March of progress with human consequences

Fact: Today Cisco announced a new program with “learning solutions partners” to support China’s growing IT infrastructure by “Nurturing Talent in More Than 100 Training Centers Across 31 Cities in China” (Cisco Launches Talent Development Strategy for China“)

Analysis: One day last week an enterprising handyman in my little town of Montross, Virginia spied a large sinkhole in the long driveway leading up to our house. He offered to my wife that he’d fill and level the hole for $20.  Sold!

Once he was done, he mentioned that he’d been out of work since August, and that he’d appreciate any other work, and we hired him for another small household project as well. In retrospect, I wondered if it might be better to point him toward some available ways in the community to get introductory computer training and skills.

The large national job-loss numbers released last week (BLS graph and data here) hiked the U.S. unemployment rate from 6.5 percent to a 15-year high of 6.7 percent. That’s still nowhere near the double-digit levels of the late Carter/early Reagan years (when it brushed up toward 12 percent), and only a quarter of the oft-cited Great Depression (estimates are it reached nearly 25 percent).  It is obviously a significant level however, with real human costs in towns and cities across America.

The Cisco program exemplifies that the international context for tech workers is brutally competitive of course, as the younger, hungrier workforce of the developing world is learning faster and more eagerly than some in the U.S. workforce. 

If you’re in the technology industry and you want to keep progressing, at least in a paid fashion, the lesson of unabated automation is: keep learning.  Keep training on advanced tech tools and software, as soon as they appear on the horizon. The process of automation continues apace, with inevitable human consequences.

Here’s a dramatic example, from John Murrell writing in his “Good Morning Silicon Valley” column, yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News:

Upgrade enables Netflix to stream techs out the door: Well, this ought to keep the Netflix employee suggestion box from overflowing with ideas for technical improvements. In a post on the movie rental company’s blog Sunday, Steve Swasey, VP of corporate communications, shared the heartwarming holiday news that the move to Microsoft’s Silverlight media platform had made life worlds easier for customers streaming video to their computers — so easy, in fact, that there was no longer need for a 65-member team of technical support specialists. Fifteen will be absorbed into the 300-person Customer Service group, and 50 will get to spend more time with friends and family. “This wasn’t an economic decision,” Swasey told CNet. “We don’t do anything without a lot of analysis and study. We realize we don’t need the level of expertise that they provide to run these things.”

Silverlight is great, don’t get me wrong. And if I were an online-media specialist today, I’d be training up on advanced uses for Silverlight (or its competitors) pretty quickly.

The lessons being learned in the marketplace today are consistent and Darwinian: job flows are streaming from old industries to new, old-mindset workforces to new, old software platforms to new.  Those best able to adapt will survive, just fine.  And the announced intention of the Obama Administration within its “Technology Agenda”  to increase spending on workforce retraining could prove to be a timely investment.

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