February 19, 2011

Technology and The Workforce Seismic Shift

The Wall Street Journal this week (17 February 2011) had a scary and thought-provoking editorial called “Is Your Job an Endangered Species.”

The thesis is that “Technology is eating jobs—and not just obvious ones like toll takers and phone operators. Lawyers and doctors are at risk as well.”

The notion is that while technology creates opportunities for some, it is a major threat to many others.

The opinion piece says to “forget blue-collar and white-collar-workers.” Rather, think in terms of workers who are either “creators” or “servers”.

Creators—these are the innovators: programmers, researchers, and engineers. They are “the ones driving productivity—writing code, designing chips, creating drugs, and running search engines.”

Servers—these are jobs to service the creators: “building homes, providing food, offering legal advice,” etc. These jobs are ripe “to be replaced by machines, by computers, and by how business operates.”

These two categories of labor are similarly portrayed in the movie I. Robot with a vision of society by 2035 that has engineers (“creators”) from U.S. Robotics building robots and then masses of robots walking around side by side with people and performing everyday tasks from the delivering packages to caring for the sick (“servers”).

With manufacturing jobs continuing to move overseas to the “lowest price bidder” and service-based jobs at risk as we continue to make advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, there are a number of important questions that will challenge us:

1) Are the Creator jobs (augmented by the left-over service jobs that don’t go to robots or AI) enough to keep our population fully or even near fully employed?

2) Can almost everyone (no matter what their intellectual capability and curiosity) be expected to perform in the functional job category of creators?

3) Can we transition the preponderance of our society to be engineers and programmers and scientists and inventors—especially given our challenges in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and is this even desirable?

According to the WSJ editorial, there are a few givens:

- Momentous change in the job market is upon us: “Like it or not we are at the beginning of a decades-long trend” in changing employment prospects.

- Jobs are going to be destroyed: “There is no quick fix for job creation when so much technology-driven job destruction is taking place.”

- New jobs will be created: “History shows that labor-saving machines haven’t decreased overall employment even when they have made certain jobs obsolete.”

One of the major problems with the rapid pace of the technology boom we are experiencing is that job market has not had time to adjust—and the “legacy” labor supply is out of equilibrium with the emerging market demands.

Therefore, until new jobs and the associated education and training catch up to meet the demands of a changing society, we are going to suffer severe job dislocation and unemployment that will be enormously painful for many years yet to come.

In terms of what the gamut of new jobs will end up being in our society, surely it will involve areas of critical need such as energy independence, ongoing medical breakthroughs, necessary security advances, high-speed transportation, and so much more.

In all cases though, we can expect that those workers that bring innovation and modern technical skills “to the table” will have the distinct advantage over those that cling to jobs past their technological prime.

Digital natives will have the advantage here; digital immigrants need to adjust to the seismic shift to the employment landscape that is still only just beginning.


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