Disappearing Jobs

Every once in a while, an article about the economy cuts through conventional thinking and gets right to the heart of a critical issue. One such article is Andy Kessler’s Op-ed piece in the Thursday, February 17, 2011, Wall Street Journal, entitled “Is Your Job an Endangered Species?”

What makes this article insightful is that it takes apart batches of job tasks and looks at the skills required for each one, and their replaceability by technology or self-service solutions. Beyond the obvious example of toll takers, which, thankfully for all drivers, are rapidly disappearing, he points out that jobs which exist because of the need to move physical items or information, jobs which exist solely because supply is artificially limited or restricted, or which exist because of artificial or gimmicky price and value differentiations, or because of government-conferred monopolies will disappear over time.

We can think of many examples of these jobs. Many other jobs we believe to be relatively secure and resistant to changing conditions will decline in number:

  • Jobs that help people get from one place to another for work tasks and meetings may decline over time. The simplest solution to traffic congestion is a reduction in travel of all kinds. We can do more work on computers where we live, including meetings, webinars, and telephone conversations, that obviate the need for as many people to travel to a single place every day to fulfill their work responsibilities.
  • Things we used to acquire through face-to-face retail transactions are rapidly being replaced by home deliveries or video downloading. For example, every video rental store in our community has gone out of business in the last 18 months. Video on demand or home delivery of Netflix movies has replaced what those stores used to do.
  • Self-service machines are replacing humans in many tasks. For example, in many cities, particularly in Los Angeles, I almost never seeing parking garage attendants in public parking lots. We pay for parking at a machine and exit by placing our parking receipt into a machine at the exit.

However, even more interesting than these examples are the cases in which traditional professional tasks are being either replaced or downsized, done by people outside the United States, or done by people with lower level skills. For example, in the health care field, many state laws still require laboratory tests to be ordered by physicians, which requires an individuals to visit a doctor’s office to get a reading on vital metrics like cholesterol, glucose, or triglycerides. However, other states now recognize that the individual is capable of going to a lab, getting a test, reading the interpretive results, and then consulting the doctor, if needed. These gatekeeper functions for physicians have to disappear because they are not good uses of the physician’s time.

Lawyers have begun to lose work to self-service functions for a generation. Many people can draw up a variety of legal documents with a little help from the Internet, and can do more of the work on contractual documents that used to be done by lawyers. The jobs that require professional credentials, such as lawyers and doctors have many tasks that truly require their credentials and experience, but there are many tasks that the client or patient can perform, and others that a less-skilled professional can perform as well.

This is significant because it suggests that, as Kessler points out, we will have many longer-term unemployed people from occupations that did not used to produce them. The best solution for those people is to reinvent themselves, not to beat their head against a wall trying to find another job like the one they lost. Generally, when a major newspaper, magazine, or TV show profiles someone who has been unemployed for a long time, that individual has trapped himself or herself in too narrow of field of vision in a job search process.

We have to teach those who find themselves unemployed to redefine their assets and their aspirations to look at opportunities where the economy is growing, not where it is shrinking. The biggest challenge for unemployment is in those communities in which the entire community is depressed, in some instances, the entire country. In a recent set of stories about Ireland, articles have commented on the fact that, at the peak of Ireland’s financial bubble, 25% of the population was employed in the construction industry. This is similar to Las Vegas and Arizona.

People trapped in these communities who cannot leave need to create an export opportunity, in which they sell goods and services to people outside the community and bring wealth into it. The most difficult challenge is figuring out what people somewhere else might need that an economically depressed community can create and export. To perform this analytic process, depressed communities often need to bring in individuals to think more expansively about the communities’ potential than the people living in the communities can do on their own.

No job is secure because its requirements will change. Some tasks will disappear and others will emerge. Those who recognize this reality will do just fine. Those who deny or fight it will be highly stressed out.