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Discussing job insecurity and occupational change, PhD student got confidence and a position

Emily Murphy is about to leave the NCCR LIVES after four years in IP4 – “Economic inequalities: Towards pathways out of vulnerability”. The prestigious European Sociological Review has already published one of the four papers that compose her thesis and a well-known life course specialist from the University of Zurich just hired her.

In the course of the last twenty years, over 20 per cent of people who had been working in declining occupations in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland became re-employed in a growing kind of occupation. What types of workers are most likely to leave occupations that have declined, and what are the most likely destinations of these exits?

These are some of the questions LIVES PhD Candidate Emily Murphy answered in a paper-based thesis, which she presented in October 2014 at her dissertation colloquium prior to the public defense set for March 2015. Worth mentioning, one article out of her four-part research has been published in the European Sociological Review, not an easy thing to attain for a junior researcher1.

Trying to make Emily Murphy speak about her successes is quite challenging. Fortunately others counterbalance: her supervisor Prof. Daniel Oesch admires the scientific qualities of his doctoral student. “She’s really good at analysing data, she reads a lot and her writing is crystal clear”, he says.

Decline of traditional production occupations

Drawing on panel and census data from UK, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland going back to the seventies, Emily Murphy observed that the last decades were marked by the decline of several traditional production occupations in the industrial and agriculture sectors, especially for men.

Technological change is not the sole agent of change, she argues. Internationalisation and the institutional conditions matter a lot. The entry of women on the job market, and in particular higher educated women, a rise in immigration and the development of occupations in service areas (care, retail and information technology) have been important contributors to structural change.

Gender and status inequalities

Growing occupations do not necessarily mean better jobs, Emily Murphy warns. Women are more likely than men from declining occupations to move towards growing occupations, such as health semi-professionals, but low-paid growing occupations is the most probable destination, which can be as housekeepers, or food or sales service workers. Male production workers in the industrial and agricultural sectors are at higher risk of unemployment than female clerks to become unemployed in Great Britain and Germany, less so in Switzerland where the most probable route is towards low-paid growing occupations.

Emily Murphy shows that gender and status inequalities remain highly salient. The observation that women in the lowest of service occupations seldom experience upward mobility is especially true for female immigrants, despite the fact that a larger share of migrant workers may have higher education compared to natives engaged in the same low-paid jobs. Another concern is the fact that occupations where the share of female labour is above 60% offer workers lower wages; where women make up the majority of workers in an occupation, individual wages will fall.

Need for life-long training

One important finding is that low and medium-wage clerks, however, are better able to adapt their skills to the requirements of growing occupations. “They seem to experience easier transitions in terms of what is required, for the job seems closer to those jobs that are growing”, Emily Murphy says.

This leads to the main policy implication of her thesis, which is the need for life-long training, especially for workers from the production sector, who would need to develop new skills in order to adapt to the evolving job market. “It’s an aspect worth researching further”, she thinks.

A promising career

Besides having published in a prestigious journal, Emily Murphy’s other exploit is to have been hired as a post-doc researcher even before becoming a doctor… Since September, she has been commuting between Lausanne and the University of Zurich, where the Sociology Department offered her two positions.

Famous researcher Marlis Buchmann took her into the team of the Swiss Survey on Children and Youth (COCON), whose next wave of data collection is about to start in 2015 with the youngest cohort now aged 15 (they were 6 years old in 2006 at the beginning of the project).

As of next year, Emily Murphy will also take part in the Swiss Stellenmarkt-Monitor (SMM) project, with the aim of looking at changes in job requirements and employer practices demanded in the recruitment process, drawing from a data set going back to the 1950s.

Her analytical skills will certainly do wonders there. On the personal side, staying in Switzerland will allow her to keep on skiing, which she discovered by moving from Ireland. Going down and up the slopes should not frighten her in any domain.

  • 1. Murphy, E. (2014). Workers' movement out of declining occupations in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland. European Sociological Review, 2014 30: 685-701.