The Nature of Work

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Many educators question the relevance of the so-called 21st-Century skills that have been discussed in this blog. They claim that only a few graduates -- high-tech workers and managers -- will need those higher-level skills, but that most of the workforce will not be using them. Instead, they'll need the same skills workers have always needed to succeed: to come to work on time, obey orders, master routine manual and clerical tasks. Most of the world's work, they say, such as making light bulbs for General Electric, or processing cheese at Cabot Farmer's Cooperative, or building boats at US Watercraft, or assembling thermostats at Honeywell, remains largely untouched by the digital revolution.

Let's look at this claim more closely.

At General Electric, one of the largest industrial companies in the world, everything's going digital, and everything's getting networked. A recent report in The New York Times explains that "General Electric announced software for what it calls the Industrial Internet, which means the use of sensors, networking technology, and data analysis to better understand and use large industrial processes like electric power production. It is the latest step in G.E.’s push to make the rest of the world’s equipment and systems operate more like the Internet."

At the Cabot Farmer’s Cooperative in Vermont, milk from New England cows is crafted into cheddar cheese that's shipped all around the world. The cheese-making process is old and traditional: expose the milk to the air, add a little acid, watch the temperature, and wait for the curds to form. Then compress the solids, let it age, and slice it onto your sandwich. Not many 21st-Century skills needed here. But on the factory floor, you encounter a surprise. Scientists in white lab coats armed with test tubes and computers monitor the process in the lab, while the machines that make the cheese are run by computers. Not too many jobs in this factory can be filled by unskilled workers. The workers are there to program the machines, monitor them with precision, solve problems when they go wrong, and design new machines that make the cheese better.

At the TPI boat factory in Warren, Rhode Island, hulls in various stages of assembly fill the sprawling floor, some empty shells, others ready to roll out the door to the launch ramp. A boat is assembled from hundreds of parts, each manufactured in one of the shops nearby. One makes the hull, another the deck, others construct the floors, walls, and teak trim pieces. All are highly automated. Yet the factory is quiet. No banging, no yelling, no muscle work. The few workers in the plant wearing ironed shirts and electronic ID tags. They manipulate computer keyboards more than wrenches or screwdrivers. A boat's parts are created not by people at lathes but by computer-controlled robots. The worker stands several feet away, safely monitoring the action. His hands are folded, his shirt spotless, his mind focused on how he might speed up or improve the manufacturing process.

I bought a new thermostat last week. It connects to the wifi network in my house, and to the furnace. I can monitor the temperature from my smartphone or from my computer. Right now I am on the train to New York, yet I know that it's 81 degrees at the house. Here's what I see on my laptop:


If I want, I can turn the dial with my mouse the air conditioner will start. My humble thermostat serves as a example of "the use of sensors, networking technology, and data analysis to better understand and use large industrial processes."

No job, no industrial process however humble and traditional is immune from digital connectivity. Routine jobs are disappearing. The workforce we need must be ready to contribute to a digital networked world.

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