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Retool the workforce

June 02, 2012


…TODAY, the average General Motors worker makes 28 cars per year. In the 1950s, the average GM worker made just seven automobiles a year. Companies are seeing higher profits and climbing productivity, all the while needing fewer workers. And rather than going to middle-class labourers, newly created wealth is increasingly concentrated among the top executives, successful entrepreneurs and their investors.

So how does the American worker survive in a world where capital no longer relies on labour? This was the topic of discussion at Rice University earlier this spring, at a presentation by Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Centre for Digital Business.

While the economy is recovering, jobs are still lagging. But job numbers were sluggish even before the recession, going back to the beginning of the 2000s, which was the first decade on record where fewer people were working at the end than at the beginning. And the jobs aren’t necessarily going to China. They’re going to computers.

For example, as the shale boom drives the Texas job market, there is demand for skilled truckers to steer 18-wheelers. But with the rise of Google’s driverless cars … will these well-paid, skilled jobs still exist at the end of the next decade?

Ironically, automating manufacturing may actually bring factories back to the United States, but even that doesn’t guarantee jobs. As robots replace workers ... labour costs become the same everywhere, so the focus shifts to energy and transportation costs. And it’s cheaper to ship something down the interstate than across the Pacific. That may bring manufacturing back to the United States, but when machines do most of the work, that won’t necessarily save the job market.

We must focus on education and entrepreneurship. In an economy increasingly tech-related, students should learn computer programming not in high school or college, but as early as elementary school. At the same time, one can imagine an expanded job market in fields that require the subtleties of emotion, creativity and open-ended problem-solving that seem out of reach for computers in the foreseeable future. This means greater focus in schools on arts, writing and unstructured learning, and less focus on standardised tests.

And businesses will need leaders who can manage teams of creative thinkers, computers and programmers to solve problems in ways we cannot imagine now.

As a metaphor for this future economy, Brynjolfsson pointed to chess. Right now, the best player is neither Deep Blue nor a human grandmaster. It is a ‘cyborg player’, a team of people and computers, working together in an optimal distribution of labour.

This is the model America needs to follow for the long-term future, or risk becoming an economic pawn.—(May 31)