I saw this piece in today's Seattle Times, headlined "Industrial Work Force Short on Tech Savvy." It's yet another reminder that the skills gap is making itself felt in the US economy, sector by sector, even in the midst of a looming recession. Anyone following the manufacturing industry in the age of globalization knows this is true. US manufacturing can compete with low-cost suppliers, but to do so, we need to get better at using knowledge and information to drive innovation. And in true wikinomic, bottom-up style, that innovation might just as well come from the front lines of the factory as from the engineers in the back room.
Consequently, manufacturers have been investing in a lot of new technology, designed not just to make processes faster and more efficient, but also to bring the knowledge and talents of workers into mainstream of the organization. This means many formerly low-skill jobs now require at least some familiarity with the accoutrements of the professional office: the PC, the Internet, email, and application software. But guess what? That kind of technology doesn't work without people at either end of it, contributing and consuming knowledge.
This new reality explains the observation made in the article that, "Many out-of-work trades people don't fit into today's technology-intensive factories."
Indeed. A lot of trades people became trades people to avoid becoming computer geeks.There's precious little discussion of that. The white collar professionalist mindset, which naturally predominates among people writing and thinking about technology and management, seems to have a blindspot when it comes to the notion that not everyone wants to be an information worker, even if the pay is good and the opportunities are better. A balanced economy creates good jobs for all kinds of people: the strong, the resourceful, the hard-working, the persuasive, and the dextrous as well as the smart. IT has been warping that balance for a while, and now the workforce is at the breaking point.
Fortunately, one trend in high-tech development is that information tools are becoming more abstract and more deeply embedded in work practices. For once, the technology is coming to the worker, rather than making the worker go to the technology (through extensive training). This is a subject I am planning to explore in detail later this year.