It is an often lamented truism that the UK no longer has manufacturing industry – people point at the closed steel plants of the north while recollecting a golden age of manufacturing where the UK built the wheels of industry around the world.

The statement that we no longer make things isn’t entirely true of course. Sure, we may not manufacture steel anymore, but instead we manufacture robots and jet engines.

The trend is a simple one – as technology advances and more sophisticated technologies touch more aspects of our lives, what jobs there are require an increasing degree of technical knowledge to perform.

Each worker is able to produce objects of higher economic value (robots vs steel girders), which means more money and more tax revenue, but as the economy becomes increasingly optimised towards high tech, the upshot is that, as a percentage of the economy, the number of low skilled jobs is decreasing.

The future looks pretty dire for the low skilled

Increased automation and technological advancements have always pushed sectors of the work force out of their jobs, from the mill machines of the 18th and 19th centuries to self service checkouts at the local superstores.

In the latter example, a single member of staff can now do the job of a row of checkout clerks, supported by maybe a trained engineer to fix faults in all the stores in a given region. Soon, maybe these too will become redundant (perhaps replaced by RFID scanners to scan your bags and bill your credit card automatically when leaving the store).

Being computer literate is already a requirement for virtually every job in the modern workplace, and in a few years time, not being able to code will be as big an impairment as not being able to read and write.

Bluntly, if you don’t have training in sophisticated and marketable high tech skills, you likely will be out of work soon and will also likely never have a job again.

A smart and socially responsible government would be ploughing every penny they can into education and welfare. Education to bring the technical competence of the population up to a level where they stand a chance of competing for the few ultra high skilled jobs the economy of the future has, and welfare to prevent the increasing number of those who are not skilled or lucky enough to have a job from becoming so desperate that they overthrow the government.

Managed decline

Educating a populous is of course expensive, requires long term thinking and is hard work. A more cynical short term thinking government may opt for a managed decline of a nation’s economy.

They may for example decide to cut back on education for the majority of the population and funnel what little money is left towards educating the elite classes. They may decide to cut back on welfare and make what little is left dependant on forced labour, which those in the desperate position to need welfare are not in a position to refuse.

This approach may even work in the short term if the media is managed correctly and the right spin is put on the situation, that is until the tide of human suffering rises high enough for the murmurs of discontent from the slave castes turn to cries of revolution. For those in power who think only as far as the next election cycle this would all be somebody else’s problem, and one likely to be watched with disinterest from a tropical tax haven.

Known problem

A couple of years ago I attended a conference which discussed various aspects of public sector and government, and education in particular. During this event I got taken aside by someone who apparently did something fairly high up in the department of education, probably because of my previous work on Elgg which has been linked – for better or worse – to the field of E-Learning.

During our rather meandering conversation on education and politics, he admitted that the education time bomb, as he called it, was a widely acknowledged problem, but that they had no solution whatsoever for it.

He went so far as to admit to me that given the lead time involved for any solution to have an effect it was almost certainly too late to do anything about it in any case.

His candour shocked me, and I asked what he suggested as a recommended course of action; “Leave.”, was his reply, “Before it gets really bad.”

Things look pretty bleak for the generations of wasted talent to come.

8 thoughts on “Education, Skills & Slavery… and why we’re probably screwed.

  1. There comes a time in any nation’s history when the number of highly-educated workers exceeds the ability of that nation’s economy to absorb them. Look at the BRIC nations.

    There also comes a time when highly-educated researchers reach the bleeding edge of their discipline and the cost of planned incremental research exceeds the benefits.

    That is to say, long-term, education is NOT the answer!

    And there are always the trades. I haven’t noticed a lack of demand or lowered wages for plumbers or electricians lately.

  2. While id love to agree with you even unskilled labor unions here in the states bully their way to six figure salaries. I don’t see that trend stopping anytime soon.

  3. tndal: always? doubtful. People used to think that you could always go work on the dock, until you couldn’t. Or that you could always go down to the factory, until you couldn’t.

    The trades will face the same issue as technology is used to allow a smaller number of higher-skilled workers lead work done by increasingly low-skilled workers.

    We need education, and we need new industries.

  4. Public education is for indoctrination not education. I was never well served by any public school or college. Any education I received was hard won at my own expense.

  5. There are many people here, too, who think industrialism can be brought back. The problem is that people have been educated and conditioned to depend upon (industrial) employers for everything.

    Our mass education was based on our prison and asylum systems as an agent of social control. Its objective was to prepare the children of new immigrants and independent farmers for jobs in factories.

    Farmers were independent. Whether or not they were literate was immaterial. They had to manage many factors. They needed to be able to build and repair what they had. They had to make many decisions that would directly impact their families. Many of the new immigrants also came from similar backgrounds.

    Working for industry, a large company or organization has become the norm. We are lulled into allowing our employer to take care of everything for us, from regular paychecks to pet insurance. The bottom line for any business is profit, so business does not have any obligation and sometimes interest in your welfare.

    I don’t think this is a question of industrial vs. technically skilled occupations. To be successful in a new economy we need to change the way we think about work. Instead of pursuing skills industry wants us to have (that will be obsolete within 2-3 years), we need to discover our strengths and how we can best share them. We need to develop our own skills and pursue our own knowledge instead of allowing industry and educational institutions to make those decisions for us. We need to network with others to support us. We can work as contractors or in small family or network based businesses. We need to provide for ourselves instead of investing our time, energy, and minds in companies whose only purpose is to generate profit.

    I guess I am not trying to be anti-anything. I think some decentralization will benefit the individual, organization, and society in general. I am confused about what any of our governments see as their role, but unfortunately they can’t seem to conceive of anything outside of the traditional industrial solutions.

  6. Programmers should not consider economics too seriously unless they have done some coursework in it. Please spend some time with Say’s Law and get back to us.

  7. Great post. I really enjoyed it.

    I think the operative phrase here is skilled labor. We will always need skilled workers in every sector. Plumbers, Electricians, Farmers, Carpenters, Fisherman and on and on. We are able to specialize in high tech as a direct result of work specialization. If individuals were busy building our own homes and growing their own food, they probably wouldn’t also be programming.

    Here in Regional School Unit #3 of the fine state of Maine in America, we’re attempting to revamp our educational system. Change is underway and happening. Things can change rather quickly, and I think that its important to stay engaged and optimistic.

  8. What are these essential skills that half the comments have fixated on?

    People without electricity do not need electricians.

    People without sanitation and piped drinking water do not need plumbers.

    Communities without the means to pay for fish, fuel, and the mechanical spares to run a fishing fleet have little need for fishermen.

    People need food: but no-one needs to feed them, unless there is some use in them.

    If the use has been extracted and concentrated into bank accounts in offshore havens, what does it matter, that people who no longer matter to the powerful return to subsistence agriculture, slavery, or organ-farming?

Leave a Reply