Hi-Tech does not mean high-quality jobs (My Washington Post op-ed from 2004)

Reading about the jobs report today, and noticing the discussion started by Umair Haque about how, contrary  to the way it is being covered, it is not a good report, I decided to repost an op-ed I had published in 2004 in the Washington Post in 2004.  As Haque said on Twitter:

My conclusion? We’re broken. When we do create jobs, they’re low quality, no-future McJobs. It’s not a positive jobs report–a terrible one.

Original link to the op-ed is  here (however, for some reason the full text does not show up).

They Can Point and Click, But Still End Up Painting Walls

By Zeynep Tufekci

The Washington Post. Sunday, January 25, 2004; Page B04


One proposal in President Bush’s State of the Union address that sparked
enthusiastic bipartisan applause was the “Jobs for the 21st Century” initiative.
“We must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to
find work now,” the president said, adding that “many of the fastest-growing
occupations require strong math and science preparation, and training beyond the
high school level.”

Among unemployed workers or those stuck in menial jobs, however, it will take
more than good job training programs to elicit a standing ovation.

If there were ever a job training program to match the description of the
president’s “Jobs for the 21st Century” initiative, it would be the one I have
been studying in this high-tech metropolis for the past three years. The program
is well-run, adequately funded, staffed by enthusiastic people and attended by
resolute, hard-working individuals. It is spearheaded by local businesses, the
city and institutions of higher education. People who may have never touched a
computer learn how to do word and data processing, acquire an e-mail address,
and search and apply for jobs online.

And most of them still cannot find decent jobs, if they can find jobs at all.

Ironically, many of them have been laid off from low-paying, assembly line jobs
in the high-tech industry. They can rattle off how to connect the motherboard
and the disk drive, but they have never pointed and clicked. Most have been
through numerous cycles of layoffs and rehirings, each time taking a pay cut and
losing seniority — until the rehiring that never came.

They start the program desperate to find jobs to pay the bills. The schedule —
three hours an evening, four days a week — is grueling, especially for those
without reliable cars or adequate child care. Nevertheless, many of them never
miss a class. They come early and stay late. And after months of intensive
training, they go into the job market confident and hopeful.

When I interviewed many later, though, some were still fixing furniture,
answering phones, cleaning houses and painting walls. Others remained
unemployed. The problem is that the only available jobs that use computers are
those as secretaries and receptionists. The men believe they can’t get such
jobs, and many of the women feel the bosses will hire only those who are young,
thin and pretty. And even then, those jobs have meager pay and benefits, and
long hours. (In another research project in economically depressed high schools,
we found that some boys actively avoid learning about computers because they
consider such jobs “women’s work” — in other words, low paying, uninteresting
and unglamorous.)

The lesson here is that not every job that uses high-tech tools involves
high-level skills or high pay. In his speech, Bush said “as technology
transforms the way almost every job is done, America becomes more productive,
and workers need new skills.” Sometimes that’s exactly the problem. More
productivity means more can be done with less, which often means fewer jobs,
less skilled work and, consequently, less pay.

Although some of the fastest-growing types of jobs do require advanced training,
they are only a small proportion of the market — making the total number of new
jobs in those areas very small. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects
that by 2010, only 20.7 percent of all jobs will require a college degree or
more, something 25 percent of the population already has. The BLS also projects
that by 2010 almost 70 percent of job openings will only require work-related
training and 42.7 percent only short-term on-the-job training — mostly, “Here’s
your apron; don’t be late.” The fields adding the largest number of jobs are
“combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food,” followed
by “customer service representatives,” “registered nurses,” “retail
salespersons,” “computer support specialists,” “cashiers” and “office clerks.”
Even computer support specialists require only an associate degree; they had
median annual earnings of $36,460 in 2000.

Some of the well-paying fields that the president mentioned, such as
biotechnology, are simply beyond the reach of the unemployed. And if the number
of good jobs continues to decrease, advanced education will be no panacea for
today’s students, either.

When good jobs are few, higher skills can become part of a zero-sum competition,
as in the computer sector following the dot-com bust. One trainee told me that
she was there simply to “learn the lingo” of computers. She said that employers
had so many applicants they were discriminating on an arbitrary basis. Even if
the job didn’t really require computer skills, she said, they still wouldn’t
hire you if you couldn’t say you “knew” computers. There seemed to be something
to her method, as she did manage to find a job as an accounting assistant.

While promoting his program in Ohio, Bush said, “The key is to train people for
the work which actually exists.” That’s true. That’s why we must create better
jobs. The Economic Policy Institute recently found that in 48 states, jobs are
shifting from higher-paying to lower-paying industries. It’s time to take the
bipartisan blinders off and stop pretending that, if only people got training,
they would find good jobs.

Training programs should still be supported not because they magically
compensate for the lack of good jobs, but for the civic and personal empowerment
they provide. Trainees tell me how they have refinanced their houses online and
cured the goats they were raising by looking up information on the Internet.
Most important, they no longer feel stupid and left behind in an age, as one
trainee put it, “where everyone and their momma is computerized.”

When even Wal-Mart accepts applications at computerized kiosks in its stores,
losing one’s fear of computers can make a real difference. One day, a trainee
proudly handed me a flier advertising her services that she had made on the
computer. Furthermore, she explained, she now keeps her accounts on a
spreadsheet and uses MapQuest.com to get directions to the houses that she
cleans on her hands and knees, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for a

Before they learned these skills, the trainees thought that it was their lack of
computer skills that prevented them from getting those good information-age jobs
(touted by every president since Ronald Reagan). They thought something was
wrong with them. Now they know something is wrong with our job market.

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