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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Ford’

Outsourcing Jobs...that Can't be Outsourced

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Martin FordPeople who work in knowledge-based fields like information technology, accounting, graphic design or legal research are probably well aware that their jobs are susceptible to being outsourced to a low wage country. In fact, I suspect that economists underestimate the impact that this practice will have on the job market as improving technology makes offshoring cheaper and more accessible to smaller businesses. That may be especially true if weak consumer demand continues to push businesses to focus on cost-cutting rather than revenue growth.

But what about people who have jobs that involve physically interacting with their environment? Those jobs can’t be offshored, right? Well…

There’s an article in the San Jose Mercury News today on the emerging remote-controlled robot industry:

Remote-controlled robots are entering the workforce

The declining prices for telepresence robots will encourage experimentation among companies and entrepreneurs, who will find new uses for them, analysts say.”These robots will have a network effect,” said Hyoun Park, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, a technology research firm. “The more robots there are, the easier it will be to work remotely in ways we haven’t thought about before.”

As as these technologies become more prevalent, I think one of the new ideas that will emerge will be offshoring the control function. So you’ll have a worker in India or Bangladesh who can do a job that requires physical proximity in a developed country. Some jobs that “can’t be outsourced” … might just get outsourced.

I have a section on this in my book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (get the free PDF), which focuses on how technology and globalization are likely to result in increasing structural unemployment:

Those jobs that require significant hand-eye coordination in a varied environment are currently very difficult to fully automate. But what about offshoring? Can these jobs be offshored?In fact they can, and we are likely to see this increasingly in the near future. As an example, consider a manufacturing assembly line. Suppose that the highly repetitive jobs have already been automated, but there remain jobs for skilled operators at certain key points in the production process. How could management get rid of these skilled workers?

They could simply build a remote controlled robot to perform the task, and then offshore the control function. As we have pointed out, it is the ability to recognize a complex visual image and then manipulate a robot arm based on that image that is a primary challenge preventing full robotic automation. Transmitting a real-time visual image overseas, where a low paid worker can then manipulate the machinery, is certainly already feasible. Remote controlled robots are currently used in military and police applications that would be dangerous for humans. We very likely will see such robots in factories and workplaces in the near future.

As I’ve written previously, I don’t think economists understand the extent to which technology is playing a role in the current unemployment crisis–and more importantly how things are likely to progress in the future. Technology and globalization are not going to stand still while we wait for the job market to recover. They will continue to progress and even accelerate. That will make it very difficult to drive the unemployment rate back down without some very effective policies in place.

This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

About The Author: Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm.  He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a FREE PDF eBook) and has a blog at econfuture.wordpress.com.

Unemployment: The Economists Just Don't Get It

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Martin FordLately, there has been a fair amount of buzz in the economics blogosphere about the issue that I’ve been discussing here: Structural Unemployment.

Paul Krugman touches on it here. Brad DeLong says this. Mark Thoma has a post in a forum focusing on structural unemployment at The Economist.

If you read through these posts, however, you won’t see a lot of discussion about the case I’ve been making, which is that advancing technology is the primary culprit. I’ve been arguing that as machines and software become more capable, they are beginning to match the capabilities of the average worker. In other words, as technology advances, a larger and larger fraction of the population will essentially become unemployable. While I think advancing information technology is the primary force driving this, globalization is certainly also playing a major role. (But keep in mind that aspects of globalization such as service offshoring–moving a job electronically to a low wage country–are also technology driven).

The economists sometimes mention technology, but in general they find other “structural” issues to focus on. One that I have seen again and again is this idea that people can’t move to find work because their houses are underwater (the mortgage exceeds the equity). The emphasis given to this issue strikes me as almost silly. Are there any major population centers in the U.S. that have really low unemployment?

Even if people could sell their homes, would they really be motivated to load up the U-haul and move from a city with say 12% unemployment to one where it is only 9%? Have the economists lost sight of the fact that 9% unemployment is still basically a disaster? The few locales I’ve seen with unemployment significantly lower than that are rural or small cities (Bismark ND, for example)–places that are simply incapable of absorbing huge numbers of hopeful workers. Let’s get real: playing musical chairs in a generally miserable environment is not going to solve the unemployment problem.

Another thing the economists focus on is the idea of a skill mismatch. Structural unemployment, they say, occurs because workers don’t have the particular skills demanded by employers. While there’s little doubt that there’s some of this going on, again, I think this issue is given way too much emphasis. The idea that if we could simply re-train everyone, the problem would be solved is simply not credible. If you doubt that, ask any of the thousands of workers who have completed training programs, but still can’t find work.

Economists ought to realize that if a skill mismatch was really the fundamental issue, then employers would be far more willing to invest in training workers. In reality, this rarely happens even among the most highly regarded employers. Suppose Google, for example, is looking for an engineer with very specific skills. What are the chances that Google would hire and then re-train one of the many unemployed 40+ year-old engineers with a background in a slightly different technical area? Well, basically zero.

If employers were really suffering because of a skill mismatch, they could easily help fix the problem. They don’t because they have other, far more profitable options: they can hire offshore low wage workers, or they can invest in automation. Re-training millions of workers in the U.S. is likely to make a killing for the new for-profit schools that are quickly multiplying, but it won’t solve the unemployment problem.

Why are economists so reluctant to seriously consider the implications of advancing technology? I think a lot of it has to do with pure denial. If the problem is a skill mismatch, then there’s an easy conventional solution. If the problem’s a lack of labor mobility, then that will eventually work itself out. But what if the problem is relentlessly advancing technology? What if we are getting close to a “tipping point” where autonomous technology can do the typical jobs that are required by the economy as well as an average worker? Well, that is basically UNTHINKABLE. It’s unthinkable because there are NO conventional solutions.

In my book, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future, I do propose a (theoretical) solution, but I would be the first to admit that any viable solution to such a problem would have to be both radical and politically untenable in today’s environment. That’s why I don’t spend much time suggesting solutions here: what would be the point? (but please do read the book–it’s free). I think the first step is to get past denial and start to at least seriously think about the problem in a rational way.

The few economists that have visited my econfuture.wordpress blog and commented on my previous posts have generally barricaded themselves behind economic principles that were formulated more than a century ago (see the comments on my posts about these economic concepts: lump of labour fallacy and comparative advantage).

Most economists seem to be unwilling to really consider this issue–perhaps because it threatens nearly all the assumptions they hold dear. I wrote about this in my first blog post . We’ll see how long it takes for the economists to wake up to what is really happening.

About The Author: Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm.  He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a FREE PDF eBook) and has a blog at econfuture.wordpress.com.

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