TCS Daily

Dear Unemployed Techie

By Arnold Kling - December 9, 2003 12:00 AM

"Where I live in the Bay Area 300,000 tech jobs have disappeared in the last 3 years. During a period of unemployment last winter I took a computer science class and it was full of middle-aged long-term unemployed, lots of really bright people... I am actually getting out of the field (after 17 years) because frankly it sucks: wages have dropped, benefits also, security is non-existent and people are worked to the point of frantic exhaustion. You can't compete with people making 15% of what you make over there in Bangalore. And of course this society just dumps these people on the scrap heap, and the new jobs coming down the pike are pure crap...The truth is, if I could immigrate I would. I f**king hate my own country."


I would say that the person who wrote this comment on one of my weblogs is a tad bitter. This essay is directed at the many people who share her sentiments.


I know a woman in our area who tutors high school children to help them improve their SAT scores. She needs no license. She works in her home -- the children drive or are driven by their parents, sometimes from over 30 minutes away. For each 45-minute session, she charges $100.


My message to all the unemployed techies out there is this. In a world where an SAT tutor can get $100 for 45 minutes of work, what is your excuse?


The lifetime job using a fixed set of skills is disappearing. It may be reasonable to expect to change jobs every few years and to change fields at least once a decade. This means that almost everyone needs to learn to think like an entrepreneur. In particular, spotting trends is important.


An obscure book on entrepreneurship called Under the Radar says, "I like to use the analogy of hitting a baseball where there is a wind blowing at thirty miles an hour. If the wind is blowing toward right field and you try to hit to left, you have to connect perfectly just to have a chance at a single. On the other hand, if you go with the wind and hit toward right, just getting your bat on the ball may be sufficient to drive one over the outfielder's head."


If a thirty mile-per-hour wind is taking software jobs offshore to India or Russia, then maybe you should not try to fight against the wind. Maybe you should look around for a wind you can ride instead.


Two Key Trends


The SAT tutor benefits from two of the strongest winds out there. These are the trend toward accelerated learning and the trend toward personal services.


Accelerated learning is important because the only constant in our economy is change. The only way to cope with rapid change is to learn. Learning has to be an ongoing process. It has to take place outside the traditional classroom. It has to be efficient and up to date.


The other key trend is toward personal services. The SAT tutor works one on one. This is not an accident. Mass production, distribution, and marketing are not going away -- but they will be a declining share of employment. When you think "mass," think automation. Ultimately, goods and services that are delivered in mass-market form will be produced and distributed by machines.


The Future of Work


Apart from SAT tutoring, what types of work can we expect to be generated by the trends of accelerated learning and personal services? Here are a few possibilities to consider:


Business Communications. Business continues to require communication in order to work. There are language barriers that exist across cultures, across industries, across disciplines (e.g., marketing vs. engineering, or finance vs. computer systems), and across corporate boundaries (between product designers and customers or between operations managers and suppliers). In business communications, new technologies create opportunities and new types of relationships create challenges. People who are good at translating across the various language barriers in business are going to have plenty of work.


Experimental Design and Analysis. How many credit card offers do you receive in a month? How many different airline fares have you found on your most-traveled route? How many different cell phone plans have you looked at?


Many of the options that you encounter are experiments. As consumers, we are guinea pigs in an endless corporate process of trial and error. From direct mail solicitations to web site redesigns, smart corporations are using formal statistical methods to measure and evaluate the results of different approaches. If you know how to design experiments scientifically and to interpret the results statistically, you have a secure future.


Home Health Care. Our population is aging. People are living longer and trying to cope with debilitating illnesses. Middle-aged women talk about being in the "sandwich" generation, having to care for both children and aging parents. Supplying daycare services for the elderly is a business that is certain to continue to grow in the coming decades.


Personal Chef. Everybody likes to eat. The tendency since at least the Second World War has been for the middle class to enjoy more and better food while doing less cooking. It seems to me that the logical extension of this trend is toward more personal catering and more personal chefs. In ten years, if 5 percent of the population has a personal chef, that probably would mean a tenfold increase over today.


Sex Therapist. Another basic human desire. Everyone expects better sex, and they are willing to pay for assistance. Personal sex therapy has the potential to be a mass-market service, and, yes, the boundary between this and that of the world's oldest profession may turn out to be fuzzy.


Alternative Medical Care. I am not talking about New Age folk medicine, but instead about new types of experts to administer advanced treatments. As we get into genetic-based treatments and pharmaceuticals that focus on brain chemistry, new specialists could supercede the traditional MD. Instead of learning hands-on diagnosis, these new practitioners would work on the basis of analyzing DNA and knowing how drugs work.


Alternative Education Delivery. The share of education that takes place outside a traditional classroom is going to increase. Personal tutors, coaches, and teachers are going to be one alternative. Many others might emerge. Even if a college student today does not take a single course in an education department, there is a high probability that that student will wind up involved in education in some way in his or her career. Indeed, it would not surprise me if it turned out to be the students who do take education courses who miss out on the trend toward accelerated learning.


Plenty of Jobs


It is far too soon to worry about a shortage of jobs due to outsourcing, automation, or other factors. There will be plenty of jobs, as long as people are willing to adapt in order to do them. Stay focused on the trends toward accelerated learning and more personal services.


One good job might be "personal employment coach." The focus of that job would be to convince unemployed techies to get off their butts and exercise some entrepreneurial drive.


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