Piecemeal Work Creates More Career Worries

Susan Hall
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I tend to read a lot of articles about college, since I'll be sending a kid there in four years. So I've been watching this whole "Is College Worth It?" debate pretty closely.


I've written that those who major in engineering, computer science or business will earn in their lifetime as much as 50 percent more than those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology - and they start out at much higher salaries as well.


In a post at Harvard Business Review, Robert Laubacher, a research scientist and the acting executive director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT's Sloan School of Management, throws another wrench in the debate: hyperspecialization. He says that division of labor is poised to take on new meaning as tasks are broken up into increasingly smaller pieces and assigned to a variety of workers over the Internet. He points to sites such as TopCoder, Innocentive, Amazon Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower as examples where that's already happening.


He and his fellow researchers, in considering this change, in a previous post said they believed that lower-value knowledge work now being done in the United States and other advanced nations would be moved overseas, but the productivity gains would benefit everyone. Workers in advanced nations would be freed to pursue higher-value work.


But as former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan told federal tech execs Tuesday, tech innovation by its nature improves output, but does not create jobs.


There was a lot of depressing commentary when The New York Times' Paul Krugman in March wrote about the "hollowing out" of middle-wage jobs. Yet analysts at McKinsey Global Institute earlier this year described just such a piecemeal approach to work in the future, though they spoke of some tasks being sent to lower-cost areas of the United States rather than overseas.


Writes Laubacher:

If hyperspecialization becomes mainstream, it would lead to the development of global supply chains for knowledge work similar to the ones that have emerged in manufacturing. And this would likely result in the loss of large numbers of white-collar jobs, much like the loss since 1990 of blue-collar jobs ... And given current fiscal and credit constraints, it's unlikely that overall U.S. employment will be boosted in the future by job growth in government, health care, retail, and construction, as it has over the past twenty years.
All of this could make for a less than rosy outlook for American college graduates. The college premium has been a bright spot for the U.S. economy, this summer and over prior generations. But it could well be in jeopardy.

Laubacher contends that the private sector alone cannot solve the problem of job creation. But our government leaders have to treat job creation as more than a political football - and so far that doesn't seem to be happening.

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