Does innovation create jobs or just eliminate them? That was the question put forward at the International Summit on Innovation for Jobs (I4J), held last week at SRI in Menlo Park, CA. The outsourcing of jobs and improved automation are two trends that have eliminated jobs. Where are the new jobs going to come from and how can education support the development of young people who are prepared for those new jobs? I must confess that such macro-level discussions are not so interesting to me. It reminds me of the way “job creators” became a political football during the last election. Yet there is real concern that the kinds of jobs that gave rise to a strong middle class in America are disappearing.
Many of these jobs were in manufacturing. I remember a visit to Winston-Salem, NC where a community leader told me that forty years ago a young person could drop out of high school and walk into a factory and get a job and a middle class life. That is, this person could afford to own a home and a car, and raise a family where the kids were likely to go to college. However, in Winston-Salem today, the three main industries of textiles, tobacco, and furniture making have closed their factories. That young drop out doesn’t have a lot of options, except a low-paying service job such as a clerk at Wal-Mart. One might hope that the economic reality would provide more motivation to stay in school, but dropout rates have not declined. In general, our school systems are not what they were forty years ago either. This is certainly true in states like California.
In a group discussion at the I4J Summit, a journalist who lives in Menlo Park remarked that there were three school districts in the city. Two of them served well-off communities such as you’d expect from people prospering in the tech industry while the third consisted of a very high percentage of students who qualify for Free and Reduced School Lunch, which means their families are near the poverty level. These are generally families whose providers have jobs in a service industry. The point he wanted to make is that even in the middle of Silicon Valley, which is the hallmark of innovation, we have this kind of disparity. The promise of a good education, available to all, has the been the key to social and economic mobility. While two districts in this community are well-funded by local taxes, one is not. When it comes to getting a good education, it matters where you live.
Irwin Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm, gave a talk about the power of mobile technology to transform education. Mobile devices are always on, always connected, and getting them in the hands of students gives them “ubiquitous access to learning resources and the ability to collaborate with peers and advisors in and out of the classroom.” First, we’d have to encourage schools to allow students to use the technology they already have in their hands. I once wrote a satirical piece (a la The Onion) that reported that a school board approved student use of cellphones on standardized tests. I had a school board member confess that when she doesn’t know the answer to the question, she uses her cellphone to get an answer. Why shouldn’t our kids be able to do so in school?
Education should be more than testing one’s ability to recall the content of a textbook or lecture. It should be encouraging students to learn how to work together and develop creative and technical capabilities through practice and performance. Learning to turn your ideas into something real, to iterate through a development process that can be frustrating as well as satisfying, and to share your process with others is a kind of informal education that can be found in making, and which is more experiential than traditional “formal” education. It is a demonstration of what you can do, not just an assessment of what you know.
At the I4J Summit, Tim O’Reilly said he was uncomfortable using the word “jobs” as though jobs are something we find rather than something we create. We ought to be talking about work, he said. What kind of work needs to be done? “Work precedes jobs,” said O’Reilly. Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, added: “Play precedes work as work precedes jobs.” Another speaker later in the day asked if we thought work would be scarce or abundant. He answered his own question: “I don’t think we’re running out of things that need doing.”
Thinking about the changing nature of work is relevant, especially in the context of the maker movement. On one hand, the discussion is about what kinds of work, what opportunities for value creation, will be available now and in the future. On the other hand, the discussion must also be about what kinds of work we find satisfying and rewarding. Few of us just want to have jobs, but instead we want to have meaningful work, for ourselves and our children.
Not only should we be thinking about the nature of work but also workplaces. How can workplaces be more creative and collaborative? Makerspaces such as Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, MA may be a kind of learning lab for exploring new ways to work. If one thinks of Joy’s Law, that “no matter who you are, many of the smartest people don’t work for you,” then we should reshape our thinking about how organizations work and how they interface with a community outside their own walls. We can also learn from the open source world:
- Work is organized as projects, not jobs or job titles.
- Participation in projects extends beyond the boundaries of country and corporate or academic organizations.
- Contributions to projects are influenced by personal as well as professional interests.
What I find so compelling about makers is quite simply that they love what they are doing, whether they consider their work a hobby or a job. For many, what they do on their own time relates to what they do at work, although they have greater freedom when working on their own. My own belief is that makers are harbingers for the future of work.
On Saturday, at a Young Makers event held at The Bay School in the Presidio in SF, metalworker Tom Lipton was a featured maker. He has written a book: Metalworking: Sink or Swim, and he showed up with a dozen or more old issues of Popular Mechanics. “I just love to work with my hands and I would do that for free if someone just fed me,” he said, opening his talk. (It reminded me of a quote by Steve Wozniak about his days in the Homebrew Computer Club, that he would create and share designs of computers “for free for the rest of my life.” ) Tom said he lives above his shop and likes that he can walk down there in his sweats to work. He also works at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs where he builds things for scientists and engineers. He said he’s worked on any number of kooky projects including tracking cockroachs, counting ants, a toilet testing machine, a hair clog maker, and a 25ft tall 500kV source test stand for a neutron generator. Tom showed how superconductivity magnets are made at LBNL.
“It starts by making wire,” he said, explaining the complex technical process. Tom’s thought on the future of work was to share what he loves doing with others, particularly young people.