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The American Mind

Massive broad knowledge

William Hillman

(12/2017) Deutsche Bank recently announced it was laying off half its staff, close to 50,000 employees. Deutsche Bank is not in trouble (maybe a little bit), it just doesnít need people anymore.

"This week (Deutsche Bank boss, John Cryan) warned that technology could replace huge numbers of workers." --This is November 8th 2017

"Nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades." -- a report from Oxford University.

The jobs that are in jeopardy from technology are not blue-collar: assembly-line, steel mill, physical labor, or repetitive jobs. Those jobs are all gone.

The jobs that are in jeopardy today are traditional college graduate jobs: accounting, finance journalism, and writing. As artificial intelligence continues to develop, jobs such as engineering, science, and research will begin to feel the squeeze, and opportunity in those fields will decrease.

The continuous automation of jobs affects our society in two ways, the first is on an individual level -- there will be less employment opportunity; the second is on a national level -- it will make us more fragile as a society and vulnerable to unpredictable events.

How do we prepare our children for future employment?

In recent years, Iíve watched nephews and children of friends graduate from colleges with good grades and in disciplines that should guarantee a job right out of school. These young men and women then spend years looking for jobs that would justify the money their family spent to put them through college.

Future job opportunism will be greatest for a student who focuses on massive broad knowledge. They will need knowledge and skills that are portable between disciplines and scalable as unpredictable opportunities arise. These jobs will require critical thinking, problem solving and the skill of self-education.

Here is the current landscape.

Currently the unemployment rate for a college graduate is 2.0%, compared to a high school diploma workerís rate of 4.3%. Also, lifetime income expectation for a college graduate far exceeds that of a worker without one. But this is changing. These numbers include all existing workers. What about new workers, and where are the job opportunities? Each year fewer college graduates find jobs in their field of discipline and the average salary of the college graduate continues to drop.

I like numbers, and every month I peruse the labor statistics from the Department of Labor. The following numbers come from the BLS Table 1, "Job openings levels and rates by industry and region, seasonally adjusted". Industries with the most job openings and largest job growth are: "transportation, warehousing and utilities" (drivers), "professional and business services" (trash collection and custodial services), "health care" (nurse assistant), and food services.

The following job opportunities have decreased even as the economy has grown stronger: financial services, construction, retail, real estate, and education services. Thirty years ago, when I was entering college, these same jobs where the ones we were told to focus on for stable, future work.

If we could predict the stable, wealth-generating, jobs 10 years from now, the elimination of other careers will create massive labor concentration and competition on the remaining fields. Competition causes downward pressure on wages and higher turnover.

As a father whose son is only a handful of years away from starting college, I spend a lot of time thinking about whether he should go to college and what he should study. So many of the jobs that the employment advisers say we should be preparing him for, might not exist in 10 years.

College as a vocational trading school is a big risk. I will encourage my boys to use their time in college to learn how to think, how to learn, and create broad universal skills.

Future employment will require massive flexibility, adaptability, and continued learning. Massive broad knowledge will be the buzz word of the successful college students in years to come.

On the topic of job security, there used to be a saying, "Bumpers and Fenders". What they meant was, donít limit your knowledge to your role in the factory, pay attention and learn other jobs on the factory floor. If that Friday ever comes when pink slips are added to the paychecks, the worker that knows bumpers and fenders will keep his job, and the worker that can only make bumpers will get the pink slip.

Today, it would not be enough to know bumpers and fenders. To hold the job, a worker needs to know every part of the car body, as well as computer science, human resources, communications, math, marketing, physics, and business. There is only need for one worker in the factory and that worker will be the one who has the broadest set of skills. The workerís day will be mostly dull watching machines do their thing. But the worker will need the skills to deal with the unforeseen.

The truth is, my boys will most likely never work for a large corporation. Eventually, the large corporations will figure out how to eliminate all employees. The majority of Americans work for companies who employee under 50 people. Small business accounts for nearly 70% of new jobs. Successful small business persons need to wear many hats.

Also, broad skills help hedge against possible catastrophic events that could result from the fragility created on a national level from continued automation and consolidation. To quote Leonard Nimoy in his role as Spock, "The more complicated the machine, the easier it is to take it down." The more integrated the system is into the critical functions of our lives, the more catastrophic the result of minor errors will be. People with limited skills and inadaptability will be most vulnerable when the inevitable happens.

I believe that the best way to prepare for future employment is not to spend time preparing for a job, but to spend your energy preparing for any job.

Read other articles by Bill Hillman