Worthwhile Reading

How the 16th century invented social media

Virginia Postrel thinks that now is the time for big-box stores to embrace the 19th century

Is it possible to make American mate again?

Related to the above:  mapping the geographical patterns of romantic anxiety and avoidance

Maybe also related:  sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does

PC oppression and why Trump won

Theory and practice: an interesting Assistant Village Idiot post from 2010

Learning about effective selling from a surfer dude

Here’s a guy who says: I help create the automated technologies that are taking jobs…and I feel guilty about it

After discussing his concerns about automation-driven job losses, he goes on to say “I feel even worse when I hear misleading statements about the source of the problem. Blaming China and NAFTA is a convenient deflection, but denial will only make the wrenching employment dislocation for millions all the more painful.”

I’ve seen this assertion–“offshoring doesn’t matter because Robots”–and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  It should be obvious that both factors play a role; there’s no need for a single-variable explanation.  (Actually, offshoring-driven job losses and automation-driven job losses are somewhat less than additive in their effect, since automation generally makes US-based production more relatively attractive.)

Here’s an argument that the next big blue-collar job is coding.

What if we regarded code not as a high-stakes, sexy affair, but the equivalent of skilled work at a Chrysler plant? Among other things, it would change training for programming jobs—and who gets encouraged to pursue them. As my friend Anil Dash, a technology thinker and entrepreneur, notes, teachers and businesses would spend less time urging kids to do expensive four-year computer-­science degrees and instead introduce more code at the vocational level in high school….Across the country, people are seizing this opportunity, particularly in states hit hardest by deindustrialization. In Kentucky, mining veteran Rusty Justice decided that code could replace coal. He cofounded Bit Source, a code shop that builds its workforce by retraining coal miners as programmers. Enthusiasm is sky high: Justice got 950 applications for his first 11 positions. Miners, it turns out, are accustomed to deep focus, team play, and working with complex engineering tech. “Coal miners are really technology workers who get dirty,” Justice says.

I’m reminded of two things that Peter Drucker said in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity.  In attacking what he called ‘the diploma curtain’, he wrote “By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve.”

But also, Drucker wrote, in his discussion of the Knowledge Economy:

The knowledge worker of today…is not the successor to the ‘free professional’ of 1750 or 1900.  He is the successor to the employee of yesterday, the manual worker, skilled or unskilled…This hidden conflict between the knowledge workers view of himself as a ‘professional’ and the social reality in which he is the upgraded and well-paid successor to the skilled worker of yesterday, underlies the disenchantment of so many highly educated young people with the jobs available to them…They expect to be ‘intellectuals.’  And the find that they are just ‘staff.’

Indeed, many jobs that have been thought of as ‘professional’ and ‘white collar’…programming, financial analysis, even engineering…are increasingly subject to many of the stresses traditionally associated with ‘blue collar’ jobs, such as layoffs and cyclical unemployment.  As a higher % of the corporate cost structure becomes concentrated in jobs which are not direct labor, it is almost inevitable that these jobs will be hit increasingly when financial problems make themselves felt.

Drucker’s second point, which I think is very astute, is somewhat orthogonal to the coal-miners-becoming-coders piece, and probably deserves it own post for discussion.  Regarding the question of non-college-educated people becoming programmers (of which there has long already been a fair amount), the degree to which succeeds is to some degree coupled with the whole question of h-1b visa policy, and trade policy in general as it relates to offshoring of services.

11 thoughts on “Worthwhile Reading”

  1. Coding is just about the easiest possible thing to offshore. Everyone should learn to code in school nowadays, but not because they will become professional software developers, but for two reasons: 1. it forces you to be able to think logically and lay out a set of directions to carry out a task, and 2. it reinforces that in the human-computer relationship, you the human should be the one in charge.

    In addition, sitting in front of a screen is not a substitute for physical activity and is absolutely not an occupation that appeals to everyone.

  2. Brian..”Coding is just about the easiest possible thing to offshore.” Certainly does have advantages in that transportation costs are basically non-existent…OTOH, not necessarily beneficially offshorable when close and timely interaction with the user organization is essential.

    “In addition, sitting in front of a screen is not a substitute for physical activity and is absolutely not an occupation that appeals to everyone.” Agreed.

    Although it’s worth noting that some occupations that *do* involve a lot of outdoor physical activity, and that also pay pretty well and have good benefits, are having a hard time attracting workers…this is apparently the case with the railroad industry, in particular.

  3. I have no idea what sort of skills the railroads are looking for, but I have a hard time believing they couldn’t get their pick of people if they would/could recruit from say 40 year old males who wish they hadn’t gotten stuck in desk jobs.

  4. As a former coder (now systems engineer) I second what Brian says. Coding is an entry-level position preparatory to moving upward in the chain to systems support and project management, depending on your skills. He’s right that to a degree all of these jobs are suitable for offshore (I’m off-shore support for our sister company’s systems in the UK and Netherlands myself) but most companies have found that for all but the most extremely simple customer facing tasks the language barrier is too great to offshore second and third level support jobs.

    I remember back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when people talked about ‘new collar’ jobs .. the kinds of jobs that required a technical education or advanced training, weren’t hands-on labor but didn’t fall under the usual idea of a ‘professional’.

    Brian – railroads are shedding employees as fast as they can via mechanization. Within a decade one person crews are going to be the norm for most operations.

  5. I don’t think coding is monolithic. The best programmers are orders of magnitude more productive than most programmers are. However, Brian’s comments may apply to most programmers.

    Also, there are programming tasks that are not easily offshored, for reasons of security, language, industry knowledge and/or culture.

  6. To clarify, by “Coding is just about the easiest possible thing to offshore” I simply mean you don’t have to worry about importing or exporting stuff or setting up a factory or other logistical challenges that come from physical manufacturing, say. I don’t mean that you can just find armies of elite (or even competent) programmers in any third world country for pennies on the dollar of your costs in the USA. Language, culture, etc., are big barriers, as always.

  7. Here’s an argument that the next big blue-collar job is coding.

    When someone is attempting to design an “intelligent system” to turn into a program what has been done by people, the question arises: who should provide the most input: programmers or those who have working in that field? Answer: those who have been working in that field, as they have the best grasp of what thought processes are involved, what problems are routinely dealt with.

  8. those who have been working in that field, as they have the best grasp of what thought processes are involved, what problems are routinely dealt with.

    The failure of the electronic medical record is, I believe directly related to the people designing these programs. They were interested in billing alone.

    Medical care is a long way from the concerns of these venders.

    When I was in the Masters program at Dartmouth, there was a women ER doc in the class who had written a program (don’t recall what language) that scanned dictation by ER docs to pull out billable items. She owned a transcription service for ER docs. They would transcribe the report and also generate an invoice with the items charged and the ICD codes included. It was an electronic back office for that specialty.

    At the time I thought this had great promise for monitoring quality in care delivery.

    I got very enthusiastic about electronic medical records and spent years after as a member of the medical informatics society, attending meetings and even giving a few presentations.

    The EMR that came out under Obama is so bad, that I quit teaching two years ago. I know docs who have retired rather than use it.

    They are not technophobes. It is just that bad.

  9. Thank you for all the links.

    And I am “NotIT” so couldn’t possibly have an opinion on the coding reference… But yes, I do have to agree with the points made. I’ve contemplated the same at times wondering why no else would say it. Seems many want the possibly growing illusion to persist. OTOH, most ‘coders’ have little skill. I’d call them retail coders vs. professionals.

  10. “Knowledge workers” generally ignore the intellectual component of any work not performed in front of a screen. This is especially true of journalists, who’s ignorance and incompetence often seem to approach a perfect state of nature. There is no realm of human endeavor that they can’t master after a 5 minute interview with an “expert”. There is no job so simple that it can’t be done badly.

    Computer science is not coding. Computer science is related to coding the way designing a bridge is related to erecting it. Both require skills that are essential to the finished product as are the skills of a whole troop of others that develop or build different parts. Computer science is greatly retarded by the relative ease and seeming lack of consequence of throwing code together and hacking it at random until it seems to work. This often proceeds until both time and money are exhausted with nothing to show.

    I remember about 30 years ago when the Department of Labor published a projection that over the next 10 years there would need to be 10 times as many people entering the janitorial workforce as new programmers. The consternation was something to behold, I don’t know if they were right or not. I expect a similar observation could be made about “robot repair persons”. I also remember someone describing a knowledge based economy as two people coming together to sell each other insurance.

    At the same time, my experience with recent products of the American education system, from drop outs to graduate engineers leaves me at a loss. Finding someone that can turn a concept into a working machine or even perform logical troubleshooting is rare. The engineers especially don’t seem to be given any sort of experience with the real world or the sort of machinery that they will spend there career dealing with. Things like motors, pumps and gear boxes, although they probably know more math.

    If China, India and Africa ever manage to reduce their level of corruption to a manageable level, the world will change in ways I can’t imagine. Until then, there are probably at least 4 billion people that would be better off materially and much safer scrubbing floors or washing dishes here than where they are now. What happens when those are the only jobs that haven’t been moved somewhere wages are a small fraction of what they are here?

  11. “They’re more like Devon, a programmer I met who helps maintain a ­security-software service in Portland, Oregon. He isn’t going to get fabulously rich, but his job is stable and rewarding: It’s 40 hours a week, well paid, and intellectually challenging.”

    I’m sure he is real smart and good at what he knows. However you need an evil mind to deal with security and maintenance of security software is not even a thing. It does not get old and tired. It will be understood and bypassed, and I suppose this is what is meant by ‘maintenance’, the mitigation of this.

    That’s not a 40 hour a week job, that’s a deep understanding of the systems, how they interact, and the software involved is usually not even the problem.

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