The growth of cognitive careers

High-paying and stimulating jobs are increasingly going to the smartest among us

Economies, and by extension careers, reward those human characteristics most in demand.

When muscular strength was most in need during times dominated by agriculture and mechanical ability became required to develop and maintain machinery during the industrial age, those capacities were rewarded and revered leading to employment for those possessing such skills. The age we’ve now entered, particularly since the invention of the microprocessor, is one around which cognitive competency or intelligence is highly honored.

High-paying and stimulating jobs are increasingly going to the smartest among us and there is no end in sight of this trend.

Historically, there has always been a need for intelligent people, but the correlation between cognitive ability and compensation was never as strong as it is today.

One could have been an astute lawyer, financial planner or mathematician at the turn of the 20th century, but the economy just didn’t reward those people at the levels that can be done today. We’ve created a much more complex economy requiring well-informed, inventive and knowledgeable people who can navigate and derive value from what is for many of us a puzzling network of esoteric information in so many areas. The employment appeal for smart people is high and growing.

For years we have heard about high unemployment rates, and at the same time we’ve heard there is not enough talent to hire for hard-to-fill positions. The jobs that are vacant seek individuals with know-how in management, engineering, data analysis and many other areas where information processing, creativity and workforce resourcefulness is called for.

Professionalism is deepening across fields that include medicine/health care, the law, higher education, the sciences, the military, advanced manufacturing and finance. Routine and relatively low-skilled operations will not bring competitive advantages to these career categories. Only accelerated thinking will.

As a result, we are seeing the growth of an educated class. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 4.6 percent of the U.S. population had attained bachelor degrees or higher in 1940. Today it is 32 percent. As this educated class continues to earn at relatively robust rates, it appears to create an impression of inequality and disenfranchisement, such as we see being exploited in our current presidential election.

However, meeting the cognitive demands of a more intricate and perplexing economy requires educated people. Blaming the successful is not enough to improve the lot of us all. Directing one’s individual energies to where the expertise is most needed will.

The number of us prepared to meet the demands of the globalized cognitive economy is not enough if we are to continue being among the world’s leaders in innovation, business and social transformation. Without relatively easy access to higher education for those with the potential to take the most advantage of this opportunity we all lose.

Let’s agree that lifelong learning is essential for each and every one of us and entry into a college experience that challenges and pushes us to maximize our cerebral capacity benefits us personally and collectively.

However, the expense of college is too high and makes going prohibitive for too many Americans. The cost of college has risen too much and too fast. To put this cost hike into perspective The New York Times Economix blog shows that since 1985 the cost of general consumer items has jumped by over 200 percent, gasoline prices have risen approximately 300 percent and medical care 350 percent. But college tuition and fees — 575 percent!

How is this in our best interests? This destructive level of inflation needs to be controlled. Our long-term economic development relies on it.

Equality of opportunity is a virtue and should be the basis of much of our public policy. Opportunity is stifled when only the rich can afford to go to college. Opening the doors to higher education invites more participation in the cognitive careers and expands the education class to more inclusiveness. 

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or

Categories: Business Advice