I was just listening to Marketplace on NPR (Jobs of the Future: Middle class struggles with changing job market). Analysts are finally talking about something I have been saying for a long time. The jobless rate is not just about creating industrial age jobs because in the last several recessions millions of jobs have been lost to automation and they aren’t coming back. That is right. No matter how much we stimulate the economy, businesses have made a frugal choice, in this economy drive by quarterly results, to trade-off innovation with automation.
That trade-off, to me, is very real. At least for now, computers don’t improve themselves. Processes remain improved by people. More importantly, people decide when a process doesn’t make sense anymore. We are early in this, but a time will come when businesses will realize that the automation is costing them money because they are doing things they don’t need to do. Now, with automation, that doing may be very very cheap, but it isn’t free, especially when the costs of maintaining those systems is factored in. Systems have become so complex that if they are migrated, the technical issues often trump the business issues and applications, data and tasks are moved over to new platforms with little review.
Businesses want to be efficient, but they are very short-sighted. With automation, they are also removing their feedback loops. They are understaffed to even figure out if the automation makes any sense or not.
Of course, automation doesn’t apply to jobs that require degrees, like management consultant, doctors, nurses and engineers. Not everyone wants those jobs though. Some people want a job to make a wage so they can take care of their family with a little time to enjoy football on the weekend. But we don’t seem to make jobs like that anymore. We have automated them out of existence.
We don’t have a job problem, we have an appreciation of value problem. We have smart people with good instincts and solid experience being demotivated as leaders talk of obsolesce, just like they do of the machines who replaced these people’s jobs. What we need are creative ways to repurpose their skills and knowledge. Perhaps, as I have suggested before, selling it to China and India to ensure that the products they make for us meet our quality and safety expectations. They may have a lot of people in those countries, but they don’t have a lot of experienced managers or line workers. Let’s stop talking about our jobs in America as though we live in a vacuum. The market for our brains isn’t here, so let’s sell our knowledge elsewhere. The Net has made delivery of knowledge nearly zero, so the cost of starting a business and growing it is minimal.
Perhaps some of those business people running for office who don’t win next week can point their considerable talents, money (and new found free time) to making an American knowledge economy work.
I will leave you with this story from the NPR piece, and encourage you again to read or listen to the entire story:
Hayes: The manufacturing facility of the future will employ two people. One will be a man, and one will be a dog. And the man will be there to feed the dog. And the dog will be there to make sure the man doesn’t touch the equipment.
Charles Hayes runs a regional business group, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.