Monday, November 14, 2011



In a NY Times Sunday Review article on Nov. 13 Ezekiel Emanuel describes how to reduce health-care costs by relying more on computers (rather than people) for billing [1]. One question that he does not address is what will happen to the people who lose their jobs as clerks.

A feature of today's economy is that technological innovation has eliminated the need for routine clerical labor much in the way that 200 years ago the industrial revolution eliminated the need for low-skilled manual labor. Of course the industrial revolution created many new jobs but these required higher level of skills. Operating a bulldozer requires more mental skills that handling a pickax and repairing such a machine requires an even higher level of such skills. The industrialized countries responded to this challenge by vastly expanding their educational system. In the 18th century most people were illiterate while the opposite was true in the 20th century. The number of people employed as school teachers also increased enormously.

Today there are many jobs available but there are no people with the skills to fill them. The September 10 issue of the Economist included a special section titled "The Future of Jobs" with the lead article titled "The great mismatch" and subtitled "In the new world of work, unemployment is high yet skilled and talented people are in short supply."

An article by Adam Davidson in the NY Times Magazine issue of Nov. 6 raised similar issues [2]. The quote "...too many Americans don't know how to do anything that the world is willing to pay them a living wage for" captures the spirit of the author's position.

It seems to me that there is a need for a major expansion in education, similar to that that occurred between the 18th and 20th centuries. But this time we are not talking about literacy and basic numerical skills. We are talking about mathematics and science. Currently there are too few efforts in that direction. One shining example of what is badly needed is a program in the University of Maryland Baltimore campus that was highlighted in the CBS program 60 Minutes on Nov. 13 [3].

The United States is going to face a severe labor shortage in technological areas because it depends heavily on immigrant engineers and scientists from China and India. As these two countries advance we will see a major drop in such immigrants. The trend has already started. We have seen a parallel 50 years ago. Right after War World II the United States saw an influx of immigrant engineers and scientists from Western Europe and Japan. By the 1960's conditions in those regions had improved enough that such immigration was greatly reduced.

In short, there will be plenty of jobs in the United States in the years to come but these jobs will require skills that the current educational system does not provide. To put it bluntly, people with only liberal education are no longer employable. Maybe instead of "occupying" Wall Street they should try to retrain themselves. Extreme income inequality is a factor for instability in a society but it can be addressed through revisions in the tax code. But that is a minor step compared to what is really needed.

The change in our educational system must be drastic and it should start at least at the high school level. We need not only train people but also train teachers who can train them. It will be a monumental task. What I find most frightening is that our politicians seemed blissfully unaware of the crisis.



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