Future Work

3d_printing-partsMy 14-year-old got a strange little cable from China the other day. It has a USB thingie at one end and a big honking industrial grade connector at the other. It came with a CD. To get it to work he had to partition his $15 ThinkPad’s hard drive, install Windows XP and then install the software. He can now do dealer level diagnostics on about sixty different sorts of older cars. It cost him $20 which he earned himself doing online reviews (big hint, diet pills don’t actually work.)

He got it running just after installing a new keyboard on my AIR – chocolate milk is not your friend as his younger brother has been learning. And before that he did a sketch-up version of a forty dollar plastic part for a BMW rear window awning which he sent off to an online 3D printing shop and which should be here for $15.00 for two, including shipping, in a couple of days.

One of the reasons why we homeschool is that I am pretty much convinced that the idea of a “job” economy where you punch assorted academic tickets and then take an entry-level position and work your way up is pretty much over. Yes, there will still be lots of STEM jobs where the ticket punching makes a lot of sense – you can’t design or build a serious integrated circuit without a good deal of electrical engineering training – but a lot of the other career paths manufacturing, banking, government, even teaching, are undergoing radical transformations. So are the low skill jobs like taxi driving and retail sales.

[I am going to ignore the AI elephant in the corner. Once that gets out of the lab a lot of bets are right off the table.]

The whole question of “what do you need to know to get a job” is a moving target. There is no question at all that the ladies at HR will be looking for “qualifications”. Captain Capitalism suggests that college has become a fourth layer of government in the US because you can’t get the good jobs without having passed through its sorting hat. I suspect he is right, he usually is. But it is the layer of government which is easiest to evade.

I went to college for a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I learned many things. I had an excellent time and would recommend the experience highly. I also started university when a year’s tuition was $450 and when I went to law school it was something like $2800. (Yes, I really am that old.) But to put it in perspective, I paid for a third and fourth year myself as well as grad school and law school with part-time jobs. It was totally doable. Now, as my elder son is finding, it is close to impossible.

The credential itself is a lovely thing but, by the time you are in your early thirties, no one ever asks what you did as an undergraduate. They are interested in what you can do for them right now.

Richard Feynman got off to a great start taking apart broken radios in the 1930’s. Eventually, he understood enough that he could actually fix the radios. He learned about locks and security systems and, eventually, noticed that a brittle O-ring brought down the Challenger and proved it with an elegant little experiment.

I am a huge fan of university. I am also aware that the life expectancy of my children is, as I write, something on the order of 100 and probably closer to 150. Taking four years when you are 25 or 30 to study something you are interested in makes a lot of sense. But, if you have a capacity and a curiosity about how stuff works and how to fix it, it may make a lot more sense to run with that for a few years in your late teens and early twenties. If there is a credential required, a trade ticket is forever. Robots will serve you that Big Mac, they will not rejig the fuel injection on your BMW or get your cooler to be cold.

Building apps is a wonderful thing. It is nice, clean work. Hacking code is lovely and it is very lucrative. The Google guys who made Sketch-up and 3D printers have given kids like my son the ability to make “things” which would have taken a complete machine shop to build a decade ago. And that is changing the nature of work in ways which make the entire idea of credentials seem rather quaint.

A kid who goes into a trade program already knowing how to make custom parts without the machine shop is in a different world. We didn’t teach Sam how to draft or how to take measurements with a set of digital calipers. We told him it was possible and that there was a need for a particular part. He taught himself the rest.

The new jobs are going to be the old jobs with new technology. Fixing your cooler will be the same set of HVAC issues but being able to scan and replicate the broken part changes the entire ball game. More importantly, knowing that it can be done is the key bit of knowledge which will change how work is done in the future.

The credential is a “nice to have”, the knowledge is essential.

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One thought on “Future Work

  1. Ignore the wordpress account, although it gives an indication of my background. Trades trades trades. You can get training while working and get a very good wage. A smart kid like yours will have no problem. The work is challenging and technical, constantly changing. What your son did was learn how to be productive when he doesn’t know; he learned that the challenge is to be bloody minded enough to push through the obstacles and complexity; that the limits are his skills and knowledge which can always be improved upon.

    The jobs that won’t exist (and already are getting rare) are the ones that are repetitive. If it is repetitive, someone somewhere with capital and cheap labor will do it for far less than I or you can. But my job is to fix a problem caused by multiple things on a one off installation. There are rules, principles, mostly laws of physics. There are good practices. But how do you get something running where it needs to run or the business closes for the day when parts are three weeks away? Someone will pay you very well for that.

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