TOPICS > Economy

Techonology May Play Role in U.S. Job Development

August 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ED LANDRY: I said we went to lunch and our jobs went to China.

PAUL SOLMAN: Machinist Ed Landry last year. The U.S. was coming out of the recession but he was still jobless. Is that literally where your job went?

ED LANDRY: That’s right. After 38 years in the same shop.

PAUL SOLMAN: Retraining to land a computer-controlled machine shop, Landry had plenty of company: Other laid-off machinists trying to make the shift from manual to mental labor.

JOB TRAINER: Any information right now? Hank.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile at New York City’s Five O’Clock Club for Unemployed Managers and Professionals the jobless recovery was also taking its toll.

JOB SEEKER: Finding the people, putting yourself out there all the time, keeping the energy level up. That’s what’s hard. You know, maintaining the belief in yourself.

JOB SEEKER: If you send out your resume on the Internet and you don’t get anything back, I mean, that’s probably the worst kind of rejection of all because you don’t even rank. I mean, please give me a no. I mean, I’ll take a no at this point.

PAUL SOLMAN: If last year the job hunt seemed as futile to the white collar unemployed as it was to their blue collar brethren when we checked in with this group one year later almost everyone had a job: In several cases, better jobs than the ones they’ve lost.

That supports the new thesis of Frank Levy and Dick Murnane. Technology like those computers behind them the professors argue in a book “The New Division of Labor” is dividing jobs into two distinct camps: One with those who can be replaced by computers or foreign workers and another camp with those who can’t be.

FRANK LEVY: The basic message I think is that while the number of jobs is growing, there’s a chunk of jobs in the 20 to 35 dollar an hour range, a lot of blue collar jobs and clerical jobs that are really being taken over both by computerized work and also by off shoring.

RICHARD MURNANE: A key distinction is between the number of jobs and the mix of jobs. As we come out of the recession, the number of jobs will grow and it will be back close to full employment again.

But the key thing to remember is that the mix of jobs is changing quite dramatically for a variety of reasons, computerization at the core, and that trend will continue so the jobs, for example, in manufacturing that are lost will not come back as we come out of this recession.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is it the computer that’s threatening jobs or outsourcing?

FRANK LEVY: Computerization and outsourcing are working on the same jobs. To computerize a job, you have to be able to express the tasks in rules.

So, for example, if you look at these kiosks that do boarding passes in airports, the reason you can automate that is because it’s just a set of yes and no questions.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s what computers do. Follow rules programmed into them by humans. It’s not much different, says Levy for the off shore workers at those now famous Indian call centers.

Their programming is the script they read when booking your airline tickets or taking and confirming a purchase.

FRANK LEVY: So in the case of the centers, the simplest call center work is being handled by continuous speech recognition software.

The more complicated call center work is being handled by people sitting in Bangalore.

PAUL SOLMAN: It raises the question: Are the Indian workers threatened?

FRANK LEVY: Yes they are. Absolutely, they’re threatened.

SPOKESMAN: There’s high computer literacy, excellent Internet connections.

PAUL SOLMAN: The case of transcribing doctor’s dictations, for instance, as touted in this PR video for a Pittsburgh firm that now sends those dictations to India but probably not for much longer as computers become more sophisticated.

FRANK LEVY: Both in India and in this country people are beginning to move to continuous speech recognition software to just transcribe those notes directly so in some sense it’s the computer that’s at the bottom of that food chain and outsourcing is speeding up what the process is.

But it’s not the end of the line by any means.

PAUL SOLMAN: To Murnane and Levy, an American job tends to be safe from computers and foreign competition to the extent that it isn’t rules based is what they call face-to-face.

FRANK LEVY: You look at the job trends and where we’re going.

We’re really heading towards a face-to-face economy where the kinds of work that’s done here either involves face-to-face interaction with other people because a lot of that can’t be automated or it involves working face-to-face with something that’s grounded here like a work on a construction project or a mechanic working on a car.

PAUL SOLMAN: So if I ask you if my job is safe, you say to me is it face to face? Can it be described by rules?

FRANK LEVY: You want to make the connection between those two things. If you think about what you do, you’re processing a lot of conversational speech.

Suppose I say the word bill, right? And you hear that. And the question is what does that mean? What do I mean by the word bill? Am I talking about a piece of currency? Am I talking about a piece of legislation, the front end of a duck?

The only way you’re going to answer that question is to think about the whole context of the conversation. But that’s very complicated work to break down into some kind of software.

And you’re also sort of relating to the people you’re interviewing kind of an emotional level to elicit responses, to get them to sort of really think about questions and so on. None of that stuff can be described in rules.

RICHARD MURNANE: Your body language, your tone of voice, the type of eye contact. That’s vast amounts of information that skilled humans are very good at processing and knowing what to do with, but that turns out to be extraordinarily hard to program computers to do well.

PAUL SOLMAN: A case in point might well be the anxious unemployed we met last year at the Five O’Clock Club, networking, reviewing their job prospects, critiquing one another.

No rules could be written to computerize or script such a process.

FRANK LEVY: What they were doing sitting around a table was honing face-to-face skills. I mean, they were all in those kinds of professions– advertising, marketing, dealing with other people, so on and so forth-and what they were practicing at that table was the thing that would eventually get them all reemployed.

The other part, it’s the growth in those professional and managerial jobs most of them were in those slots, they were in a recession.

They didn’t see it then but they were in a part of the economy that was growing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ed Landry and his fellow machinists by contrast were being retrained in very specific skills.

Landry himself chose to retire instead of continuing but even if you’ve got a job in the face-to-face economy, that doesn’t mean it will be a stable one.

RICHARD MURNANE: Job turnover in the United States is vastly higher than it is in other countries. So consequently Americans need to be aware that they’re going to have many jobs and they need to cope with these transitions between jobs that are often tough for many people.

FRANK LEVY: If you look over the last ten years or so, every three months about seven million jobs are destroyed and about seven million jobs are created.

PAUL SOLMAN: Seven million in a work force of 135 million.

FRANK LEVY: That’s right.

PAUL SOLMAN: So U.S. job turnover is huge in recessions and recoveries alike. But the longer-range question is, what kind of jobs will we turn over into?

Only 25 percent or so of Americans get a four-year college degree.

They are the ones learning the skills that computers and increasingly sophisticated foreigners can’t do, but what are the job prospects of the other 75 percent of us?

Face-to-face work nearer the bottom of the job ladder or off the ladder entirely. It’s a real problem for which Dick Murnane and Frank Levy find the stock answer– education and job retraining– insufficient.

FRANK LEVY: Education is a long-run answer but in the short run you have a lot of issues about the safety net and how you take care of people who have lost jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: People who may not get other jobs anytime soon.