What Can IT Do To Stimulate the Job Market?

Last week I revisited some concerns about cloud computing putting IT staff out of work. This week I want to look at the broader issue of technology displacing workers – and whether IT can do anything about it.

On his blog, Gartner VP and fellow Tom Austin asks where the new jobs are for those displaced by automation, where the improved work-life balance is for those that run the machines, and “How are all the IT and communications firms helping repair the social fabric that has been ripped to shreds during the last 30 to 40 years?”

Austin writes:

What unique capabilities could the Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Intel, Google and others bring to the table to really attack these problems?

We have destroyed more jobs than we created. How do we address this, we, the active participants in this industry? Not through makeshift jobs or cash handouts. The issues and needs are deeper than that.

Information technology (and the wealth generated by it) has been applied to many other social and environmental problems, but not to joblessness – a problem shaping up to be the biggest issue of the next decade. I think we can ask the IT departments of any enterprise, not just the IT firms Austin mentions, what they can do to create more jobs.

In a subsequent post, Austin points to a Brookings Institute report titled “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market.” The report claims that the ongoing high unemployment rate is due to increased automation reducing the need for medium skilled white and blue collar workers (the institute notes that men are particularly affected by this – see also this provocative piece in The Atlantic).

I decided to frame this as a question of what IT can do for the job market and not “the economy.” The economy has supposedly been in recovery for over a year – but the unemploment rate hovers at nearly 10% in the US. IT may improve the economy at the expense of the job market.

It seems paradoxical to ask what IT can do to solve this problem of its own creation. IT has typically been tasked with making things more efficient – with speeding up and automating tasks so that FEWER workers are required. How can we ask IT to increase the demand for laborers, especially low and mid-skilled laborers?

One answer may be in the creation of new business opportunities – ones that require more human involvement. What sorts of previously impossible tasks can IT enable – that still require human beings to do them? Ones that don’t require advanced technical training? ( Apart from Amazon’s MechanicalTurk, called a “digital sweatshop” by some.) Networked communications enables many things that weren’t possible before:

  • People can connect with each other in ways never before possible. Social media has been creating some new jobs already. There should be more possibilities here for customer service, sales, mediation, counseling and who knows what else.
  • Thanks to geo-locative technology, sensors, etc. it’s possible to find information that’s never before been available in real-time – if at all. Up to now, this information has mostly been used to do existing jobs better – to do more in less time and/or with fewer people. But what kinds of new work might be (profitably) enabled by this?

I know there are many political, economic, social and educational issues affecting the job market as well – and purely technological fixes seldom exist. But is it unreasonable to ask how technology might be put to use putting people back to work instead of out of work?

Austin’s post has received few comments – maybe we can do better. Do you know of any companies using information and communication technology to create new, decent jobs? Can you think of any ways that this could be done that no one’s doing? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail klint@readwriteweb.com.

Photo by Daniel Lobo.

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