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Skilled Labor for the Developing World

November 21, 2014
Portrait: Brenton Wiernik

Brenton Wiernik hopes to resolve a major concern in developed economies: the shortage of highly-skilled industrial workers, even in the face of high unemployment.

The second-year graduate Ph.D. student is conducting global research on the psychology of the problem, following a stint as a visiting scholar at the German Institute for Labor Statistics.

A big part of the problem, Wiernik says, is a cultural bias against skilled labor.

"We're finding that young people don't think that working as plumber, a welder or electrician is a 'real' occupation. They often equate those jobs with being a fast food worker," he said.

While economists have long pondered the skilled labor shortage and anthropologists have considered the skilled-worker stigma phenomenon, Wiernik brings psychological insights to the issue. He looks for consistent characteristics in those highly satisfied with their skilled labor positions, to help counselors and vocational trainers identify people who might be suited for the work.

"People who thrive in these jobs are defined by curiosity; they like to solve problems; they're relatively introverted and like to do things on their own," Wiernik says.

Based on his research, a counselor might urge students with these characteristics -- particularly those who like to fix things, but aren't interested in a four-year degree -- to try an apprenticeship to determine if the work might be interesting and rewarding.

He's also studying the psychology of global occupational migration. Basing his work on surveys of people who voluntarily take jobs in countries other than their own, he hypothesizes that migrants who flee difficult economic conditions tend to be more willing to push themselves and take risks.

"I expect to find that those willing to accept the risks of migration tend to be dependable, reliable, goal-oriented and better performers," Wiernik said.

"This might suggest that immigrants represent a valuable population, even if they're are not highly educated or have other factors usually associated with success."