Mobility and the technology that enables it is helping shape what the future work force will look like. Far from the spacefaring Everyman envisioned by science fiction writers, the employee of the future will be firmly rooted not in outer space but in cyber-space.

Riding the subway or traveling by plane offers proof enough that people are tethered to their mobile devices. David Morton, director of mobile strategies at the University of Washington, studies the mobile device phenomenon. Morton monitors mobile device use on the campus network and posts findings on the Freshly Mobile website. The gadgets people love are growing ever more essential.

In fall 2007, only 393 iPod Touches and 1,033 iPhones were recorded on the university’s network, but by winter 2008, these numbers grew to 3,426 iPod Touches and 4,546 iPhones. In spring 2010, 7,843 iPod Touches and 9,160 iPhones were recorded, and 57 percent of Wi-Fi users were students. “As we move to more proliferation of the handheld devices and the connectivity that often comes with those, that access is much more prevalent and immediate,” Morton said. “And I really think we’re just at the start of that.”

But many might wonder just what exactly that’s the start of. As the current generation of students becomes the next generation of employers and employees, they’ll inevitably move their relationship with technology from the campus to the office. “I know people who have infants. Some of these kids aren’t even 1 year old and they are already being taught how to scroll on an iPhone,” said Lynn Bertsch, director of employer engagement at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Workplace Innovation.

And there won’t be any turning back. “It’s very likely that the students and workers of the future will have even better and more immediate access to information and resources than they already have today,” Morton said. “We’re starting to see some of that today with the proliferation of smartphones and now with things like the iPad. And soon there will be other tablets and other types of devices that serve that need.”

But the devices can be a distraction, according to Carlos Jensen, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Oregon State University. “It’s really difficult to get [students] off these devices even if you wanted to, but for us, that’s not really the point because we’re trying to teach them not just to live with these tools but to use them as productively as possible,” he said.

Jensen admitted that it’s not just the coeds who use mobile devices.  “You can go to any meeting — faculty meeting, university meeting, whatever — and you’ll see about 20 [or] 25 percent of people sitting there with laptops.”

Jensen foresees a growing struggle to find the balance between employing technology as a tool and as a distraction. But technology is poised to change things in other ways, too. Newsweek reported in June 2010 that one in five American employees works nonstandard hours versus the regular nine-to-five. Bertsch thinks that mobile technology will only increase this trend, as computing devices evolve to accommodate mobile workers.

“Probably all of them will just naturally be equipped with video conferencing, and that will be just a normal thing,” she said. “I think more and more the traditional eight-hour workday is going to go away if people can do their jobs with mobile technology from their homes, cars or wherever.”

Bertsch admits, however, that flexible work schedules and taking work home, so to speak, could create discipline problems for some people where none would exist otherwise. But disciplined or not, being “always on” is likely here to stay. “We’re finding that we’re never off work anymore. But there’s an expectation among students, among people I’m working with that because they’re always on, that the actual workplace is a little more relaxed, a little less formal, a little less regimented as far as number of hours worked,” said John Greydanus, media services and outreach director at Oregon State University.

Jon Dorbolo, associate director of Oregon State’s Technology Across the Curriculum program, said students don’t just want instant access — they need it. “The student of the future is right now, and it’s only going to increase what we’re seeing,” he said. “They want immediate access to information. Not having the information available is incomprehensible to them.”

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.