Some jobs-related topics don’t get as much attention as others. But, as we will see, that doesn’t mean they are unworthy of it.
The New York Times May 11th editorial “An Invitation to Wage Theft” rightfully condemned a passed House bill named the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” an Orwellian name for a proposed law that would allow employers, though only with employee permission, to compensate workers for overtime with paid time off at their convenience, possibly over a year later. As well as damaging those hoping for hours off during their regular shifts by making them elusive, the bill attacks two solid principles of overtime: that employers pay for it when it occurs, and that it be covered at time-and-a-half. We don’t need precedents against those, even if they are named invitingly.
Two days later, the same newspaper published Conor Dougherty’s “Signing Away the Right to Get a New Job,” on the proliferation of noncompete clauses for workers ranking far below top executives. In one sense, it is understandable that more employees be required to agree to these terms at hiring, since lower-level positions more often involve proprietary information, but these constraints have clearly got out of hand. Many such required agreements, especially those that, per the article, “cover general knowledge as well,” should be banned, and others, when employers attempt legal action to enforce them, should be sent to arbitration before expensive court proceedings, which management is better able to finance. There is a night-and-day difference between a CEO giving away trade secrets and a construction worker adding improved work practices to his accumulated career knowledge, and the laws should reflect that.
Robert J. Samuelson, in “Globalization’s ill effects have been wildly exaggerated” (The Washington Post, May 14th) showed that he understood that subject better than he did the significance of robots. It is a good two-page case against protectionism, which has recently become more fashionable in countries where the people should know better. Points he made included “trade has contributed substantially to the rise of American living standards since World War II,” “foreign competition and technology also force US firms to lower costs and improve reliability,” and “trade is only a small part of overall job displacement, no more than 10 percent… Other causes include automation, technological obsolescence and recessions.” We may be heading into a protectionist era, and this article shows, effectively, why that would be bad.
In “What If Companies Managed People as Carefully as They Manage Money?” (Harvard Business Review, May 24th), Eric Garton proposed the sort of thing I have described, though not in print, as “a novel (expletive) idea.” I don’t agree that “today’s scarcest resource is your human capital,” when we are over 17 million jobs short and innumerable businesspeople and commentators are confusing disinclination to train workers or pay market wages with a “skills shortage,” but organizations, especially large ones, have long been pathetically bad at assessing worker potential. Garton suggested using metrics such as his “productive power index,” along with critically judging the value of meetings, breaking down how people actually spend working time, and, though easier said than done, identifying and rewarding “difference-making talent.” This article is a starting point – how about making employee ability measurement the next business fad?
Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, one of the most perceptive business writers around, may have jumped the gun in “Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers” (June 17th). Sure, we can, as she suggested, imagine robots handling store customer service and items purchased being sent to them later, but delivery, as companies seem to need to rediscover all the time, is expensive, and will not be viable for most of the products sold by the acquiree in this article, Whole Foods. It is also wrong to say that the service sector, which has been losing jobs to automation for decades now, will suffer from that “next,” or that “imagining the future is an act of science fiction,” when it is more like judicious projection. And although “Amazon said it had no plans to lay off Whole Foods workers or use Amazon Go technology to automate cashiers’ jobs,” such may be announced at any time, and it is quite possible that Amazon will destroy that company by turning it into a testbed for their mechanized and semi-mechanized efforts. After all, nobody should be so naïve as to think that Amazon is in the process of spending $13.4 billion so that it can go into the organic grocery business.
In a different area of change, Kai-Fu Lee told us about “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence,” in the June 24th New York Times. I have long thought that “A.I.,” for all the attention it has received, is actually only algorithmic, and Lee said that is indeed still the case: “At the moment, there is no known path from our best A.I. tools (like the Google computer program that recently beat the world’s best player of the game of Go) to “general” A.I. – self-aware computer programs that can engage in common-sense reasoning, attain knowledge in multiple domains, feel, express and understand emotions, and so on.” Until we can quantify and precisely define such knowledge areas as intuition, A.I. products will remain “tools, not a competing form of intelligence.” Lee’s “real threat” is A.I.’s effect on jobs, on which he weighed in and offered his views on possible solutions, generally good but, as always for this subject, open to debate.
Next, “A programmer figured out how to automate his job and work 2 hours a week – but he’s not sure it’s ethical” (Julie Bort, businessinsider.com, July 3rd). Wow. The story is about an information technology worker, identified as male but not named, who in effect developed scripts to do his job, and has not only kept his employer in the dark but has been “deliberately introducing a few random bugs into his work “to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.”” My vote is for “ethical,” as it is his company that is responsible for having jobs that could be so easily automated, maintaining unawareness of (as have so many others) telecommuting abuses, and managing its employees. However, if there are legal or career consequences from what he is doing, he must take them.
Basic information that we should know but probably don’t was the highlight of “How the Growth of E-Commerce Is Shifting Retail Jobs,” written by Robert Gebeloff and Karl Russell and published in The New York Times on July 6th. While employment in that area is up 334% since 2002, with its huge growth mostly offset by its relative lack of labor intensity, it is now generating only 8.4% of American retail sales, and in terms of the number of new jobs, its 178,000 gain is dwarfed by one of 841,000 in “warehouse clubs and other.” Such positions are concentrated in larger cities, with the share of e-commerce jobs in “small metro areas and rural counties” just over half of their portion of overall retail positions.
More areas I haven’t mentioned for a while, specifically guaranteed income and 3D printing, have also been getting modest press, and will, at least later this year, get their share on this blog as well. For now, though, expect the most active areas of robots and driverless vehicles to get the most. If you want to hear about some other aspects of American jobs, though, please let me know.