Laval economics professor Stephen Gordon had an interesting piece in the Financial Post on the 24th of November. “The Good Job Obsession” His thesis is that service jobs are the future. “Service-sector jobs are not only the future of the Canadian labour market, they’re its present — and that’s fine”
He is right logically, but people think emotionally. As the result, not everyone agrees with him. Our emotions guide us to believe that service jobs cannot all be good jobs. Certainly doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, teacher and architect are service jobs but they are structurally different from traditional “good jobs”
Most of the service sector jobs that pay well deal with specialized and complex information. Most of us are non-intuitive about doing a stress analysis on a bridge or organizing the appeal of an adverse anti-trust ruling. We don’t really understand them.
We think “Good jobs” should have some physical permanence. Service jobs today are either menial or rely on a high degree of information and processing ability, but they all lack the physical presence of factories and farms.
Non-service jobs like manufacturing compete with workers who produce at a lower wage rate. As the labour value added share of product total value falls this will stop, but there will not be much labour share left by then. Robots.
High paying service jobs are information driven and are therefore competitive with networks and computers. Some of those will be displaced by that competition. People should move towards job that have a chance to survive in the computer/network environment.
Start with what computers are good at. Calculations are obvious. Today, there are no people calculating tolerances or stress levels with a slide rule.
Computers are very good at comparison. The FBI employs no one to compare fingerprints with a file. Radiologists are in trouble for the same reason. Comparing x-rays or other media to experience and learning does not compete easily with a computer with a huge data base to work with. If a computer can beat Gary Kasparov at chess it can solve any problem that involves comparison.
Computers are good at algorithms. Any process that can be described by an algorithm will be operated by computers instead of people. Have you noticed robotized car factories? A little hard on welders.
People intuitively know that information or service jobs are relatively easy to replace. Worse there is small capital investment in many of them. The employer may not be too committed. These jobs are fragile, therefore risky.
At the other extreme is the lingering idea that a good job is any job that pays you more than you are worth. The world has changed and it is not changing back. No such jobs will remain for long. Even strong unions will be powerless in front of this wave.
To survive in the new environment people must develop a description of their personal value proposition. Describe that in terms of what I do, what is that worth and who needs or will need it?
Now is not the time to rely on the past to describe what will be true in the future. Teachers, parents and guidance counselors take note.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.