Our job landscape is quickly changing

Wednesday, September 4, 2013 - 19:00
Many jobs that used to be done by humans have now been automated, writes columnist Frank Baker.

Watching the garbage truck’s mechanized arms grab and raise my fully loaded plastic garbage can off the street, hungrily ingesting its contents, I thought about a winter long ago when I was a “swamper” on the back of one of those trucks — a job that like so many jobs in today’s automated world is now obsolete.

With subzero temperatures and biting wind, it wasn’t the most pleasant job I ever had, but it paid well and I made a lot of friends along the route — people who would often proffer tips and gifts. All considered, however, it was a job I’m glad I only held for a few months.

For quite a few summers I counted fish for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the Alaska Peninsula and the south end of Kodiak Island. We manually counted the fish with little clickers called tally whackers. That job has also gone the way of automation — with sonar counters installed on most of the state’s big fish weirs.

I started thinking about other jobs that during my lifetime have fallen victim to the advance of technology. These include the manufacture of eight-track and cassette tapes, vinyl records (although there is a resurgence in interest in vinyl records by an eclectic group of music lovers), camera film, typewriters, incandescent light bulbs and tubes for radio and television sets. Jobs such as elevator operator, service station attendant and shoe repairmen are things of the past — although I do believe there is an Asian shoe repairman on Fireweed Lane in Anchorage.

A long time ago my father told me that if I ever found myself working on a manufacturing assembly line and a robot suddenly appeared that performed the same task, I’d better start learning very fast how to operate and maintain that robot.

One Internet source stated that of all the job losses in the U.S. since the early 1970s, more than 80 percent were attributable in one way or another to technology and automation. I can’t help but think that a large chunk of that 80 percent went to foreign countries as a part of corporate America’s outsource feeding frenzy.

The changing job market is glaringly obvious when you observe how many college graduates can’t find work. And the pace of change is quickening. I read recently that about 65 percent of today’s grade school students can expect to someday be working in jobs that don’t exist now.

Some have called this changing career landscape the “new normal.” To me it’s rather frightening, but then young people are more resilient than people my age. I’m sure they will learn how to navigate through the changing career landscape and hitch their wagons to technology, wherever it takes them. Energy and food production, water distribution, communications, medicine, science, and a fledgling industry of robots and drones will all need educated and highly trained workers.

It seems like we’ll always need people who can build and fix things, like engineers, architects, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and equipment operators.

I considered the career of writing safe and sacrosanct until I saw a sports news story that was crafted by a computer. Granted, a person fed the statistics and other pertinent information into the computer, using a standard format. But it was an eyebrow raiser to see what the computer actually composed.

When it comes to machines and computers, I admit to being old school. If I were ever sent to a newly colonized planet for the purpose of modernizing a primitive society, 50 years later they’d still be carrying water in buckets and communicating with tin cans connected by string. I’m sure the Peace Corps would not want to send me anywhere, terrestrial or extraterrestrial.

But in my own defense, I did manage to build a 40-year career around one skill, writing, and it seems to be a skill that’s still in high demand. Or, as acclaimed movie director Stephen Spielberg once said, “If it isn’t on the page, it doesn’t get on the stage.”

I don’t miss writing freehand (cursive) or plucking away at a typewriter, even though I once tested at 100 words per minute with 95 percent accuracy. I’m eternally grateful our modern computers have keyboards similar to those old typewriters.

I‘m sure today’s garbage truck driver enjoys the comfort of his warm cab as the mechanical arm methodically and swiftly scoops up the sleek, green receptacles. But it seems that on his weekly rounds, he might miss trading jokes and stories with a steadfast partner, the “swamper,” who rode on the back of the truck in all types of weather.

The modern, mechanized trash loader is probably more efficient, doesn’t need health insurance or lunch breaks. But then, unlike the “swamper,” it doesn’t smile or wave back to you.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email [email protected].

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