Published On: Wed, Mar 1st, 2017

De-skill and re-skill the skill of the unskilled

dekker_0For decades, doomsday thinkers bombarded the world with the future role of robots.  Authors forecasted that robots would take over in the world from human workforces, especially leaving the unskilled out of a job.

“Now for the first time, human labor is being systematically eliminated from the production process,” heralded Jeremy Rifkin in1995, in his bestseller, “The End of Work.”

“Automation is replacing men,” stated President Kennedy in1960.

The consensus was that machines would replace, initially manual workers, but ultimately, the entire workforce.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx advocated that factory technology would replace manual labor and eliminate jobs;  the consequent uprising of the proletariat would mean the end of capitalism.

The forecasters were all wrong.  Technology did not create permanent unemployment.  Evidence over the last three decades showed that technology displaced workers to jobs requiring new skills.

Machines created new demand for workers with new skills. Some of the jobs were in the same occupation, others in new or different industries.  Many claimed that all these new jobs would require higher education,  but that was proven to be false. Most new jobs opened up in the mid-skill market. Mid-skill jobs are often self-taught.

Most users of computers nowadays are self-taught; they never followed any formal education. Unskilled labor started many new IT-companies, all over the world. They became the founders of a new industry with the help of learning-on-the-job, informal education and corporate certificates (Microsoft, Apple).

New technology requires reorganizing rebalancing and restructuring of occupations, assembly lines, and industries.  One study shows that for every dollar spent on computer hardware, companies spent ten dollars on reorganization.

So, technology displaces rather than replaces workers, to jobs with somewhat different skill sets. The so-called unskilled, who acquired great skills in their daily routine by learning-on-the-job, have to be de-skilled and re-skilled to a slightly different environment.

What the unskilled learned through years of experience was a unique and most valuable attribute until the moment new technology arrived; their experience became worthless, all the sudden.  The highly experienced unskilled workers and the unions representing them, often show great reluctance to de-skill and re-skill. The automotive industry in Detroit had to go through bankruptcies and reorganizations before it could be resurrected.

Luddites, a group of English textile workers in the 19th century destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest. Their protest claimed "fraudulent and deceitful manner" to get around standard labor practices.

Some politicians, eager for votes, want to preserve the old jobs with subsidies or trade protections at the expense of tax-payers. They stifle an obsolete system, as can be observed in the industrial remnants of the former USSR.

Displacement from technology holds great promise for every worker who is ready to face a lifelong career of training and retraining.

By Jacob Gelt Dekker
Opinion columnist for Curaçao Chronicle

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