Learn to live with change

July 1, 1995
"American workers fear that they may be made irrelevant by a microchip, a laser beam, or a robot." So says John Powers, a columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, in a recent article.

"American workers fear that they may be made irrelevant by a microchip, a laser beam, or a robot." So says John Powers, a columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, in a recent article. Powers was bemoaning what he terms "job morphing," the modern-day tendency toward rapid change in the workplace where jobs and the skills needed to do them can change almost overnight. Powers wonders if his own job is secure in the face of such rapid change. He concludes he`s relatively safe because he "can tell stories and people will always need stories." Speaking as one journalist to another, I hope John`s right.

However, I was struck by his choice of the three key technology icons--the microchip, the laser beam, and the robot--as the three factors that are making or will make American workers irrelevant. I`m using the adjective "American" here because Powers did so, but you could just as easily substitute French, German, Japanese or, indeed, any of the world`s leading industrialized countries. By themselves, the microchip, the laser, and the robot do nothing to throw anyone out of work. People make those decisions, just as people make the decisions to hire other workers.

And yet the microchip is a tool that has resulted in a multibillion dollar industry that did not exist a couple of decades ago--the personal computer industry. Looked at in those terms, the microchip has given birth to many new jobs in building the chips, designing the software, installing the networks, constructing the applications, and so on. One only has to visit the massive computer trade show Comdex, in Las Vegas, to get some sense of the wide variety of jobs that exists today because of the microchip and the personal computer.

Confronting automation

It`s easy, too, to point a finger at the robot because of its anthropomorphic qualities. One can stand by an automobile production line and watch a series of robotic arms relentlessly spot-welding car bodies and deduce that a dozen robots, that work three shifts a day for 365 days a year, have replaced three times as many manual workers. But what of the personnel who designed and built the robots, who programmed their actions, and who maintain their automated performance? The equation may be unbalanced but I`d say that it`s rare for automation to be the primary culprit in displacing workers. Shifts in customer desires play a much stronger role. For example, employment with US automobile manufacturers declined as Americans began buying more Japanese and European imports. But in the last year or so, employment with US auto makers has been rising as buyers turn to better-made and less-expensive American models.

And, finally, we come to the laser beam. This icon of modern technology has just celebrated its 35th anniversary. According to the Laser Focus World Annual Review and Forecast of the Laser Marketplace, about a billion dollars worth of lasers will be produced this year, up slightly from last year. With the exception of semiconductor lasers for the CD player and the laser printer, lasers are generally not mass-produced. And yet the laser has caught the imagination of the popular press as a symbol of technologic progress and as a modernizing device that is to be feared by the American worker.

What`s to fear?

I`d venture to say that the laser is feared partly because of its "Star Wars" properties. It`s also feared because the technology of the laser is hard to understand without a good grounding in physics. I recently interviewed a series of candidates for an editorial internship position. All had taken physics in high school and most were about to graduate from highly reputable journalism schools. None could explain laser action and only one knew the words behind the acronym (she looked it up before the interview). Anyone who wants to write for Laser Focus World has to know what a laser is and how it works or be prepared to learn very quickly.

And that I think is the key to removing the fear of "job morphing." We must all learn new skills as we see the workplace changing around us. I`ve recently learned several new skills that I hope will benefit me as PennWell Publishing moves further into electronic publishing. Communications workers have had to understand fiberoptic technology. And in the laser industry, engineers are teaching themselves how to understand customer applications and to provide solutions in which the laser plays only a part. We must all learn to live with change.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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