A few days ago Ross Mayfield wrote an absolutely compelling piece about jobs, tech companies and the original Luddite movement:
50% of the jobs will be gone in ~20 years. Not from the great sucking sound of jobs to Mexico that can be stopped with a wall. Not from moving offshore to China. From automation that is moving quickly from blue collar manufacturing to white collar information work. Second only to climate change, this is the greatest disruption of our time, and I don’t mean that word in a good way. Link
Years and years ago I actually knew Ross on a fairly good level and Ross is smart. He's also not wrong about what tech companies are doing to the economy. While I don't think the trends are as dire as he says, there is a real wild card and that's self driving technology that actually works.
If self driving technology works then we can easily see things like:
- Massive disruption of the trucking industry; America's Number One Job
- A move away from personal vehicle ownership towards transportation as a service and that in turn will nuke the car dealership and car repair industries, car detailing, etc.
- This will absolutely devalue the car that you own today so it affects you in your pocketbook.
But self driving technology is a wild card and I'm less certain about it getting to the fully automated level than a lot of analysts. We've all heard the statement that the last 5% of an engineering project can be as hard as the rest and we're not even at the 95% level yet. So while self driving technology will get here, it is very unclear to me if it is 2020 or 2040.
Sidebar: Ross cites a number of frightening statistics from different research reports such as 50% of occupations today will be gone by 2020. The one thing to always understand about statistics from research reports is that large numbers sell research reports. No one buys a research report that forecasts something low; low is boring. I learned this the hard way back in 1988 when one of the leading firms, either Gartner or DataQuest, forecast that hypertext tools would be a $50 million business in 1990. I was in the industry at the time and I knew everyone. My own guess was that hypertext tools in 1990 was probably less than a $5 million business and that's probably generous. So research firms can be wildly off and still make a ton of money on a research report
Now, that said, I don't think that most people would dispute that we have a jobs issue at present. There are definitely ways that tech companies can actually create jobs and do it fairly easily:
- Actually hire support workers
- Avoid big acquisitions
- Reduce hours
Each of these is covered below. None of these will be popular with tech companies because they do affect the bottom line. But if we don't affect our own bottom line then the government or the people will do it for us – and that's always worse.
Actually Hire Support Workers
I do not think that I am the only person who feels that it is utterly unacceptable that you can never reach technical support at most of the leading tech companies – Google, Facebook, PayPal, etc. There is always some kind of problem that only a human can resolve. The high tech industry used to understand this and understand it well. I came of age in this field when WordPerfect still ruled the desktop for word processing and WordPerfect had a near legendary approach to support that actually helped build its business. Great support can truly build your brand in a way that a web page never will.
It certainly feels to me like the big tech companies could actually afford to hire support workers; none of these companies lack for profits. And the world isn't the 1980s anymore. You don't even have to staff a giant call center with full time workers – this could all be done with a distributed work force that works from home on a part time basis to avoid the health care costs. And perhaps these aren't great jobs but they are still jobs and that's what we are currently lacking.
Avoid Big Acquisitions
Big acquisitions are often predicated on the concept that if you put two companies together you can increase profits by reducing common overhead. For example you don't actually need two accounting departments. And while not everyone in one of the accounting departments is let go, a substantial portion of them generally are. Multiply that across the span of acquisition activity that seems to happen across the high tech industry in general and you have a lot of lost jobs.
Please note that I do actually recognize that this is a simplistic argument and there are lots and lots of reasons for acquisitions but large acquisitions generally seem to lead to net job losses.
The concept of the 8 hour work day, 40 hour work week is fairly engrained in our culture but things weren't always this way. The 8 hour work day originated as a political movement globally against employer abuses of workers and then became, in the U.S., part of the Fair Labor Standards Act under Roosevelt's New Deal. But is an 8 hour work day the only way that work can be done? Could, for example, a company move to a 6 hour work day? Or perhaps just move away from people working the 10 to 14 hour days that are oh so common to the high tech world?
I'd be really, really curious to know if a company formally moving to a six hour day resulted in hiring more staff or people simply being more efficient so they could enjoy those two extra hours they get back to their own life.
There's substantial economic research that people lose effectiveness beyond the 8 hour day anyway. Some of those studies can be found here.
Side Thought: Given all the problems that we see in tech recruiting, I wonder what the impact would be on a company if they announced "We actually work a six hour day". Might that be a compelling pitch to job candidates?