Progress has blue-collar jobs in the crosshairs

“The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a classic Aesop fable, is the story is of a young boy who was put in charge of watching over the village’s flock of sheep – an important job. Out of sheer boredom, he decided to generate some excitement and ran to falsely alert the adults in the village, “There’s a wolf!” The villagers ran to protect the flock, only to find the boy bent over in laughter because they had fallen for his prank. After realizing the level of excitement that his claim caused, he again ran into the village to cry, “Wolf!” Again, the villagers rushed to protect the flock, only to find that, again, there was no wolf. Then, as the fable goes, a wolf does appear, but the villagers had learned to ignore the boy’s claims and refused to come to his aid, resulting in the entire village suffering a loss to their communal resource: the flock.

Since the advent of the loom, there has been a fear of mass worker displacement due to automation. However, the prevailing consensus is that this is an irrational fear and is akin to not understanding how job creation works. Because with every innovation since the loom, job elimination has not resulted in mass worker displacement. In fact, most innovations tend to create more jobs than they eliminate, resulting in a net job gain.

However, we are moving into a new age. We are evolving at a highly rapid pace from an industrial society to a technical one. The pace is far less manageable than when we moved from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age, when few in society were left behind and the change was low resolution enough that many workers were effectively trained into new roles. What we are experiencing today is occurring so much more rapidly than we will be able to – are able to – manage. People will be left behind this time and we are in danger of creating a permanently unemployed class.

In a post-pandemic world, where millions found themselves out of the workforce, our government delivered UBI-like programs to the affected. We’ve created the pilot program that ensures financial security for those who are out of the workforce – largely low income/blue collar depreciating further in skills and market value – while those capable of remote work, along with technical workers, were largely able to maintain steady employment. In fact, they didn’t just continue working during the pandemic, many were able to continue developing professionally and learn new skills. One class of workers took two steps back while the other class took two steps forward. It’s going to be difficult to make up the ground that was lost by those blue collar workers. If we thought the skills gap was bad before the pandemic, wait until the dust settles. We will see irreparable damage to America’s working class; we’ll find that the labor market, amidst the fear and the confusion of a global pandemic, has already left millions of workers behind.

The transformation from industrial to technical is not a subtle progression, and having an industrial skill set is not a foundation that easily translates into being able to take advantage of new opportunities in the burgeoning technical world. When blue collar jobs are eliminated, even if new grey or white collar jobs are created, the workers who are impacted by the job elimination will not be the beneficiaries of the new jobs created. They aren’t in a position to take advantage of those new opportunities. We cannot retrain a TIG welder to a coder or data miner overnight, or turn a truck driver into a website design guru or a software developer in six months. These aren’t linear career progressions and the required competencies could hardly be more night and day. Though we’ll likely see a token success story to promote the availability of these new opportunities – because there always is one – it’s not realistic to assume we would be able to replicate one outlier’s success in millions of other workers.

It is true that historically the job elimination narrative has proven to be a fallacy, and it has been written off as “crying wolf.” Perhaps rightly so – time and again this fear has proven to be misplaced. But as our fable should remind us, the problem with crying wolf is not that there isn’t a wolf lurking, it’s that no one is ready for the wolf once she finally arrives.

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