In my corporate 9-5 job there is a lot of discussion about finding & retaining “top talent” and how “skilled professionals” are scarce. These are sometimes extremely difficult conversations for me to engage in. Sometimes, after one of these I have to go to the bathroom and sit in a stall for a few minutes (ok, that was only once when the leaders talked about how “people without college degrees” aren’t worth looking at….)
It’s hard because it breaks my heart.
But, I also know that what was 150 years ago “skilled” (i.e. a machinist) was 50 years ago “unskilled” (i.e. factory workers). We are in that painful point of a technical revolution that we saw in the mid fifteenth/sixteenth centuries (1600s/1700s) and the late 1800s.
Right now our “unskilled” workers are fighting over EVERY job- and those jobs are being decimated. There are almost 2 million jobs that the BLS lists for truck drivers. If those are replaced by autonomous driving vehicles – what happens to those drivers? The retail industry IS collapsing (#thanksOBAMA) and malls are closing right and left (left and right?) There are (per the BLS again) almost 5 million jobs in retail. If that’s even cut by 1/3-1/2… ouch! That’s 2-2.5 million people who may or may not have other marketable skills.
I just talked about 7 million jobs, about 2% of the total US population, but this automation is happening all over the place. Skills that 20 years ago were standard aren’t any more and skills that people needed 50 years ago…. well they are totally gone (phone operators anyone?)
I have hope because this isn’t the first technological revolution and the definition of “unskilled” has changed before. What was “skilled” became commonplace and became “unskilled” – but we don’t know what those skills are. 150 years ago you’d be fine even if you couldn’t read and write. 50 years ago that was considered a minimum & “unskilled” still meant “literate.” But what are the skills today? Writing Java? Typing? Trig? Electrical systems something-something?
As difficult as I think the next 20-50 years will be, if we can avoid killing ourselves I think we can redefine “skilled” and “unskilled” labor again so that the people that are struggling now (or at least their kids/grandkids) find their spot(s) in society. They might become what plumbers are today (100 years ago THEY were the expert/specialists!) – yes, licensed & learned but NOT “specialists” anymore. Not like we treat programmers. Now we consider the learning required for a plumber to be accessible – whereas programmers we’re still figuring out how it even really works.
I hope that makes sense. 100 years ago you had to spend 10 years just figuring out how to plumb. Now it’s like 2 years of school & 2 years of “apprenticeship” (if they even call it that). Whereas a programmer…. well a lot of them aren’t trusted to lead a new dev team for 10 years…. sound familiar yet? We haven’t gotten programming down to 2 years – and even worse there is like a bajillion differences without standards. We’re in the Wild, Wild West of computing. So it’s “skilled” labor right now.
There are roles that WERE skilled and are STILL skilled: surgeons, architects, engineers. I suspect we’ll continue to add to that list as we develop, but it’s hard for jobs to stay on that list forever. I kind of hope mine does….