Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thoughts on the emerging workplace and employability Great Restructuring 2

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on October 23, 2013

This is my second posting to a short series on the changing nature of employability and the workplace that has recently emerged as the Great Restructuring (see Part 1.)

The basic nature of the Great Restructuring is very simple, and to keep this discussion summary simple too, I outline it here in terms of one country and the emerging experience of this phenomenon for its workforce: the United States. I simply note that the basic points that I raise here apply in general terms, much more widely. And a summary of what the Great Restructuring entails, follows a relatively consistent pattern:

• In recent years, and with a fundamental shift overtly taking hold from the start of our recent Great Recession, a great many jobs have been disappearing. And looking at this from the perspective of the Great Recession and its aftermath and economic recovery, businesses and the economy have essentially entirely recovered and certainly in the United States. Levels of business and business profitability have rebounded and the stock and bond markets have bounded up above their pre-recession highs. But the number of people who remain unemployed remains high – we have been experiencing what is sometimes called a jobless recovery.
• As I noted in Part 1 to this short series, new jobs and new types of jobs continue to arise and people are hired into them. But in overall aggregate total, and taking into account people who permanently leave the workforce and those entering it for the first time, job formation and job continuity for remaining employed are not keeping pace with job need and the numbers seeking work.
• So a significant percentage of working age citizens who would seek jobs cannot secure them and enter or reenter the workforce when they find themselves out of work.
• The official jobless rate as measured by the US Department of Labor (DOL), as stated in their Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) and other reports only offer low-range unemployment estimates and particularly when the rate of chronically unemployed job seekers who cannot find work in spite of actively looking, is taken into account. The DOL does not count people as still seeking work or as members of the workforce if they have remained unemployed long enough to have exhausted their unemployment benefits. So during a recession or a jobless recovery, their official estimates can be off by several percentage points from what would be a true number.
• But even with this systematic official under-estimation, unemployment rates persistently remain high, and in spite of recovery by essentially all other measures used.

I listed and at least briefly discussed a set of reasons why this might happen in Part 1, but found myself left with just one primary factor that would drive this, that does not represent a cyclical or otherwise reversible shift that would be expected to balance out with time: automation and the permanent shift of more and more types of work entirely out of human hands. So as a real starting point for this posting, I state that:

• The Great Restructuring represents an ongoing and permanent shift in the nature of the workforce and in what it means to be employable, and
• The driving force behind this shift comes from a combination of dramatic improvements in the capability and cost-effectiveness of artificial intelligence solutions, and the cost-effectiveness of automated systems solutions.

And this brings me to the fundamental question that needs to be addressed when this development is raised in a jobs and careers context:

• What types of work are most vulnerable to being automated and what types of skills and skill sets are most likely to disappear from the jobs market?

Alternatively, and as a positive, I would ask:

• What types and combinations of work skills and experience are going to remain necessary, and for work that cannot or would not be automated away?
• What types of jobs will remain secure, and how can an individual best position themselves to gain and keep this type of work?

Automation has been a developing pathway to job disappearance for a number of years now. As a first phase of this phenomenon, that has traditionally meant automating simple repetitive tasks that can be carried out by rote by a simple machine system where judgment and case-by-case decision making would essentially never be called upon. Worker safety and other due diligence considerations have also entered into the decision making equations when a determination is made as to whether human labor or automation would be more cost-effective. But basically, it was the simple and largely unskilled labor tasks that were repetitive, and where an automated systems approach could be cost-effectively developed, that were automated out of human hands first.

The Great Restructuring marks a second phase in this already ongoing process where the key determinant is not one of single task simplicity, but in whether a job and even a complex one can be represented as a single consistently followed algorithm. And the Great Restructuring’s advancement can be tracked as a developing trend in which it becomes more and more cost-effective to automate the performance of progressively more complex algorithms and even algorithms that contain multiple complex decision points and alternative process pathways. It is now becoming possible to cost-effectively automate more and more complex and nuanced jobs that in human hands call for both skills and experience and decision making judgment. And I add that we are still in the early stages of this employment and employability shift, even as unemployment rates already stubbornly remain high, going through and after a strong economic recovery.

It was not that long ago that spot welding was a hands-on human performed job, and an important one in the automotive industry as just one example of where this skill was needed. Cost containment pressures and capacity to automate have essentially entirely automated this as a job type or career path option. Now the only people significantly involved in that work process are the much smaller numbers of technicians who manage and maintain arrays of automated spot welding machinery that actually carry this work out. That is actually a complex task with very large numbers of very precise spot welds required in the assembly of any car or truck. Spot welding was, I add, already essentially entirely automated before the real start of the Great Restructuring and now it is much more complex tasks that are being considered for automation, and it is more skilled jobs and workers that significantly face displacement through automation.

• What types of job have been relatively immune from and secure from automation?
• There are two significant answers to that: jobs that command such low wages as unskilled labor that it would not be cost-effective to replace human laborers with automated systems, and jobs that call for such complex skills that no cost-effective automation alternative could at least currently be developed and implemented to replace them.
• I have been discussing up to here the erosion of security in high-end jobs that call for complex skills and where work performed cannot readily be specified by any one algorithm. Technical advancement creates expanding challenges there, and improved cost-effectiveness for automated systems capabilities in general creates challenges to ongoing human labor at both that and at the low-end job, end of this employability spectrum with the middle ground, risky ground to try to build a career in and for more and more job types.
• The Great Restructuring can be seen as a process of expansion of that middle ground, at-risk portion of the low-end to high-end jobs spectrum.

I am going to continue this discussion from a specific jobs and careers best practices approach, by switching back to post to my series: Offering a Unique Value Proposition as an Employee. My next posting there will be its thirtieth installment (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 311-339 for Parts 1-29 of that series.) Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2 and at its first Guide directory page, with this and its Part 1 installment added into this Guide’s supplemental postings.

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