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I’ve never quite made peace with the way that some people use the word “corporate” as if it were a proper noun. “I worked in corporate.” Aside from just sounding funny, it flattens out some pretty important distinctions. There’s corporate, and then there’s corporate.

The same applies to jobs. There are jobs, and then there are jobs.

A presentation on “Locally Relevant Pathways” at the Achieving the Dream conference on Wednesday offered a really helpful way to make distinctions among jobs. Sara Lamback, from Jobs for the Future, presented the results of a study that JFF did in which it looked at millions of résumés and then traced occupational paths of the people whose résumés they were. The idea was to figure out empirically which skills or credentials correlated with which jobs, in hopes of improving the matching of students to opportunities. (They focused entirely on “middle-skills” jobs, meaning jobs that require more than a high school diploma but don’t require a four-year degree.)

Already I was intrigued. Too much of the discourse around job preparation and community colleges is anecdotal or ideological; going empirical seems like it’s worth a shot.

But the real breakthrough for me came when Lamback mentioned that looking at occupational paths, as opposed merely to first hires, showed that most of the middle-skill jobs they tracked fit into one of three categories: lifetime, springboard or static.

Lifetime jobs are the most desirable. They pay pretty well from the outset, and people can stick with them for a long time. Lamback offered the example of a dental hygienist. It pays reasonably well, and it’s the kind of job that someone can hold for years. People are likely to have teeth for the foreseeable future, so the role is unlikely to get automated away or offshored. These are the kinds of jobs that most people have in mind when they think of community college vocational programs.

Springboard jobs start modestly but put someone in a position to move up. Lamback suggested a role like human resources assistant as an example. It may not pay all that well at the outset, and it’s not a job from which most people hope to retire. But it can put someone in a position to move up over time. (I’ll admit that I immediately thought of academics. Teaching assistant, for instance, is supposed to be a springboard job, though it’s not middle skill.) Many liberal arts majors find themselves in springboard jobs when they start.

Finally, static jobs are exactly what they sound like. They may or may not pay decently at the outset, but they’re insecure and they don’t lead anywhere. She offered the example of someone who works on an assembly line in a dying industry. It sort of works, until the inevitable next round of layoffs. A static job is better than no job, in the same sense that treading water is better than drowning. But neither is a long-term strategy.

Flattening all three of those categories into just “get a job,” as with “corporate,” risks masking some bad decisions under a shortsighted pragmatism. Given limited resources, it’s probably best to aim at programs that prepare students for the first two categories and to (mostly) ignore the third.

Admittedly, it’s easier to develop a typology than to know with certainty what goes where. For example, depending on how much you believe in self-driving technology, truck driver could be a lifetime job, or it could be a static job. Right now it’s hard to say with certainty. And there are certainly local and regional variations, based on which industries cluster where.

But the typology is a useful start. As simple as it is, it’s fairly easy to communicate. It’s clear enough that it could actually influence policy, and it’s empirically grounded enough that a serious person could use it in good faith.

Score one for day two of ATD. On to day three!

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