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Hello all—
 
It’s been a reflective week, so in that spirit some loosely connected thoughts about our jobs that came at me from several different directions.
 
1.         Evolution Through Work
We create ourselves through the work that we do (and don’t do). We draw on our strengths and sideline our weaknesses so we can do what we need to do.
 
We make choices:  this is important to work on, this is less so, and that doesn’t matter at all. In the choices about where and how we work, we make and re-make ourselves.  Work is one way that we evolve. It either makes us fitter or it leaves us behind.
 
Which is why some of the predictions about the changing workplace are so alarming. How will we make and re-make ourselves when so much of the work that we're doing today begins to disappear?
 
2.         Two Americas
 
We’re told that the jobs which will be valued in the future will not only require college and advanced degrees but also skills that can’t be automated. Higher-order problem-solving. Emotional intelligence. Interdisciplinary thinking. The ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
 
We’re told that workers in the future will need to develop these skills in school and apply them later on. As with evolution, only the best prepared and most resilient will make it to jobs that robots or artificial intelligence can’t replace.  These men and women will win the desirable jobs, stretching themselves and adapting to change so they can fill them—and maybe even be fulfilled by their efforts. For these lucky ones, it will be the survival of the fittest.
 
But what about everyone else, “the losers” in this struggle, the ones who will compete but fail, or won't even bother to reach out for this new brass ring?  
 
They'll bounce from one job without benefits to another.
 
They'll try to make three part-time jobs add up to a living wage.
 
They'll scavenge around the edges of productivity to keep on surviving. 
 
What will this kind of work mean to them? In some ways we already know, because for many Americans this future has already arrived.
For several years now, two Princeton researchers (Angus Deaton and Anne Case) have been studying the available statistics for white men and women without college degrees. Their findings confirm many of our worst suspicions. As a group, the white working class is barely surviving in one America, while their college-educated counterparts have at least a fighting chance of thriving in the next one. Unfortunately, for many of those who fail to gain a higher education, the evolutionary consequences could not be more severe.
 
For more than 25 years, mortality rates for suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism has been on a slow and steady rise for white Americans without college degrees. Opioids may have helped make the statistics into a perfect storm. White working class men and women were already “killing themselves slowly with alcohol or quickly with guns” before the opioid crisis started  (OxyContin only became available in 1996), but today its abuse exceeds each of the others as a cause of death.  Moreover, this rise in morality isn’t localized to poorer more rural sections of America. Wherever you live, this part of your community is literally dying around you.
 
Deaton and Case speculate that the despair behind these mortality rates is a result of a break in “the social contract” between labor and capital, between those who are available to work and those who can afford to pay them for it.
 
Moreover, no advocate seems to be trying to restore this contract today. Labor unions protect fewer American workers as manufacturing has declined and membership has failed to establish a counterforce in the new service economy. Government is worried about interest rates and inflation through the Federal Reserve and the impact of high taxes and trade policies on business, but plays almost no role whatsoever in connecting available workers to sustaining jobs.   
 
According to Deaton and Case:
 
"We don’t think the answer is getting everyone to go to college. That doesn’t seem realistic. The problem, we think, is that these people don’t have any standing in the labor market anymore."
 
3.         Work Is About Meeting Your Needs, Others’ Needs
 
Those who look into the jobs future and tell us the qualities that we’ll need to survive tend to be highly educated themselves. As a result, these futurists may over-value the mental aptitudes that will be needed on the frontiers of knowledge and innovation (higher-order problem-solving, emotional intelligence, etc.) while under-valuing the basic skills that provide the goods and services that most people need, and will always need. Maybe there are other ways to survive—and even thrive—in the Future of Work after all.
 
I told you last week about Bill, my handyman friend and neighbor who died in the middle of championing a cause that we shared at a community meeting. As I've moved beyond the shock and sadness of losing him, I started wondering who will pick up the slack from his no longer doing everything that he once did for all of us.
 
Clear the sidewalks on winter mornings after it snows? Fix the old ladies’ broken doors, leaky faucets and faulty wiring?
 
Rebuild a stonewall or crumbling driveway curb?
 
Replace the rotted molding over the garage door, install a storm window, or remove a stubborn hedge?
 
Bill was paid to do all of these things, and now an entire neighborhood is thinking about how much it needed him and who will do them now that he's gone.
 
When I was in high school, I took wood-working and cooking classes, but I assumed, along with everyone else, that there would be “higher-order” and “obviously better” skills to be gained in college and beyond, despite the hands-on pleasures I took from this kind of work. I was pointed, and then pointed myself, in higher paying and more mentally stimulating directions before I’d even considered the alternatives. In a way, It was like choosing one America over another.
 
If I’d defined my future work as meeting my needs and other’s needs back then, the choice might not have been as stark between jobs where you use your hands and jobs where you use your mind. I might have thought more about how I wanted to connect to myself and to others while working—what I needed and they needed—and which skills would help me most in meeting those needs.
 
Who knows where that could have taken me?
 
4.         Proficiency and Pride, Publicity and Celebration
 
Earlier this month in Abu Dhabi, over 1200 competitors age 25 and under gathered for the 44th semi-annual world championship of vocational skills or WorldSkills 2017.
They came from 58 countries to compete in demonstrations of proficiency, showing skills like baking, hair dressing, repairing planes, laying tile, designing clothes, coding software, forwarding freight, and something called “visual merchandizing,” which this year involved turning a couple of wearable products and a box of raw materials into a department store window display. Pien Hoveling, 21, from the Netherlands won the gold medal in that category.  A design student, she was already a two time pan-European champion among those with this particilar skill set.
 
Like Pien, most of the contestants had been training for at least the two years before this year’s competition. They worked with coaches and traveled with them to Abu Dhabi. They were greeted by skills experts for judging, and by government officials and corporate sponsors. Beyond medals and bragging rights, some countries award winners with cash or scholarships for additional training. Each also gets a leg up in their future careers and the joy that comes from demonstrating your proficiency. Over 100,000 spectators cheered them on this year. 
Nhan Dan from Vietnam shows off his bronze medal in the software solutions competition.
The event’s official vlogger, Jacob Dawson, made several official videos this year. This one, simply called “Competition,” will give you a sense of the scale of WorldSkills, the talents of its participants, and their pride in their work. Dawson is a bit of a ham who knows how to tell a good story and to celebrate WorldSkills’ mission, which is to:
 
"Advocate the need, value, and results of skilled work and professional training for young people so that industries, regions, and countries will thrive in the global economy."
 
These “industries, regions and countries” are working to maintain the social contract between skills-based labor and those who can afford to pay for it.
  
5.         An American Skills-Based Solution
 
I couldn’t find any profiles of American competitors in Abu Dhabi, but SkillsUSA is a WorldSkills member and the organization posts a picture of 11 young people that it sent to the competition this year on its website.  SkillsUSA serves 395,000 students who are enrolled in vocational training programs in American schools.
 
Similarly, there are 4H Clubs in agricultural states like mine that focus on raising crops, sustainable farming and animal husbandry. Every year, I see its local champions at a January spectacle called the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and every week I drive by Philadelphia’s W.H. Saul Agricultural High School on my way to shop for food.
 
Despite these efforts however, too many Americans are unable to identify their skills, develop them, and match them to a job that can support them and their families. While more in the white working class may be dying as a result than African Americans, for example, unemployment and under-employment are chronic problems in every working class community in this other, neglected America.
 
We urgently need to raise the profile of this problem, to celebrate the broad array of skills that can begin to tame it, and to train a new skills-based workforce--much as they’re doing at WorldSkills. This is proficiency that we need today and will need tomorrow. We have the raw materials that can begin to heal a terrible wound and truly make us fit again.
 
+ + +
 
Enjoy the final rush of work to Christmas and the New Year that begins tomorrow. See you next week—
Copyright © 2017 David Griesing, All rights reserved.


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