Is Infrastructure & Operations Vulnerable To Job Market Trends?

A couple of weeks ago, I read that one of the largest US car makers was trying to buy out several thousand machinists and welders. While we have grown accustomed to bad news in this economy, what I found significant was that these were skilled workers. Personally, I find it a lot easier to write code than to weld two pieces of steel together, and I have tried both.

For the past 20 years, the job market in industrialized countries has shown a demand increase at the high and low ends of the wage and skill scale, to the detriment of the middle. Although it’s something that we may have intuitively perceived in our day-to-day lives, a 2010 paper by David Autor of MIT confirms the trend:

“. . . the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low-wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs.”

One of the reasons for this bipolarization of the job market is that most of the tasks in the middle market are based on well-known and well-documented procedures that can be easily automated by software (or simply offshored). This leaves, at the high end, jobs that require analytical and decision-making skills usually based on a solid education, and at the low end, “situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interactions. . . . and little in the way of formal education.”

Can this happen to IT? As we are fast-forwarding to an industrial IT, we tend to replicate what other industries did before us, that is remove the person in the middle through automation and thus polarize the skill and wage opportunities at both ends of the scale.

Yet, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience available from this group that we should not throw away: Understanding of the enterprise culture and of the tasks being automated can be put to good use. As my colleague Glenn O’Donnell puts it: “And although their former skills may no longer be needed, their aptitudes are a perfect foundation for automation. The ideal person to automate a function is the person being automated out of a job. Their experience will prove indispensible for developing the automation strategy, building out solutions, and continually improving them.”