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Making Jobs

Making Jobs
Teaching glass working at Artist Asylum. Image by Chris Connors.
Teaching glass working at Artisan’s Asylum. Image by Chris Connors.

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:

  1. Work is organized as projects, not jobs or job titles.
  2. Participation in projects extends beyond the boundaries of country and corporate or academic organizations.
  3. 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.

12 thoughts on “Making Jobs

  1. David Lang says:

    This is great, Dale. Separating work and jobs is a hugely important idea. Oddly, it wasn’t until I lost my “job” that I really felt like I started working.

  2. erik scott says:

    The three biggest employers in Winston-Salem now (by dollar volume of payroll) are the two big hospitals and the one small one – like almost everywhere else in this country, medicine is the 800 pound gorilla. The question is “what replaces it in 20 years when the boomers start dying off?”

    1. Joby Elliott says:

      Measuring the size/impact of employers by dollar volume of payroll is ridiculous. It’s like saying Louisiana is a rich state because they have a high GDP from all their offshore oil rigs. They have a high GDP, but also one of the highest rates of desperate poverty in the country because that money mostly goes to a handful of oil industry employees or is promptly siphoned up by multinational corporations. Similarly: one doctor getting paid 10-20 times as much as a Wal-Mart cashier doesn’t pull 10-20 families out of poverty. One hospital administrator who gets paid 20-30 times as much as a fry cook at McDonalds doesn’t pull put food on the table of 20-30 hungry kids.

  3. Joby Elliott says:

    It’s greed that destroys jobs and middle class lifestyles, not automation, innovation, or a shift to service industries. You think Wal-Mart isn’t as profitable or more so than the factories that closed down?

    No. They just work fewer workers longer hours for less pay to line their own pockets. It’s the same story across the board. The typical American worker’s economic output is 2-4 times that of their grandfather, and yet we find ourselves working slightly longer hours than him for slightly less money accounting for inflation.

    Personally, I blame credit cards. I’m convinced that they’re largely to blame for our apathy in the face of ever-declining real wages. I’m also convinced that they’re close to the end game in of turning us into a nation populated largely by paid-slightly-less-than-a-decent-living-wage-but-don’t-notice-until-it’s-too-late-thanks-to-Visa wage slaves.

    1. Joby Elliott says:

      To be fair, our piss-poor and ever-declining education system has more than a little to do with all this as well. Our education system is like so many other things in America: it’s ostensibly public and egalitarian, but you better hope you’re not poor or you’re going to get the short end of the stick — hard.

  4. Libertarian Lurker says:

    The comment above about greed is actually close to the truth. If you expand the indictment to also include govt. greed and lust for power, then you will have the whole of the problem.
    Here’s a provocative speech Lew Rockwell gave a couple years ago:
    Some snippets:
    What the data have revealed is devastating. Since 1999, median household income has fallen 7.1 percent. Since 1989, median family income is largely flat. And since 1973 and the end of the gold standard, it has hardly risen at all. The great wealth-generating machine that was once America is failing….

    So where is our growth? Where is the peace dividend that was supposed to come after the end of the Cold War? Where are the fruits of the amazing gains in efficiency that technology has afforded? It has been eaten by the bureaucracy that manages our every move on this earth. The voracious and insatiable monster here is called the Federal Code that calls on thousands of agencies to exercise the police power to prevent us from living free lives.

    It is as Bastiat said: the real cost of the state is the prosperity we do not see, the jobs that don’t exist, the technologies to which we do not have access, the businesses that do not come into existence, and the bright future that is stolen from us. The state has looted us just as surely as a robber who enters our home at night and steals all that we love….

    The problem is more fundamental. It is the quality of the money. It is the very existence of 10,000 regulatory agencies. It is the whole assumption that you have to pay the state for the privilege to work. It is the presumption that the government must manage every aspect of the capitalist economic order. In short, it is the total state that is the problem, and the suffering and decline will continue so long as the total state exists….

    If fascism is invisible to us, it is truly the silent killer. It fastens a huge, violent, lumbering state on the free market that drains its capital and productivity like a deadly parasite on a host. This is why the fascist state has been called the vampire economy. It sucks the economic life out of a nation and brings about a slow death of a once-thriving economy….

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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