Speaking of Education

The fall meeting of the Board of Educational Affairs included a lively discussion of the final report of its Task Force on Workforce Analysis. The conclusion? The capability to conduct workforce analyses in our discipline is essential if psychology is to remain a major participant with other scientific disciplines and professions that are recognized as essential to our nation's needs in health care, education, science, industry, social services and government.

What is the need?

One of the most striking outcomes consistently observed for psychology is its relatively low levels of unemployment and underemployment coupled with the diversity of employment settings and work activities in which psychologists are engaged. This might prompt some to ask, "What's the problem?" After all, one of the assets of well-educated psychologists is the capacity for lifelong learning and adaptability to changes in the market.

The fact remains, however, that we do not have systematic information about how adaptable and prepared our graduates are for change in employment conditions, or for the particular types of challenges they face in their diverse employment settings. Nor do we have much information on career path changes, including plans for retirement. Yet we do know that significant changes are occurring, and will continue to occur, in both the health-care and academic marketplace--two of our major employment settings.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have little systematic data on why students select various subfields of psychology. If we wish to attract bright, diverse and competitive students, we will increasingly need this information. We do know that women are now close to 50 percent of our work force and account for approximately 70 percent of new doctorates each year. Are we now moving toward less gender diversity in psychology? We also know that we have made some progress in graduating more ethnic-minority psychologists (19 percent annually), but that seems insufficient given the current work force and rapidly changing demographics of our nation (see page 58).

Psychology also needs funding for future generations of psychologists' education and for the career activities of our graduates. To do this, we must compete with other scientific disciplines and professions for finite resources. Most recently, in preparation for the reauthorization of the Public Health Services Act, congressional staff requested "any information that you can provide which addresses the supply and demand for members of your profession through 2020." In recent years, other health professions, notably medicine, nursing and pharmacy, have conducted major work force analyses. In fact, the tracking of the medical work force was considered so vital that the American Association of Medical Colleges recently established a Center for Workforce Studies. Psychology does have good information about numbers of graduates, and research has documented many mental health needs in our society, but there has been no systematic study of supply, demand and the broader role that psychologists play in health care.

Supply ≠ to numbers; demand ≠ to need

In conducting work force analyses, it is important to note that supply is not defined by numbers alone, and that demand is not the equivalent of need. There can be needs with no demand (and, I would submit, demand without need). It is also noted that identified needs can result in demand, especially if recognized in public policy. Our history also informs us that the creation of new knowledge can result in identified needs and subsequent demand for the application of that knowledge. Thus, as I have opined before, graduate education should be market sensitive but not market driven if we are to fulfill our potential as a discipline and profession.

In assessing issues of supply, a proper work force analysis must include, in addition to tallies, attention to the work of other disciplines and professionals. It must also address issues of quality in our supply--which is often gauged by the match between the competencies of graduates and those sought by employers or otherwise needed in professional practice, academic teaching, research and applied science outside the academy. For example, if psychology is to be recognized as a health-care profession on par with others in competition for resources, we must give systematic attention to work force issues in that sector.

As I have noted in previous columns (March 2003, May 2003), we must prepare those graduates with the competencies required to work in (and shape) our future health-care system. For careers in research and academia, we will need more focus on teaching and interdisciplinary collaboration than we have in the past. But all efforts would be better informed by a high-quality work force analysis in our discipline.

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