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…