Wednesday, August 2, 2006

On Modern Jobs

There was a time when you could easily tell people what you did for a living and they could easily understand. If you were an auto mechanic or a restaurant manager, people knew what you did. So too, if you were a doctor, racing car driver, economist or professional poker player. And then came the Information Technology revolution and the Knowledge Economy, when more and more of what we do was assigned to the Machines who could do what we did faster, cheaper and never fell sick or took vacations. Thus many jobs became redundant, among them parking meter maids, bank tellers, clerks, and all jobs which could be automated or relegated to a computer. Bosses didn't need a secretary anymore [except for reasons of prestige] because they had computers and email and scheduling software. Companies didn't need mid-level paper shufflers called managers because Management could easily obtain information on the state of their business on their computers. In the factories Robots and automation took over many of the manufacturing tasks, or labor intensive tasks were outsourced to cheaper countries. Even in agriculture machines did more and more of the work of planting, harvesting and processing the food-such that in the USA, 2% of the population can produce 100% of the food required to feed it with lots more available for export.

We have come to a stage where the most important commodity is information. Even in physical products, the most important component of it is the information about it. Thus jobs became more and more about handling information. Chronologically all Economies progress through these stages: Agricultural economy, Industrial economy, Service economy, Stage, Knowledge economy.

By becoming easily available, Information leveled the playing field for businessmen, reduced the friction in the wheels of the economy and weeded out parasites who made a living exploiting the limited access to information situation known in Economics as imperfect markets. Many traders who profited by buying from one place and selling in another because they knew who to buy from and who to sell to, were put out of business by the Internet and cheap phone calls. They could no longer supply sewing machines at outrageous prices to Thai hill tribes. Or they could no longer buy handicraft from the same hilltribes for a song and sell them in America at thirty imes the price. Traders were allowed to fill the role of middleman only if they performed other value-added functions of trading: buying/selling and bulk and breaking bulk, grading, financing a trade, warehousing.

In the job market, more and more people had jobs which was the management of Information in some way or other. So jobs became more and more about aggregating information, being a specialist in some category of information, becoming an advisor and consultant or analyst [which basically also deals with information]. Entire industries grew up catering to this almost insatiable demand for filtered, compiled information that could be easily digested. Thus if you wanted to know more about the IT industry, it's trends, it's people, the Companies, you would seek out DataQuest or Gartner.
And similarly there are consultants and analysts for every imaginable business. Now when we see the news on the TV, and they are talking about Osama bin Laden, they will be interviewing a Terrorism Expert, or even someone whose job title is "Osama bin Laden specialist".

In Finance, people who want to invest their nest egg consult Financial Advisors. Financial advisors sort of design an investment portfolio suited to your specific financial objectives. Or they could even tell you what your financial objectives should be if you tell them your financial situation. Financial advisors don't have their own products. But they have information about financial products beyond what you can find in the yellow pages.

As this trend in data aggregation grows you get layers on top of layers. So first we have Hedge Funds. Then we have someone who makes a study of individual Hedge Funds and puts together a Fund of Funds. Ridiculously we now have a Fund of Fund of Funds too. In the financial research industry where I work, we have research then we have those web sites which show you who has what research. Then we have a super web site that shows you web sites which show you who has what research. All I can make of this is that we humans are so overloaded with information that we need people to help us manage it by pre-filtering it for us according to our needs. And of course we need analysts to help us think what this mass of information is all about, and how it will be useful to us.

When machines take over the more mundane tasks we have to move up the value chain. Thus book- keeping can be taken over by software but auditors and people who have knowledge of high-level accounting with all the knowledge of tax and regulations are still needed. Statistical software can help do financial research but you still need human analysts who have a specialized knowledge of the business, the Management of a Company, and the Industry, to give an assessment of the Company. In the U.S. financial markets, about half of all trades are done by machines programmed to trade accoding to certain algorithms. Individual investors can now trade for themselves online, and access a great deal of financial research. The Dealers and Remissiers of old are out of a job unless they can add value to their function, instead of merely taking orders through the telephone and executing the trade. Dealers now have to generate investment ideas for their clients, ideas exclusive to them which differentiate them from the competition.

Even in very physical processes such as the construction of a shopping mall of a oil rig, the most valuable people are not the engineers and specialists, or even the designers, but the project managers. That is, those who can plan and schedule the whole project and integrate the hosts of different parties, and make sure the project does not have a cost or time overrun. What project managers do is actually manage the information surrounding the physical processes, without which the project could never be completed on budget and on time.

So what else do we need to be? I have been observing and I noticed that jobs that cannot be duplicated include those which involve networking and social inter-action skills. So private bankers are greatly sought after by rival banks for their network of clients. And their clients are sticky to them too. In addition to their value to their clients for giving good investment advice, their clients like the highly personalized services such bankers do: like getting you the best tickets to a Broadway show, arranging for your poodle to be flown 2000 miles to be with you, or buying that diamond ring for your wife's birthday present. The businessman who has connections in high political circles can do things that people would pay millions for. If you knew people who could open doors to help start business in countries like Indonesia or China , you would be in great demand. In the USA especially, there are professional lobbyists and public relations consultants whose job is to prowl the political corridors of Washington DC and lobby for the interests of their clients be it an airline which just had a plane that crashed, Tobacco companies under siege by so many people suing them for causing lung cancer, or a Latino organization afraid of the anti-immigration mood. Lobbying and Public Relations is big business. Again it underlines to us, how important information, in this case 'perceptions of image' is. But it is not just for lobbying that Companies hire these Washington D.C consultants. The political bureaucracy of the U.S.A. is so big and complex that Companies need someone just to help them understand and interpret the mood and nuances of of the political machinery. Information is plentiful, but to the Companies, information without interpretation is useless, and so those qualified to help Companies understand this mass of information so that they can respond accordingly, are highly prized

Perceptions about something, is also a form of information even though perceptions is loose and unverifiable information. Perceptions leads to the phenomenon of 'Branding'. Branding is about making people think of your product in the way you want, and differentiating your product from your competitors, and retaining customer loyalty. Branding allows you to charge a premium over the general market price for your product. Branding is about the manipulation of information and all that we have been talking about so far about this trend of jobs to be asociated with the handling of information. The actual product itself is not important, but the perceptions and image surrounding the product is. Nike doesn't produce shoes anymore but sticks it's label on those produced by some factory in China. Same with Coca Cola, Fender and Gibson guitars, and Gucci shoes. Starbucks doesn't sell coffee but a way of living conjuring images of successful young professionals in expensive designer clothing, carrying expensive laptops and cellphones, having a wonderful time sipping their US$4 lattes at a Starbucks. Harley Davidson doesn't so much sell motor cycles as sell a way of life - 60% of Harleys are not owned by true-blue bikers or the younger set, but by older more affluent professionals like doctors, lawyers and movie stars and retired baby boomers. If a Harley makes them feel cool and rejuvenated, then a Harley is worth paying the premium in price for. Gibson charges ridiculous prices for it's guitars but justifies it with the statement that they are selling a way of life- not guitars. Ordinary musicians may not be able to afford a Gibson L-5 Wes Montogomery or a 1959 Les Paul Classic Reissue, but baby boomers who never could afford to buy the guitar of their dreams when they were young are paying US$7000 or more for high-end Gibson models like these. In this case, I suppose Gibson buyers are buying the image of the musician they have always admired. I mean if you like Slash in Guns & Roses, then playing a Les Paul that looks like the one he used makes you feel a little like Slash and could make you more attractive to women since Slash had no shortage of groupies throwing themselves at him. So this is how association of ideas goes.

Even in businesses which involve a tangible product, the high-end part and the part that cannot be outsourced to some cheap country, deals not with the physical process, but the design of the process. Thus databases can be cheaply built, but the guy who advises on and designs your database is not easily and cheaply replicable. So too the guy who designs the Security system for the computer network of a Company

But of course, not all highly demanded jobs are about handling information. Good hairdressers, top chefs, rock musicians, super athletes, or even good plastic surgeons, TV news and talk show hosts, and custom car builders are in demand. These jobs are all Services in which the 'product' is intangible, and not easily duplicated due to the uniqueness of the 'producer' whether it is his special skills or his personality.

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