Notes From the Field

Notes From the Field

by / April 30, 1998
"The best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." -- Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

One year ago, Government Technology carried an interview with Jeremy Rifkin on Information Age changes in work and employment. This year, as state and local government agencies struggle to find and retain technical staff, some of Rifkin's assertions are worth revisiting.

First, Rifkin said, "We are moving out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. Computers, telecommunications, robots and intelligent machines are replacing traditional jobs. At risk are not only factory jobs but many categories of middle management and white-collar positions, such as clerks, secretaries, bank tellers, librarians and sales people."

Our blue-collar nation of the 1960s, said Rifkin, employed one third of the workforce on the factory floor. Today, even though we're still the top manufacturing nation, factory-floor employment is down to only 17 percent of the workforce. By 2020, he said, there will be virtually no such jobs left. In 1980, for example, US Steel employed 120,000 workers. Today, 20,000 workers -- armed with automation -- produce more steel than those 120,000 did. The trend is worldwide, and by 2020 only 2 percent of the global workforce will be engaged in mass, assembly-line production, he predicted.

Rifkin maintained that, while manufacturing absorbed the displaced agricultural workers of the early 1900s, technology will not have the capacity to absorb displaced manufacturing and service-industry workers, citing layoffs in the banking, finance, insurance, wholesale and retail sectors.

"The new companies," said Rifkin, "are fast, quick, flexible. They are made up of a small, entrepreneurial elite -- a core professional and technical staff and a "just in time" workforce.

While Rifkin's assessment may prove accurate in the long run, today the pendulum has swung the other direction. In the year since Rifkin was interviewed, unemployment dropped to an all-time low, welfare recipients are entering the job market, and there is an ever-increasing shortage of staff that is knowledgeable in information technology. The rising economy has lifted most boats. Help-wanted signs abound in fast-food restaurants, and an estimated 300,000 highly skilled IT jobs remain vacant.

This high-water mark in employment and enterprise is a good time to consider the fluctuations that will inevitably occur and how we can prepare for them. While highly skilled programmers move easily from company to company or project to project, the "just-in-time" workforce -- assembling the latest boxes as temporary workers -- are not so flexible.

Twenty years ago, students could drop out of school and -- working in mills and factories -- still earn enough to support a family, buy a car and live at least part of the American Dream. But that "default mode" is dwindling away, as is the middle management no longer needed to supervise huge numbers of laborers. With electronic payroll deposits, ATMs and point-of-sale transactions, for example, many people go a year or more without facing a bank clerk or a gas station attendant.

While fast-food jobs can help train kids in such skills as punctuality, working cooperatively with a group and providing good service to customers, the core skills of tomorrow's workforce relate directly to Rifkin's description of those "fast, flexible, new companies." Tomorrow's students must not only be able to work in such a world, they must be prepared to create those companies as the world changes daily and new opportunities appear and disappear.

To build flexibility requires grounding in the basics of this new age -- math, science, the ability to communicate clearly, to study, assimilate and apply new ideas and technologies. In addition, a "just-in-time" workforce needs "just-in-time education," not mental warehouses built on the industrial model, crammed with disconnected lessons like auto parts awaiting the moment when "this" or "that" information will be needed. Instead, lifelong learning, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and constant retraining and upgrading are essential. User group meetings, technology conferences, professional journals, distance learning and virtual classrooms are only the beginning.

We have long prized creativity, flexibility and ingenuity in the few. Tomorrow's society will require it in the many. As our machines become smarter, so must we.

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Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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