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New technologies are eating jobs. Big deal, you might say. After all, the steam engine, cotton gin, sewing machine, and automobile all eliminated jobs. The fact is that new technologies have long created many more new jobs than they have eliminated.
But today is different. In the past, innovation advanced slowly enough that people had time to recognize and adapt to new opportunities before many of the old jobs disappeared. Today, innovation is advancing so quickly that jobs are being destroyed and new opportunities are being created faster than many people can recognize them or adapt to them. Today, we need to recognize those opportunities and adapt to them ever more quickly. The good news is that anyone can do this, and best of all, anyone can create his or her own job. Including you. In this article, we’ll see how.
Jobs Are Delicious Meat
Three noted scholars and friends of mine have written on technology eating jobs:
· In his seminal 2010 The McKinsey Quarterly article, “The Second Economy,” Santa Fe Institute’s Brian Arthur predicts that in about two decades, a “second economy” of software, servers, and sensors will rival the size of the human economy, in value added if not in revenue. This autonomous economy is already automating formerly human tasks, such as airline passenger management (reservations, check-in, security, baggage, and billing) and international shipping (registration, tracking, and forwarding).
· In Race Against the Machine (2011), MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson observes that software and automation are eating away at low- to mid-level desk jobs like accounting and customer service, a trend that will eventually extend to high-skilled professions like medicine and engineering, on the one hand, and trades like hairdressing and plumbing, on the other. Google driverless cars will replace human drivers, and IBM Watson-like technology with sensors will replace physicians’ medical diagnoses.
· Most recently, in Average Is Over (2013), George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen writes that the above trends will lead to stagnant or falling wages for much of the United States. Future employment will require skills to collaborate with and complement machines to avoid competing with and being replaced by them.
The Oxford Martin School concurs, concluding that 45% of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades. Most vulnerable are jobs in transportation/logistics, production labor, and administrative support; next are services, sales, and construction; last will be management, science and engineering, and the arts.
Reports of Employment’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
In the early 19th century, the automated loom, famously protested by the Luddites, took jobs away from weavers. Later, electricity and the light bulb took away jobs from wood-burning stove and candle makers. The automobile took away jobs from buggy makers. Digital computers and switches took jobs away from their human counterparts. But in each case, new technologies provided many more jobs than they eliminated, in two ways. The first, more modest way was through the development, manufacture and maintenance of the new technologies, be they looms or light bulbs. The second, more significant way was through the leveraging and combining of the technologies in new, often unexpected applications and business arrangements that could not have existed without the technologies. The cotton gin and automated loom enabled large-scale production of soft, comfortable clothing, making it affordable for millions of people for the first time. Steam engines and railroads enabled goods to be shipped to distant markets, which in turn made Sears & Roebuck mail order catalogs and later department stores possible. Electricity enabled the global power grid and electrical appliances. Digital computers and switches enabled IT, telecommunications, software, the Internet, and mobile applications.
We can see easily when jobs disappear, but creating jobs takes work: it means recognizing, exploring, and adapting to needs and opportunities. As I discussed in my last column , every new product or service (i.e., solution) not only satisfies a need, but also creates new needs in three ways:
1. The new solutions themselves can be improved upon (e.g., shoes can be made more comfortable; laptops and smart phones can be made smaller, lighter, and more powerful; software can be made faster, easier to use, and more reliable)
2. The providers of those new solutions have needs (e.g., sales, marketing, accounting, software, equipment, customer and competitive intelligence, food and cleaning services)
3. New solutions create new needs around them (e.g., mobile phones need holsters; cars need navigation, keyless entry, and camera systems; video games need virtual money; electric vehicles need re-charging stations).
In his modern classic, The Origin of Wealth, Eric Beinhocker estimated the number of individually coded products available to New York City residents in 2006 to be on the order of tens of billions. With this mushrooming range of products and ever-faster pace of innovation, needs and opportunities are coming at us faster than we can recognize or adapt to them.
To become or stay employed in this environment, we’ll first see how to land an existing job (one someone else has created); then, how to create your own job.
Landing an Existing Job
Rather than recount job search techniques here – leverage LinkedIn, research companies you are interested in, network, adopt good grooming habits – let’s see how to make innovation work for, rather than against you in landing a job:
1. Master the very technologies that are eating jobs. Someone has to design, implement, test, build, maintain, market, sell, and apply that software and automation. That someone could be you. MIT/Harvard edX, Coursera, Udacity and CodeCademy offer free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in programming, AI, machine learning, and databases.
To start a career in software development, consider Python. It’s interactive, exposes and introduces you to essential programming concepts, and easily integrates into existing web services, enabling you to leverage others’ work. Job opportunities abound: see www.python.org/community/jobs/ .
Next, consider developing a web service to demonstrate your skills or to offer to others. See www.programmableweb.com/apis/directory for examples. This will require using a server-side language, likely Python, PHP, Ruby on Rails, or if you are more ambitious, Java or C++, then deploying it on one of the cloud computing ecosystems such as Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud Services. Yet another path is creating a mobile app for iPhone or Android and connecting to your own or others’ web services.
Veteran software developer Ervan Darnell, who has worked for both Facebook and Google, reiterates that free tools and courses are available for all of the above, and further notes that the software industry weighs talent more heavily than titles or university degrees. That’s good news. Titles and degrees require entrance qualification exams and tens of thousands of dollars for tuition and expenses. In contrast, MOOCs are free and open to everyone. Increasingly, all you need to get a quality education is initiative, self-discipline, and hard work.
2. Become an early adopter of new technologies and apply them in your work. With the accelerating pace of technology, adopting new technology even slightly ahead of the mainstream of your field will give you more and more of an advantage in productivity and competitiveness. If staying one year ahead gave professionals a 10% advantage in 1992, doing so might give them a 20% advantage in 2014.
This principle applies to all trades and professions. Electricians can use new meters and testers that improve their efficiency and accuracy, and learn to install and maintain computer networks in addition to wiring and components. Plumbers can apply technologies such as SeeSnake, a video camera for inspection and diagnosis of clogged pipes. Dentists, hairdressers, and auto repair shops can use free online software to enable their clients to self-schedule for appointments. Taxi drivers can use GPS to efficiently combine deliveries with passenger service. Real estate agents can use Google Maps to customize displays of listings for clients. These innovations free up time to make trades people and professionals more productive, allow them to offer higher-quality or differentiated services, or both.
ACA (“Obamacare”) incentivizes employers to convert many jobs from full-time to part-time. Fortunately, new online services empower even those without technology skills to find part-time work, for example, as drivers for Lyft, or running errands with TaskRabbit. Going still further, Amazon Mechanical Turk is enabling those in the world’s poorest developing countries to earn income by performing simple tasks (like responding to surveys or tagging everyday items in photos) from wherever they are and whenever they are able.
3. Choose a career in strong demand. Liberal arts are vitally important, but if you are in college, landing a job after graduation is almost certainly urgent. You have a lifetime to learn about arts and the humanities, but only two to four years to prepare to support yourself. Besides IT and automation, fields generally in demand include bio-tech, nursing, network security, welding, medical technology, and analytics. Find out which are both in greatest demand and most interest you. Far more people are studying the arts and the humanities than will find jobs in those fields. If you choose arts or the humanities and find yourself underemployed or unemployed, see 1 or 2 above, and “Create Your Own Job” below.
21-year-old Daniel Trujillo, a student at NCP College of Nursing in Hayward, CA, is learning how Google Glass can provide real-time, mobile, hands-free patient charts and histories bedside. He will be among the first generation of hospital practitioners using wearable IT. By learning leading-edge technology in a highly demanded field, I predict he will easily find a job.
Create Your Own Job
Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner, micro finance pioneer and founder of the Grameen Bank says:
All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed…finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became “labor” because they stamped us, “You are labor.” We forgot that we are entrepreneurs.
Anyone who wants to can create his or her own job. Our ancestors – hunters, gatherers, farmers, craftspeople, and traders – knew no other options. If we were all entrepreneurial once, we can still invoke that inner strength today.
Creating your own job lets you do what you are passionate about; lets you make a long-term investment in you, your own business and brand rather than someone else’s; and lets you address opportunities that are unique to you—no one else has your unique combination of skills, knowledge, relationships, and strengths. So why don’t more people create their own jobs today? It is not that they can’t. In some cases, other paths are easier or have shorter-term pay-offs, such as landing an existing job or going on unemployment. In other cases, regulation raises major hurdles to addressing opportunities, as I discussed in a previous column . I don’t promise that creating your own job will be easy. I do promise that it will expand the boundaries of your world, and possibly profoundly enrich your life.
Here is one approach to creating your own job. Choose any product or service in an area you are passionate and knowledgeable about. The area may be aerospace, boats, cars, cooking, education, electronics, fashion, fiction, films, fitness, gadgets, gardening, health, history, math, merchandising, music, politics, scuba, space, sports, statistics, travel, woodworking, you name it. Now think of limitations of the product or service you selected. For example:
· My running shoes don’t tell me how far or fast I have run, nor details of my stride or gait.
· None of the pharmacies in my neighborhood make home deliveries.
· Arthritis can prevent elderly people from using an iPhone or iPad.
· Airline ground crews lack real-time information during boarding about how many and which overhead bins have open space, sometimes requiring that bags be checked when they could be carried aboard and stowed.
If you are passionate about the product or service, you’ll recognize its limitations before others do. Limitations are simply potential needs. If those needs are shared by many others and don’t already have solutions – both of these require research to validate – bingo! – you have identified an unsatisfied customer need. That’s the first step towards creating a job for you.
Next, brainstorm possible solutions, ideally with your potential customers, that you could provide in whole or in part using the resources at your disposal. Acquiring knowledge of new technologies in the field will expand your possibilities. With whom could you team up or partner, if necessary, to enable the solution? Answering those questions is the second step towards creating your job.
Next, can you get a customer to pay you for your solution, even if rudimentary, incomplete, or unpolished, possibly on the understanding that their early payment will enable you to develop and deliver the full product or service to them? That’s the third step. If so – you have created a job! Assume that you won’t get paid for some or much of the time and effort you invest to win this first customer. After you have successfully delivered what you promised and created your first satisfied customer, find other customers you could similarly serve, refine your solution based on what you have learned, and repeat.
My video Unleash Your Inner Company has many more suggestions for creating your own job and starting your own business. Now imagine tens of millions of people throughout the U.S. and the world similarly searching for unsatisfied needs in areas they are passionate about, assessing which needs they are best suited to satisfy in whole or in part, and designing and building products or offering and delivering services that satisfy those needs. Suddenly, tens of millions of jobs are being created. Many of these efforts will take a second, third, or fourth attempt before they are successful. Every attempt increases your likelihood of success; perseverance is a necessary part of success. A small percentage of these businesses will create not just one but many jobs. This bottom-up approach to satisfying needs and creating jobs is scalable, sustainable, and has hugely raised living standards and quality of life over the decades.
So software and robots are eating jobs? Not yours.
Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology . See also www.technologyreview.com/view/519241/report-suggests-nearly-half-of-us-jobs-are-vulnerable-to-computerization/ )
 “As Entrepreneurs Keep Reminding Us, They Lied To Us In Econ. 101 ,” September 10, 2013, Forbes.com
The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics , Eric D. Beinhocker, Harvard Business School Press (2006). This magnificent work marries economics and complexity science and imparts deep understanding of the current state and future of economics. I think of it as a modern-day Wealth of Nations. It deserves a wide audience and a prominent place in any economics library.
Stock keeping units (SKUs).
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.