IT, immigration, job loss and job creation

The view of IT as a destroyer of jobs is simplistic, says Frank Hayes

The big story is immigration. Well, that’s not really true. The big story is jobs. That’s what most Americans are concerned about. Not culture wars. Not racial purity. Not abstract notions of globalisation. America absorbs every new culture and ethnic group it encounters and grows richer and more complex every time it does. And Americans love inexpensive and high-quality products that come from the rest of the world. In fact, they’re addicted to them.

No, for most Americans, the immigration story — the immigration debate — is about jobs. And IT is right in the middle of that problem.

Not just because technology vendors are lobbying for more H-1B visas in the new immigration bill in the US Congress, or because offshore outsourcing is under the spotlight, too.

IT is in the middle of this debate because fear of losing their jobs is why so many people are worried about immigration — and getting rid of jobs is a big part of what IT does.

After all, that’s what automation is: using machines to replace human workers. When we implement technology that lets a warehouse worker ship twice as many orders or an office worker handle twice as much paperwork, we’re eliminating jobs. When we roll out high-speed networks that let sales or management or technical people get more work done from anywhere, we’re either getting rid of jobs or making it possible for other people, in other places, to do those jobs.

That’s not all. Technology also changes jobs. Even when it doesn’t eliminate jobs, it makes old skills obsolete. That provides both a justification and an excuse for replacing expensive older workers with cheaper, freshly educated young workers, including foreign guest workers.

Layoffs, offshoring, age discrimination, immigration — IT people aren’t just another group of victims here. We’re a primary cause of job loss.

There’s no avoiding that. It really is a big part of what we do. But it shouldn’t be the only thing we do.

IT isn’t just in the job-elimination business. We’re also in the business-creation business.

Yes, we’re driving costs — and jobs — out of mature, well-understood business functions. But technology can also create new business opportunities. And when we do that, we’re also likely to be creating new jobs.

They won’t be the same jobs. They’ll require new skills, new training and maybe different people than the ones whose jobs we eliminate. But at least we can be something more than just job destroyers.

There’s an irony built into that. What do experienced IT people most fear? That our technical jobs will be commoditised, shipped offshore or automated out of existence.

But that’s less likely when we’re creating new business instead of just automating.

If you’ve never grasped why understanding business is as important for IT people as understanding technology, it comes down to this: we can create jobs or just destroy them.

And the technology that wipes out other people’s jobs will eventually wipe out ours, too — unless we’re constantly working to build new business and the new jobs that will go with it.

To create new business opportunities, we have to think not just in terms of technology, but also through a business lens. By combining both ways of thinking, we become more valuable to the business.

That value will make us job survivors — at the same time as we’re creating new jobs and making our businesses more successful.

And immigration? Sure, that will still matter, at least for those obsessed with culture or race or globalisation. But enough good jobs will render that debate moot.

And for once, IT people can be right in the middle of the solution.

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