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Knowledge workers vs Working with your hands

I am a “knowledge worker”. I design multi-media “webcast” applications and services, and lead a small team of smart, engaged developers- I occasionally get to write some code, but most of my “real” work involves middleware and server maintenance activities to keep our applications operational. My work is largely intellectual, and this is after I spent several years altering my career path so I could work more directly with the technology.

There was a period when I was perilously close to slipping into management, and another time when I performed the role of a proposal solution architect, but fortunately I recognized that these roles were not satisfying for me. I like having a more direct connection with the technology, with actually making the solution work rather than philosophizing about how it might work. I’m willing to make sacrifices in order to keep that proximity to “reality”, and so it was intriguing to me to read an article describing why even more “physical” work might be the smart choice after all.

The position expressed in the article is that we may very well have been making a mistake as a culture over the last few decades by directing our youth towards professions as knowledge workers. As it says in the the article, work which can be done “over a wire” is work that is vulnerable: the argument is that it can be done just as easily from China or India as it can from your office. I might disagree with this argument, but that is irrelevant: the general market belief is that this is true, and this belief is obvious in the behavior of every major technology company in North America today.

If the current trends continue there will be very few “knowledge worker” jobs in North America within a decade. Jobs that require physical interaction will be much safer: but normal manufacturing work is likewise disappearing. So that leaves work performing repair and maintenance tasks: for the most part, such work has to be performed where the thing being repaired resides, and so it can not be effectively “outsourced”.

But there is more to the author’s position than just what is happening to the job market. He also asserts that the kind of work we have channeled our youth into is markedly unsatisfying. It is multiple-levels removed from anything real, and it is next to impossible most days to determine if anything you are doing is really having any positive effect. I can attest to this: it is for these reasons that I’ve shifted my role into one where I have more direct interaction with the solution.

Unfortunately, I’ve shifted myself right into exactly the sort of work that is often perceived as being a “commodity” that can be done elsewhere. I am unsurprised by the fact that executives never put themselves in this category, yet frankly their work could often be performed elsewhere far easier than any of the technical work they are so wont to commoditize. What I probably should have done is taken up something more physical: by that I don’t mean “strenuous”, but rather something that can not be quite so easily sent overseas and which retains a high degree of association between the worker and the solution. Of course, a problem with this is that such work is generally not very well paid- but I expect it can be quite satisfying.

Tangential from the “working with your hands” premise- I have to wonder where North America will be in a decade or two once we’ve outsourced all of our intellectual work. I have had this vision, based on what I see today, and it is rather disheartening: manufacturing has already gone away, and we are currently outsourcing the design and intellectual work associated with invention. That leaves middle managers, executives, lawyers, doctors, construction workers, and maintenance people. The middle class will be largely gone: you’ll either have a high six figure salary, or be perilously close to the poverty line. And since no one will be able to afford all of those manufactured goods and services from Russia, China, Brazil, and India, and those nations won’t yet be rich enough to afford to become full time consumers like North America used to be… something will have to give.

One idea I have is that the BRIC nations will pool their money and figure out some way to pay North Americans to be consumers. China already holds the majority of the American debt associated with the current recession, and it could be said that they are propping up their largest consumer in order to keep their income source “safe”. If this continues to the logical extreme, we’ll all be paid to sit around on our recliner/bed/toilets watching our 135″ TVs and spend all day ‘batin, while all the innovation, product design, and manufacturing will take place elsewhere. Something to look forward to, I guess…

3 comments to Knowledge workers vs Working with your hands

  • Well, we could get our priorities straight and appreciate intelligence and innovation wherever it is found, and realize value is determined by more than the number of zero’s on one’s paycheck.
    We might decide that the benefits of improved environment and quality of life for all trumps the 1% greater profit margin to be gained by shipping food, energy and bulk commodities 3 times around the planet before they reach the final destination.
    We might realize that material comfort is good and to be enjoyed, but that materialism for the sake of materials is dead end path …

    But most likely not, civilization will fall and cats will evolve opposable thumbs and rise up to galactic dominance. So it’s really a win win scenario 😉

  • I think you can be pretty confident that there will be lots of people valuing folks with small numbers of zeros on their paychecks in the future, because that will be most of us. To me, the greater challenge is valuing expert knowledge and skill *with* extra zeros. It seems to me of the least competent and least “valuable” people in the world are some of the most highly paid, and the current trend is simply accelerating this.

    Businesses in North America define “low value” work (I.E.: stuff you pay very little for and don’t care where it is done) more and more widely. A few years ago, a computer programmer was a “high value” profession. So was an engineer, a computer designer, a project manager, or a materials scientist. In North America we have spent decades telling our young people that these kinds of professions were high value. Now, however, all of these professions are near-worthless “commodities”, outsourced to India and China.

    This hasn’t been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the value of physical / hands on work: someone fixing a car is just as poorly paid as they were 30 years ago. However, at least those maintenance/construction/repair jobs still exist somewhere on the continent.

    I kind of feel sad for the future. I’ve always thought one of the strengths we had in North America was that we created new and innovative things. People like engineers, scientists, physicists, and the like could be gainfully employed here, and make a good living. Not as great a living as the MBAs and lawyers, but not too shabby. That’s all going away, and there isn’t anything to replace it.

    The thing that might correct this shift would be if wages and standard of living expectations in the BRIC nations catch up to North American levels. At that point, we would truly have a global economy: the “smart” people could be anywhere, and would cost about the same amount regardless of where they lived. This would end the advantage of moving ever-increasing amounts of “smart people” work off shore, and the balance would be restored.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening quickly enough. There will be at least one and possibly two generations of people in North America for whom pursuing a career in computing, engineering, or any physical design/materials sciences areas will be as much a bad choice as trying to make a living as a master of ancient greek philosophy.

    I like working, albeit peripherally, with technology and science. But we have successfully made these “low value” endeavors, and I’m not very happy with what we have passively defined as “high value”: executives, lawyers, bankers, brokers, and consultants.

  • It is already somewhat like that; if you watch the discovery channel shows on mega projects and the like they are all in Asia, or to a lesser extent Europe. And you see lots of North Americans working on them … Dubai is full of Canadian engineers and architects, construction chiefs etc.

    And while I don’t think that a big project is always a good project – many just screw up the environment in a bigger way, they do represent an investment in the future.

    NorAm culture is about lots of money quickly. We don’t have many big long term projects with construction periods of years or decades. ( New York water tunnels one of the notable exceptions.) Creative and innovative things are only as good as the amount of extra zeros the CEO / MBA / hedgefund seller can tack on the end of his paycheck.

    Its why the fate of the Avro Arro hits home to so many Canadians – we know in our gut that it in a nutshell describes exactly what you are talking about.

    It’s very interesting when you go to the Maritimes. You see all these towns that once were the industrial giants of North America … then it became cheaper to move the factories to central locations in the Maritimes, and then to Ontario and Quebec. Now, those too are losing out. But, in each case the places that the companies moved to had no sympathy for the places losing the factories and jobs … it never occurred to them that one day they would be the “old and inefficient” victims of “market forces”.

    I’m not a communist, nor even a socialist really, but I do believe we as a culture need to stop thinking that we have nothing to do with “market forces”, that Adam Smiths “invisible” hand is some sort of supernatural phenomenon beyond the influence of mere mortals.

    As to your comment that when most everyone is low paid then low paying jobs will get respect, it would be nice but when you look at the developing world … I don’t see it. You get a small uber class and a large peasant class that desperately wants to do anything to not be peasants.

    It will be interesting to see how things turn out in a 100 – 200 years. Right now there is an unprecedented in history worldwide cultural mixing thanks to air travel, and telecommunications. What that new ‘world culture’ will be like will tell the tale – will it combine the right good elements or will it just combine some of the fatal flaws?

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