Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Where the Jobs... Aren't

The full analysis is more complicated, involving tradable jobs, and higher and lower value-added jobs, but Seth Godin highlights an important statistic for U.S. job creation:
Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (making things that could be made somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy? Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the US economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.
I can't say that it's surprising that when you look at the production of goods you'll find that manufacturers seek out the lowest-cost means of production. Domestically that means automation and other efforts that can reduce the cost of production and, of course, outsourcing. As Godin puts it,
If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.
Godin is correct to question the approach taken by schools, and a model of education that still seems largely designed to create quiet, industrious workers for the factory floor, but re-inventing schools will not solve this problem. Even if we could imagine a scenario in which K-12 education primed U.S. school children for a high tech, competitive, innovative, entrepreneurial, creative work environment, there simply aren't enough jobs that require 21st century post-industrial skill set. That is to say, employment focused on invention, design and creativity has to at some level be attached to a product or service. An economy, no matter how large or robust, has limits in its capacity to sell and consume products and services, and the economy will continue to require large numbers of low-level workers to produce the goods and deliver the services. Rather than creating a society in which most people have satisfying, creative jobs and all have the opportunity for such jobs, I suspect that as our economy moves closer to Godin's vision we'll see a continued squeeze on the middle class. But Godin's not offering a solution - he's sharing a warning:
The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?
Get your kids the education and tools they need for the future, because we're not going back.

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