Thoughts from a tree

Archive for December, 2016

The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back

This post has been percolating for a long time, long before the election nonsense. This is a truth we all need to think about, but brought to the forefront of my mind every time I hear about a lack of jobs somewhere.

First, there are lots of jobs still available, but they require skill of some kind. Unskilled labor is what is needed in increasingly short supply. And not all of the available jobs require degrees or working in an office cubicle. Trade skills (plumber, electrician, mechanic, etc.) can usually still be learned on the job and we currently have a dearth of them. Nurses and medical assistants of various types are needed. Any job that requires good face-to-face customer service hasn’t been replaced yet. Salesmen are always needed.

People may have to move to get a good job. Although I think telecommuting will become more and more common, it hasn’t reached that point yet. And for things like trade skills and nursing, there’s no way to do that over an online chat. I’ve moved for my job (which *can* be done via the intertubes), more than once. If I’d tried to stay in my hometown, as lovely as it is, I’d probably still be unemployed. If a small town loses a large number of unskilled jobs, it simply isn’t going to be possible for everyone to stay there.

No person took the jobs. No race. No country. No government policy. The problem isn’t that factories moved somewhere else, the problem is that jobs have been replaced by machines and better processes. Optimization and efficiency, those are the “enemy,” if you want to have one. Progress is what took the jobs. And they aren’t coming back.

The real problem is that progress hasn’t been distributed fairly. When someone invents a widget that allows a factory to run with 50% less man-hours required, does everyone get to work 50% less? Of course not, they simply get rid of half their employees. Maybe even more than 50%, and then tell the ones remaining (who now have to do more work) that they should be lucky they still have a job at all. And maybe the person who invented the widget gets a lot of money, or maybe they invented it during their hours at work, so the factory gets the patent, and they get a pat on the head.

And this isn’t something that only happens to factory workers. My current job includes taking things that other people do manually, and automating them. At first you think, “great, now those people can work on *better* things.” And maybe they do. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t learn the skills needed for the better things, and eventually get chucked. Maybe the company thinks they’ve got their automated systems down so well that they can just gut some of their departments (what AOL did when I was laid off in 2010). I had saved AOL *literally* over a hundred thousand dollars a month with some of the work I did, and that was my thanks. Recently, AOL had another layoff, so it’s fresh in my mind. I’m no longer in the know, so I couldn’t say what this one was for, but it’s still happening.

The thing is, even in Technology, which is one of the more in-demand job markets there is, we constantly have to learn new skills, and new tools. As soon as one problem is solved, a bigger one replaces it. There’s no such thing as “company loyalty.” No concept of being able to work at the same place, same job, for forty years, and leaving with a cushy pension. And one of the biggest things that IT does, is automation. Whether it’s a script to pull numbers together and put them into a report, or a robot to put together widgets in a factory, progress in Technology tends to cause fewer jobs somewhere.

And this is good, right? Progress is good, most people would agree. Having machines dig out coal instead of people, means fewer lives lost, and fewer people with health problems caused by mining. I mean, the real American dream would be not having to work at all, at least not in any kind of menial sense. Machines to do all the dirty work that no one really wants to do. For people to have the time to pursue their true passions and interests. To work less, and with joy at what we are doing.

But, the way the system is structured right now, we’ll never get there. The only people that get to work less, or not at all, are the people who own the factories/businesses (whether directly, or through stock). The only ones who get to live a life of luxury and leisure are the 1%. And every time improvements are made, they are the ones that benefit, while the people at the bottom get the shaft (or get the shaft taken away, I suppose, if they were coal miners).

Soon, there won’t be human delivery drivers or taxi drivers. Most people won’t even own cars, they’ll just order up a transportation pod to take them quickly from place to place. Which sounds great, until you realize how many jobs that will cost. Should we stop progress to preserve those jobs? I would say no, but at the same time, we need to think about how we deal with it.

How do we deal with a country that no longer needs the amount of workers we have multiplied by 40 hours a week, whether skilled or unskilled?

I don’t have answers, but I do have some ideas. Some are more practical than others, but I’m going to throw them all out here in the interest of brainstorming.

  1. Get rid of the idea the idea that everyone needs to work forty hours a week to be “worthy”. Get rid of the idea that working crazy hours is something anyone should strive for. Consider a 30-hour (or less) work week to be the new norm for a full-time position. If that means that companies have to hire more people, that’s the idea (although research has shown that this can actually increase overall productivity). Spread the work around. If we invent more widgets that reduce the amount of work needed, everyone should get to benefit from it. This is the idea I feel most strongly about. I love my job, but I hate the fact that I can either work 40+ hours, or quit, with no middle-ground/part-time option. Working forty+ hours means I don’t have the time or energy to do the things I really want to, to do charity work, or to visit friends and family as often as I’d like. Unless something changes, I’ll eventually end up quitting (see #3.)
  2. Offer skills training and relocation services for those whose jobs no longer exist, or can no longer compete in a job market with too many applicants. Offer paid “internships” or apprenticeships to people who aren’t young and/or in college.
  3. Retirement should be planned to come sooner, not later. Just because we’re living longer doesn’t mean we want to spend all our good years with our nose to the grindstone. As people get older, they’re going to have more trouble keeping up with the new technologies anyways, so why force them to?
  4. Hire more teachers, and teacher assistants. Is there anything more important for us to invest in than education? If we’re going to “create jobs”, this would be a great place for it. And make education equal. All public schools should receive equal funding per student. Kids who grow up in poor counties, with poor schools, will already have the most difficulty acquiring the skills that will be a requirement for nearly all jobs in the future. Don’t make it even harder for them. This disparity creates a large part of the poverty gap and hurts minorities the most.
  5. While we’re at it, universal daycare for all. We’re long past a time where every household can have a parent stay at home, and if people have to move to find work, it will be even harder for them to find free daycare (from a friend or relative, who will no longer live nearby).
  6. Teach money management, living within your means, what compounding interest means, and how to invest intelligently, starting in elementary school. Teach everyone how to save and invest in order that they can achieve #3. Teach everyone how to become wise stockholders, so that everyone can profit from society’s advances.
  7. Anytime a public company does a layoff, they have to give stock to all employees (including those laid off) in an amount equivalent to at least one year’s worth of the savings they are getting. Exceptions for things like bankruptcies, but then the stock would be worthless anyways.
  8. Actual stock grants (not options), should be a part of every employee’s compensation package when working for a public company. Everyone should benefit from the work they do.
  9. Basic Income Stipend for all. Not really my idea, as I know this would be hard to pass at a time when just providing healthcare is so controversial. But others have brought it up a lot recently.
  10. Sort of unrelated, but schools should provide 3 meals a day, 365 days a year for all who qualify for free or reduced meals. Lack of proper nutrition can hamper brain development. Relying on brawn for job prospects will become less and less possible, as those jobs are the easiest to replace with machines.

We need to rethink why we work, what the point of having jobs are, why increasing the labor market is considered good, and how to get to that dream of the future where no one has to work.

The alternative is what we’re already seeing, a growing divide between those that can take advantage of progress, and those that are hurt by it. A new form of lords vs. peasants.

Advertisements