a profession, but if you send a PHP person to fix SAP, you will hear a lot of exciting stuff from him – he will immediately tell you about vocational guidance, directories of occupations, wage scales and complain about HR managers and personnel officers, and not in a nice way. But “PHP specialist” is not a profession! What about “gynecologist”? Is that a profession, or is only “doctor” a profession? But a gynecologist and a dentist are as dissimilar to each other in terms of skills as PHP and SAP specialists.

It appears that work center and job description includes several sets of professional skills, while these skills themselves are not limited to some permanent set marked by the name of the profession. So a nice worldview we constructed begins to rapidly crumble: vacancies, professions, job positions (that often get confused with professions), sets of skills and abilities; scopes of work; people having and not having an actual profession; jobs they actually do... In Russia all of that exists separately from one another now.

The beginnings of the division of labor and, consequently, of the first professions, date back to the moment when humankind moved on from nomadism to sedentary life. It is the era when, according to scholars, pottery and smithery emerged, as well as some other crafts. But even in the prehistoric times there still was some kind of division of labor: men did the hunting while women did the foraging.

– Why did this situation appear at all, what factors and changes in our lives have led to it?

As far as I understand, the very word “profession” is the legacy of proletarian times, when there were whole professional families, people who passed their experience and knowledge to their children. In this respect a profession is associated with an employment pattern. The term “profession” also has a certain social connotation – it’s important to mention your social background, your relation to the means of production. For example, you may say “I’m an engineer”, which is about the same as what they used to say back in the day: “I’m a worker”, not meaning some specific thing like a locksmith or a general laborer but instead meaning “I work with machines that belong to someone else”, as opposed to “a clerk” that works with papers belonging to someone else.

Directories of occupations and vocational guidance are also the legacy of our glorious proletarian past, when a profession was usually acquired once and for life. Professions have existed for dozens of years – it is enough to equal a profession to an occupation, something one does for a living. While today even the most popular professions come and go, some of them disappear after less than ten years of existence. For example, where are such popular professions as a webmaster or a computer operator today? And to think that dozens of thousands of people were trained to have these jobs.

Here is a practical example: a new woodworking machine once arrived to a college. And nobody there even knew how to approach it. Because working on a numerically controlled woodworking machine is so much different from ordinary joinery that it’s absolutely unclear what profession should a person have to be able to work this machine. A joiner? A machine operator? A CNC woodworking programmer?

As a consultant I work with many HR services. And when they ask me to provide a text for a website advertisement to recruit an employee to do, let’s say, architectural modeling with Modelica software, do you think I mention any profession at all? No! So, my vacancy advertisement will have strange phrases like “hasn’t lost knack for math”, “basic engineer training”, etc. And that contravenes all sorts of occupational guidebooks and indexes, all official classifications. But nonetheless this is the actual experience of the labor market communicating with the market of potential employees.

It’s over, life has moved on, so let’s stop talking in terms of “professions”. In today’s world, where you have certain skills, and we’re only talking about different ways of packaging them, it’s wrong to define a profession as a set of skills. Instead, let’s discuss what employers mention in their job descriptions and think about how to call these things – competences, skills, abilities? But it needs to be discussed the same way we talk about websites today, having moved on from site catalogues to full text search systems. We don’t make search requests like: find some websites about professional growth and woodworking. Instead of that we request precisely what we need, and the search engines show us the exact pages we need. And it works just the same way when searching for personnel: we don’t search for people who have some kind of profession, but we search for certain competences, skills and abilities mentioned in the database – and it’s only these things that I’m ready to discuss in details. As for professions... I don’t know how to use them anymore, I don’t know anyone who needs them, except some people who get government grants and participate in research programs; but these are people who are far removed from the 21st century life. And to think that 15% of the 21st century is already behind us, that is something.

– In such a situation what should college and university managers do: they want to train specialists relevant to today’s market, and for today’s market it’s not professions that are in demand but sets of skills which, on top of that, have to be structured differently every time?

In education there are alternative classifications of skills and knowledge – in the form of curricula and academic programs. Note that education in Russia is mainly funded by the government, so in that system you can spend any amount of taxpayers’ money and still have no connection to reality whatsoever. But if someone ever decides to provide university or college training of professionals in actual demand at the labor market, then first of all they should pay attention to one definition given by Niels Bohr: “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field.” And that is why he is able to avoid them. An educational institution should be able to train a person who is able to learn new areas of expertise, who has basic knowledge that will let him or her acquire new competences by spending as little time on that as possible. I usually divide this task in two – the task of getting education in some sphere or subject and the task of learning and perfecting some technology. Let’s say, you need to teach me to work on some certain machines. In such a case, if I don’t already know the subject, the theoretical basis for this work, it’s going to be impossible to work to the highest standard. If I know nothing about the materials, their strength, their crystalline structure, then I won’t be able to work with any machine. And that’s exactly what I need to get in an educational institution – knowledge of the subject. But when I come to a certain factory, then a representative of the machine’s supplier (or a training specialist – call him what you will) must explain to me what actual buttons I need to push depending on the material’s strength. And that is training for a certain technology. Of course, this is just a tentative example but it shows the basic difference between education and training. And the employers also need to understand that they can get a well-educated employee but they will still need to train him or her on site. Or, alternatively, they may get an “experienced and skilled practitioner” but all his/her knowledge will disappear after the machine he or she uses is exchanged for a newer model.

All the skills are related to the type of activity the person does that he or she uses these skills in. But the activity itself is separated into two parts: what happens in the head, in the mind (an academic discipline), and what happens in life (a technology). And usually the notions of an academic discipline and a technology are not linguistically connected in any way. For instance, if an academic subject is requirements engineering, then in life these requirements will be called either “configuration data sheet” (because the requirements are sent to the supplier) or “specification”, or something else (for instance, “standard” or even “minutes of a meeting”) but it will never be actually called “requirements” like they teach you in college. So when I deal with education, I usually say: “This is a textbook, and there is not a word in it that you will see in real life; while in real life you will never encounter a single word you see in the book.” And that is what an educated person is supposed to be able to do: find theoretical subjects in real life. If I now throw a brick in the air, I can calculate its trajectory and figure out where it’s going to land, and I’m going to think about force, mass and acceleration. But notice that books on physics use the expression “physical body”, they don’t use the word “brick”. Mass, acceleration and all formulas related to these values – all of them concern a physical body. My task is to identify the brick as a physical body, and then all my knowledge of the subject shall become applicable to the brick technology. But there are also certain peculiarities in a brick’s flight. You at least need to know where to get a brick and how to throw it, and that it’s a brick you have to throw, not a feather or a stone – and all of that is to be discussed at the workplace.

– So does this mean that the problem that is raised quite often these days is a false problem, a non-issue? I’m talking about the problem of graduates of educational institutions not being able to commence work right after their graduation, and the company that hires them having to train them before they start working?

Universities and colleges must teach certain subjects, academic disciplines, and the production companies must train their employees to work with certain technologies. Practice = academic discipline + technology (always), and the discipline must support the technology. Very often workers are well-trained in technology but they haven’t learned the discipline. Aleksey Kornilov (a national WorldSkills expert) once told this story: they arrived to a WorldSkills competition, and they had new generation machines there. And our welders weren’t able to master them – they simply couldn’t make the transfer of skills, because they didn’t have the knowledge of the theoretical subject in their minds, they only had the working skill. The buttons changed, and the skill doesn’t work anymore, because they don’t understand the underlying principle of the machine, they don’t know the theory behind the technology.

So the actual problem of today’s professional education is that disciplines are not taught well at all, and there is no understanding of how they can be supported by various technologies. At the same time employers often don’t understand that they have to undertake part of the training: universities and colleges can hardly guess which technologies the employers use. Why does this have to be this way and not some other way? The example of those welders answers this question very well.

– Today some companies open training centers in universities to train specialists that would work with a certain type of equipment. Does this mean that by doing this they don’t get an engineer but instead simply get a maintenance man who is trained to push buttons?

Everybody these days is talking about doing practice-oriented projects while failing to understand that you can’t get rid of theory either. Instead of education you get an entertainment party: everybody is happy, everybody is doing something, everybody is satisfied with what they are doing but for some reason they don’t receive the needed level of professionalism by the end of it. If a brick flies the wrong way, the mistake might be not in knowing where to take it from and where to throw it, but in the lack of scientific knowledge, in not being able to calculate the trajectory of a physical body. In a lot of places they start something that they call «project-based training» but in fact they stop training well-educated professionals but train technicians instead, who know technology and master their tools well but they don’t have the knowledge of the subject. These are half-baked, unfinished people, and they won’t be able to find their place in the future or even in the past. The academic subjects change once every 30 years. Even physics and mathematics change, although they are considered to be the most stable. And technologies change every 5 years. While the discipline remains the same. And if you have good education, it will allow you to work with several generations of technologies: you learn the formulas for strength of materials, and then they faithfully serve you for 30 years. While, for instance, the software that calculates the strengths of certain materials is usually updated or changed once every couple of years.

– In this respect can we say that the primary task of both universities and colleges is to preserve fundamental education?

You need to take the practice (and all theories come from practice, from creativity) and carefully divide it in two – separate the subject, the academic discipline from it and teach that theory. Teach by having students do practical exercises. But of course you also need to have some model machines, simulators. Here is what you need to demonstrate on these simulation machines: you have some kind of a production line, but you don’t just do lab work where you only need to connect 3-4 operations on a short section of the line, but instead perform a full-fledged project with developing and manufacturing a product or a service, because the project unites the knowledge from several areas at once. That is, you are trying to transfer physics, mathematics, computer science or some other subject into some advanced technology, and while doing it you also have to cooperate with other people. You are trying to convert theory into practice, i.e. match things from the book with things from real life. It is quite difficult, and nobody really teaches that.

These days it’s quite fashionable for many schools to introduce a mandatory subject called robotic science. And nobody knows whether it’s supposed to be a practice-based subject or a theoretical discipline. But there can’t be a theoretical discipline about that, because there is no theory of robotic science. They also teach robotic science in universities. And university professors also can’t really say for sure what robotic science is and what it is that they are teaching. In my opinion, what they teach is just prestidigitation (Fr. prestidigitateur – someone with very fast fingers, an illusionist with fast and dexterous hands – ed.) with a screwdriver; they train the students to become great repairmen in maintenance workshops who can take any household electrical appliance (or a robot), take a look at its model, download its assembly manual from the Internet, disassemble the device, replace the broken part and assemble it back again. That means, they don’t need any information on the strength of materials or on electronics, nothing – these are just assembly and disassembly operations, and all the resources they use belong to the manufacturer of the robot.

– What needs to be done in such a situation?

What we need to do right now is to completely change the way we think about knowledge and skills concerning certain practices, including the use of the word “profession”.

If I had to discuss the subject of professions and educational routes, or of what we really need to teach in this ever-changing world, I would discuss it with tutors. Tutoring is situational orientation in the sea of different courses in the curriculum that helps the students to choose their own courses and the optimal sequence of taking them. Tutoring is especially important for schools, because when you teach someone in school you don’t yet completely understand who that person is going to become. A teacher is always a subject teacher, so they always teach some subject and they specify the task sequence of their particular subject. While a tutor must create such an interdisciplinary route for every individual student that will give him or her the most possible opportunities in life. So that after mastering each new subject the number of skills that he or she could master for a shorter studying time would grow. For instance, if a student has learned a certain part of the math curriculum, he/she will now be able to study any higher level math plus some physics. If he or she has learned math and physics of a certain level, he/she now is eligible to study some robotic science. If a student has learned math, physics and computer science, he/she will be able to cope with both CNC equipment and robotics. Picking this route, this chain and the sequence of learning is very important. But unfortunately we have next to no tutoring in Russia. A tutor kind of accepts responsibility for the student. For a tutor every subject is not just a set of words to be learned by heart and skills to be shown but a separate unit that connects with other subjects to form the general set of skills and knowledge of a student. And the task is not focusing specifically on one occupation the student is going to have but instead creating a sort of a funnel to maximize the scope. If you study too much literature in school then you might not be able to do physics when you’re an adult. However, it’s quite possible the other way around. And a tutor has to think about it, about not closing the maximum of possibilities for the student. And a production site coach is not a tutor, he is going to help you specialize, which in fact means closing the possibility of future growth.

Never ask yourselves a question: “What is my profession?” Instead think about the practices you can do that you have skills, knowledge and personal competencies for. Then you won’t have the problem of “changing occupation” or “life-changing choices”. Skills and knowledge come and go, it’s not a problem – we learn and re-learn throughout all our lives. The problem emerges when you try to think of them as of something stable, as of a “profession”. Because in that case it’s going to be very hard for you to get off the ground, especially since not all horse-cab drivers are going to end up being taxi drivers.


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