what jobs are left?

Posted By: Damian Kavanagh Beyond Ordinary,

Automation is not new. MIT professor and labor economist David Autor points out that there is a long history of technology replacing human labor – and markets adjust. Beasts of burden replaced much of lifting and carrying; the tractor replaced the horse and plow; electricity, internal combustion engines, and telecommunications replaced numerous systems that were previously manual. He notes that at the turn of the last century, 40% of employment was in farming and now there is less than 2% – and we have more food than ever before. Mechanical horsepower replaced having a strong back. What is interesting about his research is when he turns his attention to labor areas that require workers that are more skilled and demonstrates that automation and productivity does not always replace human labor but can augment human labor.

I heard Dr. Autor interviewed in a podcast originally aired in January, 2015 in which he draws attention to the complexities of machines: “[T]he interactions by which technological changes lead to changes in employment are really rich and complex . . . and it’s not simply a matter of a machine does the job, therefore the worker doesn’t do the job, therefore there are fewer workers needed.”

While market sectors can become so productive that they need fewer workers, such as agriculture, in other sectors, productivity has risen and the labor market has as well. In sectors in which we get better, prices go down but the demand grows, creating more employment opportunities. This is great news and great research, but here is the part of the interview that made my heart skip a beat – see if it does for you as well:

One example would be medicine. Seventy-five years ago, most of what doctors could do was harm you. Now they have lots of ways to do good; they’re much more productive in terms of improving your health. That’s also true, apparently, with lawyers or with people in marketing or even in education – well, maybe there hasn’t been that much productivity growth in education. I should watch myself there.

I had to rewind and listen to that part several times. Once the initial shock wore off, I could see his point and concede that he is probably right about the lack of productivity in education. We perpetuate some of our practices and market a low teacher-student ratio (which requires more labor), remarkable facilities (largest budget line after personnel) and a greater diversity of curricular and co-curricular opportunities (double whammy: more labor and more resources). Does education defy advances in productivity? Maybe. But, more likely there are two key factors at play.

  1. We have a paying customer (parent) who is not also the consumer of the product (student), leading to what we might euphemistically call a discrepancy in demand.
  2. We have not recognized (or created) the innovation that will transform and be scaled up.

The first point could resolve with either time or training. On the second point, one of the issues with any advancement is the law of diffusion of innovation, which Simon Sinek talks about in his  TED Talk and in his books: 

The first 2.5% of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5% of our population are our early adopters. The next 34% are your early majority, your late majority and your laggards. The only reason these people buy touch-tone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore. We all sit at various places at various times on this scale, but what the law of diffusion of innovation tells us is that if you want mass-market success or mass-market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration, and then the system tips.

It is entirely possible that the innovation education needs to increase productivity (and hopefully a greater demand for labor) already exists. The lingering question is – what is it? And can we do it at my school? As of the publication date of this piece, we are at the 2017 MISBO Fall Conference having these types of conversations and stretching our imaginations into new possibilities. I doubt there is any one magic thing that will lead to the types of innovations we have been talking about for the past several years, but I do believe that we will diverge and converge and use other elements of design thinking to help kick start us into the future. David Autor uses the phrase “cognitive flexibility” to describe the key skill that labor markets will always need. It is the ability to adapt and face a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. We can continue to get better at teaching this and, as he says, cognitive flexibility beats heavy lifting for a living.