Technology and the Workforce

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In 1900, 41% of the American workforce were farmers. On hundred years later, only 2% of the workforce was employed in this occupation. The technologies of mechanization, crop science, and irrigation changed the face of the workforce. The same thing is happening today: digital information technologies are putting many occupations out of business.

In a recent editorial in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn observe that

The multi-trillionfold decline in the cost of computing since the 1970s has created enormous incentives for employers to substitute increasingly cheap and capable computers for expensive labor. These rapid advances — which confront us daily as we check in at airports, order books online, pay bills on our banks’ Web sites or consult our smartphones for driving directions — have reawakened fears that workers will be displaced by machinery. Will this time be different?

And a question we might ask ourselves as educators is, which occupations are on their way out as a result of this trend? Autor and Dorn suggest an answer:

Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.

So we might steer our students away from that kind of work. At the same time, however, technologies create new jobs in high demand:

computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities. Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.

These non-routine occupations include two very different classes of workers. At the top end are the professionals who design things and perform complex work with lots of judgment. Their work requires "problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity." At the opposite end of the scale are workers who do things that computers are not good at, such as "preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room." The skills needed here include "situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction."

Toward which type of work should we steer our students? And which set of workforce skills should we teach them?

The authors of the editorial predict that "the middle-skill jobs that survive will combine routine technical tasks with abstract and manual tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, adaptability and problem-solving."

Again we see, as we have many times in this blog, the importance of the combination of modern technical skills with strong interpersonal skills.

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