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Jobs of the Future: What the Experts Tell You Is Wrong

Written by Gary North on February 7, 2012

This is a cogent assessment of what lies ahead. Ignore this at your peril. This is from a college professor of chemistry. His message is different from what you might expect. It has been true of my career.


Let’s start with the three Laws  of Future Employment. Law #1: People will get jobs doing things that computers  can’t do. Law #2: A global market place will result in lower pay and fewer  opportunities for many careers. (But also in cheaper and better products and a  higher standard of living for American consumers.) Law #3: Professional people  will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have a steady job.

Usually taken for granted is that future jobs depend on STEM  disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). This view is  eloquently expounded by Thomas Friedman, who argues that the US is falling  behind China and India in educating for STEM careers.

Alex Tabarrok makes a case for STEM in his excellent little e-book, Launching the Innovation Renaissance. He points out that “the US  graduated just 5,036 chemical engineers in 2009, no more than we did 25 years  ago. In electrical engineering there were only 11,619 graduates in 2009, about  half the number of 25 years ago.” Similarly, the numbers of US computer science  grads is flat over the past quarter century. Thus Tabarrok believes the US is  falling behind in innovation and related technologies.

But Tabarrok and much of the conventional wisdom are wrong. The job that electrical engineers did 25 years ago has almost nothing to do with the job they do today. Computers now do much of the work that people used to do – computers design circuits, do all the drafting, plan the manufacturing, etc. It used to be that an electrical engineer designed the electronics in your car. To some extent they still do, but today even the smallest components come with operating systems – in other words, your car is programmed rather than designed. Electrical engineering is a career that follows Law #1: much of it has been (and will continue to be)  computerized out of existence.

Computer science careers illustrate Law #2. Computer science services are among the most tradable in the world. It is literally a global job  market. Thus the number of computer scientists graduating from American  colleges is an irrelevant number. Further, computer science jobs are themselves being computerized. The job description for today’s computer scientist is only  tenuously related to what they did 25 years ago.

Laws #1 & 2 predict that there will likely be fewer STEM jobs in the future – they are  both easily computerized and tradable. People will always be employed in STEM  disciplines, many of them highly paid, but they’ll be paid for smarts rather than education. The disciplines will be much more competitive, with older and less talented workers left on the sidelines. Tom Friedman and Alex Tabarrok, reflecting conventional wisdom, are mistaken in maintaining that increasing STEM education is a key to future economic competitiveness.

So if computerized, tradable skills won’t create much new  employment, if any, what will? Clearly, it will be non-tradable skills that  can’t be computerized. At their most valuable these jobs depend on human-human interaction – empathy. Counseling (of any sort: psychiatric, financial, weight loss, etc.), sales, customer service, management, and personal services all rely on empathy, as does waitressing. While much teaching can be computerized, what remains will depend more on empathy than anything else. “They don’t care  what you know, but they will know if you care,” is a maxim future teachers should take to heart.

According to Ronald Coase it is  generally cheaper to engage freelance labor than to hire employees, unless the market transaction costs are too high. The internet lowers transaction costs  and makes smaller firms (fewer employees) more economical. Thus we arrive at the Third Law of Future Employment: professional people will more likely be freelancers and less likely to have jobs. This already happens in computer science: projects are put out to bid on websites for global competition. Much journalism today is freelance, as is graphic design, engineering, or any number of other skills. The third law predicts this trend will grow.

The bottom line is that today’s young people need to develop an individually unique set of marketable skills for tomorrow’s job market. A marketable skill is more than an education (which is not a skill), and also more than just job training (a skill, but no larger expertise). The useful benchmark is it takes 10,000 hours to become expert in something.


My conclusion: a combination of technical skills and sales skills is where the future lies. You need both. But sales are more crucial than the technical skills. It’s not good enough to build a better mousetrap. You must be able to market it.

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17 thoughts on “Jobs of the Future: What the Experts Tell You Is Wrong

  1. Cliffystones says:

    I'm reminded of an old saying,

    If you can't dazzle them with brilliance (technical skills and expertise)
    Baffle them with B.S. (salesmanship).

    While "sales skills" are great for initially getting a job, technical skills are just as important if you want to keep it.

  2. Technology and science are not American's forte. Our schools have dropped the ball long ago. If you ever watch jeopardy on TV you will see that no one will pick the science or techy gropes until last, and they miss everyone of the questions. When I was in school their was no science class at all. This is way you see the "time" blinking on most everyone's VCR, lol

  3. True, Gary, sales and tech skills combined are crucial. My wife has a thriving web-based business right now. She can sell ice to Eskimoes while I work behind the scenes maintaining and updating the website that promotes her business. In our case the tech skills are with one spouse and the sales acumen with the other.

  4. Obama goes to prison.

    Change I can believe in.

  5. To Raymond….Concerning Obama going to Jail (Change I can Believe in)

    As much as that sounds like a quick a easy answer…I have to disagree, Nothing is going to be done till after January 2013 ! Depending who stays and who leaves. And what can be done and how fast. If…..And mean IF both side can work together to pass bill and get the ball rolling is the only way of getting things done. Special interest couples have got to take a backseat (HA! HA!) but it would help. as for Obama, if he does nothing wrong (never impreached a president & last on shot was JFK) he will be set for life and be going on college speeches and Book Tours. And we will watch his Daughter’s and Wife in the newspaper and TV for the rest of are lifes.

  6. how can ya have higher standard of living if theres lower pay and less opportunities, whos gonna pay for these higher standard of living items

  7. its great for all the hi tech stuff but when the best job is askin 'you want fries with that?' how much of it can you afford to buy__it takes money to buy stuff and the big money dont come from shovelin crap and with limited op's like in calif a law degree has the lawyers waiting tables just to eat__american cannot compete with $2.00/hr jobs

  8. Hmmm, so the writer is saying a computer can't be programmed to ask "Would you like fries with that, sir?"

  9. This morning a coalition of muslim leaders from Kenya warned the United States that if military action against Muslim countries continues, they intend to cut off America 's supply of 7-11 and Motel 6 managers. If this action does not yield sufficient results, cab drivers will be next, followed by Dell, AT&T and AOL customer service reps. Finally, if all else fails, they have threatened not to send us any more Presidents either.

  10. Empathy???

    This guy sounds like Bill Clinton. der Schlickmeister wanted Americans to believe that it didn't matter that most liberal initiatives over the years had failed or that most conservative initiatives had succeeded. He told us that what was really important is that Democrats care and Republicans don't care. To liberals, it's all about the show and nothing about the results.

    My mother taught school for 50 years, receiving local and presidential recognition. She taught school because it was the thing that she was best at. I mention this, because she railed against a system that didn't understand what school was all about. When you think about it, her opinion on the subject is elegantly factual.

    "The job of a teacher is only partly to teach children particular subjects. More importantly, the teacher's job is to teach children how to learn what they will need to learn, after they get out of school."

    A child who has not learned how to learn, while in school, will not succeed at anything, outside of school.

  11. Bill McCroskey says:

    I have found that many times these two 'skills' require 2 different and distinct personalities and your business model is a great way to meld the two
    Congratulations on making your two skills mutually advantageous to each other.

  12. "The job that electrical engineers did 25 years ago has almost nothing to do with the job they do today. Computers now do much of the work that people used to do – computers design circuits, do all the drafting, plan the manufacturing, etc.". What a ridiculous statement. I didn't know there could be so much distance between what a college bound scientist thinks, and what working EE's know. Computers do NONE of the things he states. Computers hold the most modern TOOLS used today for performing those functions. Those functions will always be controlled by EEs and other similarly trained humans. If anything, the new tools require higher levels of technical expertise, and education, than before. I was trained in engineering fundamentals over 30 years ago that have not and never will change. Had to keep learning additional skills all along, but have zero fear that someone will push a button somewhere and computers will design themselves and other systems without human intervention.

  13. Notwithstanding the clunky line of argument cited above, the article is a good read and needed understanding by all. I do think the same case could be made more elegantly by a simple level economist, rather than the good chemist. All three "laws" are restatements of supply & demand vs. a desired wage. Law 1 needs to be generalized to "Anything that can be automated for less cost than it pays to have a human do it, will be automated, and the need for a human there eliminates." Law 2 is (duh) supply & demand. With protectionist barriers inevitably reduced more & more, IF anyone on the planet is willing and capable of doing your job for less pay, he'll get the job. Not you. Law 3: Read "Professional people" as highly paid people. To demand top pay, you'll need top skills that are more and more unique and specialized. Too specialized for one company to support full time. Congrats, you're now a consultant. All important stuff here. I'd just word it a bit differently, and make sound basic economics more of a required course of study at the high school level. God knows our country needs a better understanding of it.

  14. Thanks! I agree, it almost comes down to a left-brain-right-brain phenomenon. You need the 2 wholly different halves to make a whole that accomplishes something new, the detail-obsessed techie and the "big picture" entrepreneurial spirit. Once in a rare while you find the two fused into one individual.

  15. America is in big trouble if we do not get our population into TRADE SCHOOLS, Colleges are no longer the "Thing" unless you just want to party, spend hard earned money and be unemployed!

  16. You beat me to it, I agree 100% with your opinions. Gary North thinks a few mouse clicks gets you a functioning electrical circuit, what an absurd idea. While computers and CAD have made the job easier, the person behind the mouse needs to know how to build the circuit what to do when it doesn't work and in the case of the increasing instances of electrical fires in automobiles, what caused it and how to fix it.

  17. Noticed in last 18 months, the changing faces in health care. Phlebotomy, EKG and Nurses Assistant students are either older white collar downsized, or astute junior college students. Five of the eighteen i studied use these jobs to pay for nursing school. Several in the Nurses Assistants, and phlebotomy classs however are far less motivated, as their welfare benefits will be cut unless they learn a skill. Foot dragging, reluctant performance guarantees little chance to be hired, thus continuing taxpayer support. In the neighborhoods they live in, clinics are delighted to hire the motivated, regardless of their origin, and many patients are vocal in preferring the newer non 'hood workers. Once enough tenure, experience and nursing course completion gained, few remain in these clinics due to the atmosphere, and do go on to better positions in safer environs.