During his year as an exchange student at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in 1991-1992, Didier Fouarge decided to try out a sport practised by few people: fencing. The young Belgian from Namur could not have made a better choice, since he has now been a fencer for the past 22 years.
Fouarge does not need to think long to explain what attracts him in this unusual sport. “Fencing is physically and psychologically challenging, like strategic warfare,” he says. “It is a sport that requires excellent control of movements and power of co-ordination between body and mind, to the level of perfectionism.”
These are skills that Fouarge also uses in his professional life as a scientist where, even when operating within a team, much depends on one’s own effort and sense of perfectionism.
Fouarge works at the Maastricht University Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), an institute that studies the relationship between education and the labour market. As part of its activities, ROA carries out surveys among young graduates and produces labour market forecasts. This information can be useful to prospective students in making suitable choices with regards to their studies and future profession.
What kind of career path will you choose?
Sometimes the data collected to deliver these forecasts lead ROA researchers to formulate a scientific hypothesis, which can then serve as a study topic. This was recently the case for Fouarge and his ROA colleagues Thomas Dohmen and Ben Kriechel who co-authored and submitted an article to an American scientific journal on the topic of career and study choices.
The three researchers tested to what extent young graduates who had been active on the job market for one and a half years had been influenced by personal preferences in terms of career choices and risk-taking.
They found out that patient people are more likely to choose occupations prone to offer relatively higher wages at a later stage in the career; those who are more willing to take risks appear to choose occupations where wages are less easily predictable.
Fouarge gives an example: “Take a teacher: his or her prospective salary is almost fully predictable until retirement. The pay scheme comes with close to no risk. Youngsters who do not like taking risks more often opt for such low-risk professions.”
Entrepreneurs or managers follow an opposite pattern. “The pay scheme in such professions is rather unpredictable, or to put it otherwise, risky,” Fouarge explains. “Youngsters who are willing to take risks do not mind choosing for a career path that comes with the possibility of peaks and pits.”
These findings indicate that people choose their future professions according to the expected match between their personal preferences and their economic prospects. This factor plays an important role in their level of job satisfaction.
Turning this result round, one can conclude that a sudden change in the pay scheme within a profession might be perceived as a change of the rules in the middle of the game and lead to negative consequences for workers.
In the case of teachers, there is an ongoing debate about linking wages to performance. Such a measure would increase the wage risk and could affect the teachers’ level of job satisfaction and commitment, because their payment would no longer match their personal preferences.
And what about fencers, are they risk takers? “Not really,” says Fouarge. “We wear an outfit made from ballistic fabrics and a mask that is very shock-resistant. The body is the target, so if you want to fence more than once you’d better be well protected!”
By Ellen Krijnen
Manager Graduate School of Economics and Business