Over the past month, what has come out about employment?
First, in the January 12th New York Times, Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien warned us that “Slouch or Slack Off, This ‘Smart’ Office Chair Will Record It.” Perhaps designed for the same kind of places considering slanted toilets, this seat will “monitor… health, note bad posture as a sign of possible fatigue, measure heart rates and tally minutes spent at work stations.” After being introduced at “a technology company in eastern China,” “the company’s human resources manager began inquiring about employees’ long breaks and early departure from work.” Collecting some of this information would be illegal in the United States, with its rules against accessing, requiring, and sharing health histories, yet when there has long been a gap between what personnel departments know and what they admit to knowing, it is unnerving. On this sort of matter there are large differences between companies – let us hope that most steer clear here.
The second item is positive, as, per Keith Schneider in the same publication and date, “Air Cargo Construction Is Booming, Thanks to Amazon.” Those of us who don’t think much about what’s in the bottom half of planes when we’re flying may be surprised that it is taking over more of them. We saw that “Amazon Air, the e-commerce giant’s five-year-old cargo airline, is completing a 798,000-square-foot sorting center, seven-level parking structure and acres of freshly poured concrete to accommodate 20 aircraft” near the Cincinnati airport, to “be the center of Amazon Air’s national air transport network, which now has more than 70 aircraft and hundreds of daily flights to 35 other cities in the United States.” Unlike passenger travel, air shipping during the coronavirus has not been cut back but has jumped, with similar $500 million and $290 million projects opening recently for other companies and deliverers in general in Anchorage, Alaska and Ontario, California, and plans for Rockford, Illinois’s international airport (yes, there is such a place) to accommodate Boeing 747 freighters. With indefinite growth in this industry, it all means jobs, jobs, and more jobs.
While Cincinnati, Anchorage, and Ontario are surging, per Derek Thompson in the February 1st Atlantic, “Superstar Cities Are in Trouble.” Despite the article’s lead-in that “the past year has offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work, and it isn’t optimistic for big cities,” that doesn’t apply to all, as the piece positively mentioned Phoenix, Atlanta, and the Dallas area, but “San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City” are where “rents have fallen fastest.” A companion piece of sorts by Bob O’Donnell, published also on February 1st in USA Today and titled “Will hybrid work actually work? What companies and workers should consider in a post-pandemic world,” ignored that jobs split between home and offices, issues for companies on working space (long addressed through “hoteling”), and “the ability to work from virtually anywhere” giving us “new ways of working,” were making 1990s business headlines. Yet O’Donnell gets points for having “a strong sense that work fear of missing out is going to go though the roof once some people start going back to the office.” Probably physical face-to-face presence will be big into 2022, followed by a reckoning, with the mid and late-decade norms being established in the months after that. As for the five coastal cities above, we need to remember that meeting in person still has real strengths, that before Covid-19 many companies were investing heavily in office amenities, and that employer policies will vary drastically. However, it is a good bet that the mix of arrangements we end up with will include more telecommuting than in 2019, meaning some damage to previously trendy places will be permanent.
We end with an old panacea, from the Brookings Institution’s Up Front blog by Wendy Edelberg and Paige Shevlin on February 4th, “The critical role of workforce training in the labor market recovery.” My old view that such education helps individual workers but not the set of prospective employees in general, making it a poor public policy priority, was unchanged by anything here, especially by false statements such as the pandemic having “a disparate effect on workers depending on many factors” such as “race and gender” (individual employees lost their jobs, not groups of them, and we lack evidence that anyone was dropped by being black or female). Our nation was about 15 million jobs short even at its 21st-century low, so training Peter to be a better candidate than Paul may only make Paul the one without work, and fostering inevitable arguments about whether employers or governments should take the lead is nonconstructive. Let community colleges do what they can, then allow the market to function as well as possible.
We will find out what our working lives will be like when Covid-19 has vastly receded, but we’re not there yet. To bring about that outcome, please – keep wearing masks, keep staying six feet apart, and, above all, get vaccinated when you can. Those things may still make the difference.