Computing Profession

Innovation For Jobs


Chances are if you’re reading this, you have a job. You are fairly, if not highly, educated, which has brought you knowledge on some specific aspect of the Computer Science realm. You may be in academia, helping to expand the boundaries of that knowledge, or in business, helping to develop, operate or maintain corporate networks, but clearly you have sufficient skills and knowledge base to ensure some level of employment.

Many people can’t say the same, which is why unemployment is a continuing issue.

At this writing, The Washington Post is reporting the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to a four-year low of 7.7%. In January, Eurostat reported the unemployment rate of the EU at 11.8%, which The Guardian explained as "18.8m people out of jobs … and youth unemployment at a new high."

The first iteration of a new conference convened this week in Menlo Park, CA, assembling "selected leaders from government, academia, business and the media" with the goal of developing "a global network of leaders that develop and share new solutions" related to innovation for the creation of jobs.

The invitation-only International Summit on Innovation for Jobs, organized under the auspices of the International Institute of Innovation, Journalism and Communication (IIIJ), did not seek to be all-inclusive, but rather gathered an elite group of 60 or so former government officials, mathematicians, venture capitalists, computer scientists, research analysts, economists, entrepreneurs, technologists, and others, to respond to presentations detailing how technology, public policy, education and business acumen will be needed to help the workers of today and tomorrow to find, if not jobs, then meaningful work.

The conference was unique in my experience. I have participated in many forums, large and small, but never before have found myself in the midst of so many smart, experienced people speaking with concern for people and their futures. It also was the first conference I have attended in which none of the presenters was trying to promote or sell anything; even the company representatives in attendance presented the experiences of their firms as a means of conveying ways to promote employment as the global economy, society, and technology continue to evolve.

A basic tenet of the conference was that innovation, while it drives the majority of global GDP growth, both destroys jobs and creates the need for new ones. It may be observed, however, that technology often will end more jobs than it begins, eliminating low-paying minimum-knowledge positions and replacing them with jobs that are higher on the economic ladder and require greater knowledge and skills.

The problem with this scenario is that the workers displaced from low-end jobs by technology will need all the help they can get, in addition to a great deal of dedication, determination and education, if they are to find new roles in the evolving global economy.

As an example, look at what happens when a manufacturing concern implements robots. The idea is that the company will buy robots to replace workers who perform simple repetitive tasks on the manufacturing line. The value proposition for the company is that robots have a high up-front cost and require programming and maintenance, but over the long run, the company will save money in comparison to employing a large pool of relatively low-cost humans who need to be paid salaries and benefits in an on-going fashion, forever; also, these humans stubbornly refuse to work 16 hours or more each day, and insist on taking off weekends and holidays, severely hindering productivity. Eventually, the robots will be paid for, and the only major expenses after that will involve maintenance, repairs and upgrades (which will employ relatively few highly trained people, compared to the large numbers in a factory’s work force), so it is in the company’s best interests to eliminate human labor from its factory in favor of automation.

Combine those simple economics with the idea that technology has continued to improve over the past several decades, and you will see that, unless there is a radical change of some sort, we can expect that trend of improving technology to continue into the future. Were current robotics and automation to continue to improve to the point at which all repetitive labor can be handled safely and profitably by machines, the result could be the eventual elimination of all manual laborers from the work force.

While the mechanical capabilities of automation continue to improve, so do automated vision systems, Artificial Intelligence systems, and automated decision-making capabilities. Increasingly, intelligent systems can view and identify imperfections on printed circuit boards, or decide which fruit on a tree is ripe and which is not, or troubleshoot a piece of software. This eventually could lead to robots taking even more jobs from people.

So, is there no hope for the human race? Are we doomed to eventual replacement by machines, and lives of unfulfilled leisure?

The participants at this conference seemed to think there is hope. While the conference was operated under Chatham House Rules (in which everyone agreed to speak under the promise of anonymity, so they could be as honest and open as possible with no fear of recrimination, rebuke, or angry rebuttal from stepping on anyone’s hard-held beliefs or corporate viewpoints), I can summarize in general terms a few of the many ideas expressed.

One underlying theme to many of the presentations concerned the need for education to incorporate a focus on preparing students for the challenges that will face tomorrow’s workforce. Education increasingly will be a key factor in future employment requirements; the more you know that cannot be done by an automated system, the more that companies will need you, so they either will hire you or contract with you for your services. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half (41.9%) of those who do not have even a high school diploma held jobs in February 2013, compared to 53.6% of those with a high school diploma, 63.5% of those with a high school diploma and some college, and 73.0% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. More education, while not guaranteeing a job at any level, equates to a better chance at employment.

Not only do people need more education to succeed, increasingly in the future they will need more targeted education aimed at providing them with the skills that employers need. That level of education will need to start, to the extent possible, in the K-12 arena, so that future high school graduates are not only literate, but have been introduced to the sciences, to some basic technology basics, to at least initial engineering concepts, and to practical usage of math. I have heard discussions before about the value of a college degree, and whether it is worth it for young people to pursue such a degree in light of the fact that a significant number of them will not be able to use that training in their jobs.

The Intelligence Squared Foundation’s 2011 debate on whether "too many kids go to college" never really came to a conclusion; the audience, voting on the propositions aired during the debate, split 47% to 46% in favor of the proposition that the four-year college experience is wasted on some young people, who should really examine other avenues. Other educational avenues available include two-year community colleges offering specific technical training courses and technical/vocational schools, both of which have some social stigma attached to them, but which prepare young people for actual professions. One of the societal adjustments that will be needed to encourage greater numbers of students to pursue such educations is for people to stop sneering at those who attend such an institution, "so, you could not get into a "real" college? As increasing numbers of students bypass four-year colleges to learn the skills they will need to earn a living, while a substantial portion of graduates of those institutions continue to find themselves lacking they skills they need to begin a career, that sneering should abate.

Highly specialized services will survive and thrive as technology takes away the low end of the job market. While no humans may work on an assembly line, everyone needs a plumber once in a while. When the air conditioner acts up, an HVAC mechanic will be needed to diagnose, repair or replace the ailing unit. Your car may get plugged into a computer to analyze its current state, but you will still need a qualified mechanic to replace the piston rings or rod bearings.

In terms of personalized goods, the growth of sites like, established to enable the sale of handcrafted goods, will grow as people increasingly see value in the uniqueness of hand-made products versus the consistent uniformity of machine-made wares.

The ability to provide highly personalized goods and services can serve as the basis for creating one’s own job, one’s own company. Entrepreneurship is a quality that individuals increasingly will need to forge their own futures.

One of the final speakers at the conference summed up simply the basic difference between the past job market, and the views expressed of the future: years ago, coming out of college, he was able to find his first job, while his young daughter, when she eventually graduates and goes out into the work force, will need to invent her first job.

It is a good thing there are so many smart, concerned people laying the groundwork that will enable her to do so.

Larry Fisher is senior editor, news, of Communications of the ACM

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