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Cranky Director’s Corner – Ubering Our Livelihoods Away

Welcome to the “Happy Extortion Day” or Halloween edition of the Cranky Director’s Corner. While gratified that the editorial board of the Chronicle has chosen to follow the lead of my last post for their Innovation issue, there’s no resting on laurels around here. Onward. Forward! PROGRESS! What can possibly go wrong?

I’m glad you asked, so go grab your sabots and we’ll find out where to throw them. That does not mean this post or the Corner offer safe haven to Luddites. It is a blog after all. But as we venture into this month’s topic, let us reflect on the hard won lessons of the Industrial Revolution. It only took a matter of decades and incidents like the Triangle Shirt Fire to introduce reforms to protect workers. Of course these lessons don’t mean much in the American economy now that we’ve effectively off-shored much of our manufacturing. While off-shoring our consumer demand, we seem to have forgotten to send along our ethos on protecting workers from the predations of unscrupulous owners.

As globalization, outsourcing, and off-shoring encroached we pacified ourselves with things like Friedman’s The World is Flat, quietly thankful that the hardest hit employment sectors were not our own white collared ivory towers. Security by being knowledge workers or part of the creative class sounds wonderfully enlightened, yes?

Have you heard the one about the Uber driver? Imagine if you opened your news aggregator on your smart device and read your employer was investing heavily in putting you out of work within five years. What is your incentive for working hard and looking out for your employer? Of course, Uber drivers are part of the gig economy, so let’s consider the trucking industry. Similar timeline, though varying opinions abound, with a projected 3.5 million professional truck drivers potentially impacted. This amazing world we live in means these kinds of advances are not just coming to roads near us. Remember Foxconn from a few paragraphs ago? (you do click the links, don’t you?) Well, at least advances in AI and robotics means less people will be living that “dream”. Of course in the new economy, and in the old for that matter, it is the worker’s responsibility to retool for a new career. So what happens when the second half of creative destruction outpaces the first? What happens to a society when the pace of change is too rapid for people to make lateral or upward career shifts, or when jobs simply disappear without replacement opportunities emerging? If you think it cannot happen, you missed that it already has, and there are political implications for masses left behind.

What do Uber’s Otto, Facebook, AI, Drones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have in common? (Hint: “really two things”)

  1. Most people weren’t asking for them.
  2. Everyone needs to adjust to their societal impact.

In every one of these cases someone or some small group of people had a vision that has, or is, overtaking broader society. Opting out becomes less of an option. When all cars are self-driving cars by fiat of market forces and/or regulatory action, will those refusing to buy get on the self-driving bus? Walk to work? (I hope no Mercedes are nearby.) Already the failure of IoT manufacturers to account for weak security in their appliances has enabled massive DDoS attacks like the one on October 21. Never mind the vulnerability of the power grid, they took away my Twitter! Now I like tech. It’s amazing to see what people come up with. Unfortunately, whether its high tech infrastructure in our homes, or robots, chatbots, and AI in the workplace, disruption carries a lot of costs. But we have over a century of experience with technology creating upheaval in the workforce. You’d think we would be getting a handle on how to minimize the negative impact so people don’t get left behind unless they choose to.

The question facing us as a professional community is where to start. Well, we are the braintrusts our schools and organizations have employed to think about and speak to these issues, whether they realize it or not. We start in our own backyards. Online tools should augment and extend our office capacities, not lead to reductions in staffing.  That tool or outsourced service that frees up a staff member today can be seen by your organization’s leadership as a potential cost saver by eliminating that position for the cheaper option. What our offices lose, what our students and applicants lose, is that crucial human element. I want my team constantly striving for the forward thinking, innovative, “what’s next” for our students, but I also know something simple like a resume review session is often that first point of contact or that important relationship builder that creates trust and leads to that student excitedly emailing when they got the interview/job/promotion. Tech always needs to be applied with wisdom, and we should never confuse fiscal concerns with actual wisdom. Slowly undermining the integrity of our offices, our teams, our quality of service for a short term technological band-aid is not innovation. Even if we’ve got a shiny new webtool, app, or gadget to show off.

So my doorstop haunting, cosplaying, candy fiends, here’s a trick and treat. The trick is if before you tuck into some turkey, you read the Chronicle articles and create a new initiative to serve your audience, you’ll get the treat of expanding your service and reputation. Great for annual reviews, budget discussions, and EACE conference proposals. Now get off my lawn!

About the Author:  The cranky director will deliver rants on the economy, technology, social engineering, lack of a really good nearby falafel place, and idiot politicians (broadly defined)  to your computer desktop of preferred mobile device the fourth Friday of every month.

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