Microeconomic Shift: Reinventing the Workplace

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 it’s curious that so many American jobs have moved overseas, while US corporations seem only interested in service jobs, like retail and data centers.  Large concentrations of people mean large targets, and larger liabilities.  Yet these represent the kinds of jobs being created today.  The off-shoring of jobs is proof that information-work is already modular.  Many jobs require no specific language or communication skills, and the shift is aided by fast, pervasive networks.  In developing countries, the wires and switches must be installed piecemeal: the digital switching infrastructure is limited in speed and availability.  By contrast, most US cities have invested billions to build or develop such networks.  Our phone, cable and satellite data systems offer a degree of redundancy unrivaled in the developing world.  Most homes have computers, most high school graduates know how to use them.

It’s understandable that a country like India, having invested in training it’s people for engineering related fields, would attract skilled jobs, especially in areas like software where language skills are less critical.  It’s harder to understand why unskilled jobs in call centers go to people that must be trained in colloquial english when there are millions of trained speakers in the US.  With our vast broadband networks, companies can pick and choose locales.  This isn’t driven by major disparities in wages and labor rules between the US and the developing world.  It’s not that our workers are greedy or overpaid.  Rather our work rules and style reflect an industrial era that hasn’t existed for twenty years.  Education is geared to produce factory workers or bosses, with interchangeable skills.  Transportation and urban planning is geared to concentrate population around commercial and industrial sites.  Work rules have evolved to protect workers from economics slavery, sweat-shop conditions, and industrial exploitation.  Payment assumes no reward beyond money, and limits control and management to shareholders, with no connection to the work force, or products.  This archaic model fails workers and industry.

Companies must rethink the standard terms of employment, and look at the big picture.  Many workers spend 1-3 hours/day traveling to and from work, pay for parking, eat at restaurants or cafeterias, and use less powerful computers than what they have at home.  Companies and workers alike concentrate and multiply risk with centralization: in todays world its easy to imagine a company losing its entire workforce, production facilities, and data infrastructure in a single accident or attack.  The status quo is expensive, hostile and riskier than many alternatives.  The information economy has fundamentally transformed this equation.

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