John Parkinson: Live and Learn

My April column looked at the triple issues of productivity, automation and offshore labor markets and their likely impact on medium- to long-term U.S. technology employment. The conclusion: There is no real alternative to accepting that these forces will dramatically reshape the North American and European technology jobs landscape over the next decade. Resistance is essentially futile. Even if short-term protectionist measures might seem to be helping now, in the long term they hurt global competitiveness, and that, in turn, hurts employment just as much or more. So, what can we do?

First, recognize that there is a whole range of jobs that you can’t yet automate or send offshore, even if you are able to make them more productive here at home. Hardware installation, connection, maintenance and decommissioning are all examples for both the business and consumer markets. And some kinds of training still work best in person and in situ—although I’m less convinced about this last area for the longer term. The technological plumbing trades can continue to flourish, even if they don’t seem to be as high tech as system design and programming.

I believe that these jobs will actually become much more skilled over time as capital investment to promote productivity increases. These jobs are also increasingly mobile—you work from a vehicle more often than an office because you have to go to the problem to fix it. So persistent connectivity and familiarity with the tools of a mobile workforce will be critical. Equally critical will be fairly constant familiarization and training with emerging hardware and software technologies and their integration and use.

Today, the people doing this work can make good money—from $15 to $25 an hour for entry-level technicians doing basic work, up to $70 an hour for experienced technicians, depending on what they are working on—and they are still only considered to be a semi-skilled workforce. Even with software-assisted task direction, they’ll need to be much more capable in the future.

Second, it looks as though the U.S. and some parts of Europe will continue to be the focus of innovation and new technology introduction for at least the next decade, and possibly beyond. In part, that’s because we already have so much complex technology in place, as well as a complex capital infrastructure to promote and exploit innovation. This may change over time, as the domestic markets in India and China ramp up local wealth and eventually create their own investable capital on the back of emerging consumer societies. But we are safe, I think, for at least a while.

The creation and development of emerging technologies are good bets to remain onshore because for the first part of their life cycle they need close integration between research and development, marketplace adoption and technical support. Early technologies don’t generally work as well as they will later on, and smart and sophisticated technologists are needed to get them from infancy to maturity. The kinds of jobs required to do this work, such as ethnographic research that involves designing the user experience, physical environment planning and deployment, and the in situ tweaks that are necessary to make prototypes work effectively, are high value and very skilled. They also carry a cost in the form of continuing investment in education, because as successful new technologies mature, the work associated with developing and integrating them will go mainstream and rapidly migrate offshore.

Today, the early stages of the typical new technology are supported by a core vendor group and an ecosystem of small, venture-backed start-up companies (think Web services). In effect, the venture capital community is funding the learning associated with innovation.

Third, there will be areas where security concerns override economics. Industrial and national security issues could require citizen-technologists who are accountable under local laws and operating practices. Appropriately certified and perhaps bonded workers will be needed, along with secure local infrastructure. Although many so-called secret technologies have a relatively short half-life, some areas persist. Most security jobs will need frequent updating as the science and technology behind security work continue to evolve.

In fact, everywhere I look, the persistent local opportunities in technology have this same core property: They require people—and presumably their employers and backers—who recognize that their portfolio of skills will have value only if it is constantly refreshed. Some technology companies already recognize this; Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems, for example, all invest heavily in regular education of their “services” resources. But many technology services companies and internal IT departments don’t. It’s been a truism for decades that the training budget is one of the first things to get cut when times get hard. That’s almost certainly going to have to change.

What’s also going to have to change is the idea that you’re done with school when you finally graduate, whether from high school with a coding diploma, from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, from Stanford with a doctorate in electrical engineering, or from Harvard with an MBA. If you want to work long-term with technology in the developed world, you’re going to have to build, maintain and evolve your profile of skills over three or four decades and in a much more rigorously planned and executed way than the haphazard accumulation pattern of previous generations of tech workers.

In response to this need, the entire adult education system is going to need some significant degree of re-engineering. It will probably take broad-based collaboration among employers, technology schools and the government to create a workable—and affordable—system. Perhaps some blend of employment policy, individual investment of tax-advantaged dollars and time, and innovative content delivery, especially in the delivery to the workplace, will do the trick.

There are going to be winners here, both on the corporate side, where companies can create a pool of internal and externally available loyal and effective technologists, and among people who can build profitable, rewarding technology careers.

There will be losers as well, of course. Rote technology jobs will go mostly to automation or offshore. That, in turn, will make entry-level positions harder to find—we might even have to re-invent some form of guild system with vendor-sponsored apprenticeships to ensure a supply of trained and motivated technologists. Guilds aren’t a perfect answer—they can be anti-innovation, as they often were during pre-industrial times—but they also can add a lot of value if they’re integrated into a broader shift toward lifetime skills investments.

I worry that the biggest group of losers will be the generation just coming into the workforce after going through an education and training process that was focused on a world that didn’t happen—the world predicted by the Internet boom and the technology market demands of the 1990s. They have expectations that just can’t be met, and no one to blame but the system that failed to anticipate the global economy’s response to a shortage of technology skills. I don’t see how we can accommodate them easily, or maybe at all, in the changed technology environment we have now, and that concerns me.

Figuring out what to do is going to be the real short-term political issue. That, and having the courage and imagination to rebuild the system so we don’t get fooled in the same way again.

John Parkinson is chief technologist for the Americas at Capgemini.

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