• Fraser Harper

Mother occupations

Across the world we see a few contradictory trends when it comes to classifying occupations. One trend has been to look for greater granularity (‘hunting the 5-digit occupation’1), in so doing to increase the number of occupations recognised in a classification system2. At the same time there is also the trend to look for the least number of entry points for those completing initial vocation related qualification and to help those considering a first career3. These are not totally contradictory trends. But when we have digital technologies driving convergence and shared capabilities, splitting and drawing finer lines between occupations  does seem a little strange4. The ‘professionalisation’ of the labour market, with more and more occupations being regulated by profession bodies, also tends to drive for greater numbers of occupations5 and has been a trend since the initial Guilds of London sought to maximise income by constraining supply.

Despite efforts to refine occupation classification systems, skills and occupation mapping (based on common skills, knowledge and abilities), together with related activities aimed at assisting career advice and management6, and new qualification development7 invariably come up with 12-16 broad sets of entry occupations. This makes sense not only from an education-into-work vocational sense but also for the individual as well in order to maximise choice and progression options going forward. Equipping individuals with a broad set of skills and knowledge sets them up for future changes at work and so gives them a high level of resilience and employability.

We see similar interest in the workplace, where employers have sought to create multi-skilled or polyvalent job holders. Basically, these are individuals who can acquire a wide range of skills across operational duties through to technical and organisation ones. In part, this aligns with the work to be undertaken along a manufacturing process e.g. chemicals, high volume packing lines, and the maximisation of safety levels, such as those working in constrained, high risk places of work like oil rigs8. A balance must be struck between the nature of the tasks to be undertaken and how frequently they are fully completed to maintain a high level of proficiency (the LUDO principle9).

Companies that have tried to simplify their organisation structures and rationalise job titles and roles have also come down to a small number of core roles. In one case of a pharmaceutical company10, it came down from 51 separate jobs down to 5 core ones, all with a high level of technical content and working across four main levels of capability (almost equivalent to four natural work levels11). What we see when companies seek to simply their structures and reduce the proliferation of job titles is that they end up with a few, more complex, jobs which operate with greater autonomy both individually and collectively (in a team)12.

So, just as we have mother organisations which spawn new businesses and highly-trained, effective people, we have a series of broadly-based occupations from which individuals can progress into multiple career paths. The value to the individual is huge in that it provides choice and sustainable employment without having to trade down to less skilled roles. For society and the economy, this means there is a ready supply of adaptable, quick learning and skilled people to take on new work challenges as technology and sectors change.


  1. Gatsby Foundation (2016) Consultation on reviewing the Standard Occupational Classification 2010 (SOC 2010). Submission to the ONS consultation. April. 5 pages

  2. We now have an international occupation classification system (ISCO) which now has over 434 (ISCO-08) occupations listed (up from 390 in the former ISCO 88 release) which is similar to the UK (at 371) but less than Canada (522) but is dwarfed by Australia (1079), Netherlands (1211) and the USA (821 from the BLS  to 1110 in O*NET). While Germany is somewhere in between (c700). Job title numbers also vary hugely from ISCO at around 7000 to the UK SOC 28000 and in the USA at nearly 60000.

  3. National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium – this body oversees the career cluster framework which divides careers into 16 clusters.

  4. Mueller, M.L. (1997) Digital Convergence and its Consequences. 15 pages

  5. UKCES (2014) Working Futures 2014 – 2024. 28 pages; Gardiner, L. & Corlett, A. (2015) Looking through the hourglass: hollowing out of the UK jobs market pre- and post-crises. Resolution Foundation. 31 pages. Generally the number of occupations defined as being professional or associate professional and in the UK is around one third of the total workforce i.e. 11 million.

  6. Labor and Economics Analysis Division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce (2018) Careers Clusters Guide. 16 Career Clusters, Career Pathways and Tools to Help you discover your interest. 120 pages

  7. Department for Education (2016) Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education (the Sainsbury Report). 102 pages

  8. Cross, M. (1985) Towards the Flexible Craftsman. Technical Change Centre. 206 pages

  9. Wickens, P. (1987) The Road to Nissan: Flexibility, Quality, Teamwork. Palgrave. 216 pages. LUDO here is the progression of Nissan car production operators who learning, understand, do and operate before they are able supervise and coach others.

  10. Cross, M. (1990) Changing Job Structures: Techniques for the design of new jobs and organisations. Butterworth-Heinemann. 355 pages. This book covers a series of studies undertaken into a number of process manufacturing plants operated by GSK, Shell, 3M and others. This work builds the pioneering work of the cross-industry training board group, the Process Industries Manpower Group, chaired by Professor John Parnaby, Group Director of Technology at Lucas.

  11. Jacques, E. (2006) Requisite organisation. Revised edition. Cason Hall. 288 pages; here we are talking about around 5 natural work levels which broadly align with those used by the National Vocational Qualification system.

  12. Ulbo de Sitter, L., Dankbaar, B. and Friso den Hertog, J. (1997) “Designing simple organisations and complex jobs”, Human Relations, 50 (5), 497-534

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