Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Robotic Economy

One of the things I'm always dealing with in my life is when I'm finally going to "grow up and get a real job."

A little background: Ever since graduating with honors from the University of Missouri-Rolla, I've bounced around all over the country in a variety of jobs in a variety of fields. I attribute this to two major factors. First, I went through a really religious phase while in college that kept me from taking my classes all that seriously. I did well enough to graduate with honors, but I never really got absorbed in my class-work and developed the solid skill set that employers seek. And as I left college, I didn't immediately enter the work-force because I wanted to spend some time in urban ministry. Of course, about that time I began to really question my faith, and I wound up dropping out of the ministry I was involved with because I couldn't make myself fully believe it anymore, and I didn't want to live a lie. I'd missed the big round of hiring of new grads for that year, and the dot-com collapse was beginning to occur, so I didn't have great immediate job prospects. I chose to travel for awhile, taking whatever jobs I needed to get by, and sort out what I believed in. After a few years, I realized my degree was no longer valid since the computer field changes so quickly and I had no recent experience. But there's another major factor, and that is that while in school I regularly received what has turned out to be really awful career advice, and I followed it. Basically, the advice was to be well-rounded. Professors and other people who spoke to us about preparing for the work force always told us that having the degree meant we could program, but employers wanted more than somebody who could just sit in a corner and program. To stand out, we should cultivate talents that involved leadership and teamwork. I did that in spades. I founded a chapter of Habitat for Humanity and built two homes. I led the International Student Club for awhile, organizing events with people from dozens of nations. After college, my various jobs had me working with all kinds of people and required excellent interpersonal skills. But when I tried to enter the industry again, I realized that employers don't want well-rounded people at all. They want people with a very specific skill set that they can plug in to a specific location in the machine.

And that's what keeps bothering me as I try to get a "real job." Respectable, high-paying jobs don't involve thinking anymore, at least not in any broad sense. Based on every interview I've had, employers are looking for the person who is the best at performing one specific, narrowly-defined function. If an employer needs somebody to administer databases of employee information on SQL Server, then the candidate who has the most experience administering databases of employee information on SQL Server will get the job. Nevermind the fact that the business world is constantly changing and this person might have to adapt to Oracle within a year of being hired. No, businesses don't seem interested in people with broad skills and abilities who can quickly adapt to new environments.

Our economy seems to view people as robots that perform a specific function, and only a specific function. This makes sense when running an assembly line that does the same thing over and over. But it seems like we've converted all businesses and virtually all jobs to the assembly line model where everybody just does the same action over and over again.

I can't imagine anything I would want to do over and over again, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for years on end. I used to really enjoy teaching. But then I did it 5 days a week for an entire school year. And now I hate it. I enjoy following the stock market and examining companies' balance sheets and finances. But I have a feeling if that's all I did all day every working day, I'd get very bored with it very quickly. Everybody's advice for finding a good job is to learn a marketable skill. Well I can't think of anything I'd want to learn how to do if learning it meant I'd have to do it every working day for many years.

Are there any jobs that aren't simply repetitive behavior every day? If so, how does a person learn the "skills" to get hired at such a job?



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