Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Nation Of Shopkeepers

There's a famous statistic that's trotted out whenever academics want your money. This version comes from Professor Robert Sternberg, who is now president of the University of Wyoming.
...93 percent of the employers surveyed said that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major." They were not saying that a student's major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.
Just go to college--so the theory goes--major in women's studies with a minor in global musicology, and the corner office will be yours. Of course it's horsefeathers.

But what would you expect employers to say? We are looking for brainless nitwits who can follow simple directions. No employer, or rather no employee who represents the employer, will admit to being hired under the brainless nitwit program.

As it turns out, I have some experience with this. Some years back my campus organized students to help businesses better utilize green energy. It was a service learning project. We got an enthusiastic reception from local companies, and so warehouses were analyzed, blueprints were drawn, elaborate spreadsheets were tabulated, and teams of students worked hard to generate useful data.

And then, when all the planning, measuring and studying were done, nothing. When it came time to actually put capital behind these plans, none of the businesses--none--coughed up a dime. If you asked them, of course they'd say we support the environment. We're in favor of green energy. But real capital is invested for business reasons, not for propaganda, and in the interests of company survival they didn't invest frivolously.

What people say and what people do are two different things.

So my Trotskyist friends are smarter than academics (faint praise, but it's the best I can do). Consider this quote:
First of all, the turn capitalism has taken over the past few decades has knocked the stuffing out of our class, has ridden roughshod over its organizations and communities and has driven down its quality of life. More than this, there has been a proletarianization process engulfing and embracing many occupations and social layers once considered “middle class,” while at the same time technology and globalization have eroded the industries that were once at the heart of working-class employment, replacing them with jobs that pay less and are less secure. And all of this has contributed to a slow-moving, contradictory, but intensifying radicalization process, and out of this process have been emerging new struggles, new forms of struggle and a still-evolving crystallization of a new, diverse vanguard layer of the working class.
That's from an article by Paul Le Blanc (my former comrade in the Socialist Workers Party, not the president of the University of Southern New Hampshire), entitled Leninism for Dangerous Times. Now I don't agree with Mr. Le Blanc's characterization of events, but his description of them is far more accurate than Professor Sternberg's.

Mr. Le Blanc uses the term proletarianization, a mouthful that hardly connotes people with college-trained, critical thinking skills. Now I don't like that term, either, but it is certainly true that technology is de-skilling what was once intellectual labor. As I've suggested elsewheredoctors and professors are ripe targets for automation. Add lawyers, accountants, pilots, and truck drivers to the list of jobs that are at least partially on their way out.

It is the academic's conceit that these skilled, well-paying jobs will be replaced by people with even more skills at even better pay, i.e., those with much vaunted "critical thinking" skills. The job that people like Professor Sternberg have in mind is a manager. Indeed, in the original conception a college education was designed to prepare you for the officer class, i.e., the people with the book learning necessary to manage other people.

But technology sharply reduces the need for managers. Organizations (outside of government or academe) are flatter than ever. Employees increasingly work from home, or from Starbucks, or from their cars, or in comfy Google-plexes with free food. Performance is monitored by the keystroke or by the dollars generated, not by some managerial assessment. The abilities of the women's studies major are, sadly, increasingly useless.

So how can one know what companies really want in employees if you can't believe what they tell you? Just ask yourself--what do you look for in a plumber? Do you care if he attended college? Are you worried about the quality of his general education program? Does it matter if he can factor a quadratic equation? Of course not. You want somebody with experience doing plumbing, and who is honest, personable, and reasonably good looking. And that's what employers want--a person with narrowly relevant skills, who is honest, personable, and good looking.

I think Professor Sternberg's plea for more money can be dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, Mr. Le Blanc's term proletarianization implies a de-skilling. That certainly is what is happening with some professions, e.g., medicine, but it is not happening across the board. Instead both computerization and, especially, globalization lead to increased specialization. Today, for example, it isn't enough to be a computer programmer. Instead you become specialized in particular sub-disciplines, such as database, or web programming, or bank software, or whatever. And the more specialized you become, the higher your pay, because the rarer your breed (at least until your career is rendered obsolete). This is not de-skilling. It's the opposite.

So Mr. Le Blanc actually makes the same error as Professor Sternberg--that the economy needs generalists more than it needs specialists. The professor deludes himself into thinking these generalists require some bizarre academic training, while Mr. Le Blanc thinks they're becoming de-skilled, proletarians. They're both wrong.

What we are really becoming is a land of petty bourgeois, skilled tradesmen. That still includes traditional skilled trades, such as plumbers, but there a lot of new ones out there. These include being the world-class expert in programming a particular IBM mainframe, or the ace salesman of food processing equipment to corn syrup producers, or the person who can fix any gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer around, or the guy who can repair 3D printers.

Unlike Mr. Sternberg's imagination, these people have skills instead of knowledge, which means they actually know how to do something. And unlike Mr. Le Blanc's fear, these people are neither cheap nor interchangeable, i.e., they are not proletarian workers.

Computers can do the math and store the knowledge. We won't be a nation of managers, analysts, or intellectuals. The modern college degree is generally useless in the marketplace. And robots can do the work that proletarians used to do. The union movement is dead and gone.

We are becoming a nation of shopkeepers. And that's not a bad fate--not bad at all.

Update: This post should note that Paul Le Blanc's article, Leninism for Dangerous Times, appeared in the current issue of Socialist Viewpoint. I've only highlighted a bit of it here, but read the whole thing--it's worthwhile. And kudos to Socialist Viewpoint for a good selection.

Further Reading:

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