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We are about 2 hours from President Obama’s eagerly awaited speech on the economy and jobs. I will watch but it really will not matter much to you or to the economy what he says nor what the Republicans (or the Tea Party) says in their response. Our weak-kneed politicians have neither the will nor leadership to solve our economic or jobs problems. Moreover, it is doubtful that any of macroeconomic efforts will have much effect. Technology and globalization have changed the fundamental structure of the economy. It’s now up to you.
The end of the enterprise
As I drive I-95 up and down America’s east coast or the 5 on the west coast the number of weed ridden parking lots of abandoned manufacturing sites is shocking. But its not just manufacturers, service companies have also downsized dramatically — acres of parking lots sit vacant and thousands of square feet of office space goes unused.
A friend of mine is the CXO at one of these companies. His company is more profitable than ever before and the trappings of corporate success are all around — catered breakfast in his office, use of the corporate jet and dining in the private executive dining room. But walk down the hallways and you see office after office empty and a noticeable quiet everywhere. Another friend works at a giant telecom but the story is the same, acres of unused parking and entire floors of abandoned cubes.
So, what happened?
Too much consumption
America has undergone several decades of cumulative excess consumption, technology changes and global outsourcing. I didn’t really notice these changes myself until the mid 2000s. Driving down the Dulles Toll Road toward Washington, DC in 2005, it occurred to me that virtually everyone on the road was driving a relatively new car. I even tried to find someone driving a clunker but there were none; only BMWs and Mercedes as far as I could see. I clearly remember thinking that this kind of consumption could not possibly continue. (I was not smart enough to pull out of the stock market before 2008 though). We have already spent our future incomes based on the traditional economy. We are going to have to find new ways to add value or dramatically change our lifestyle.
Tech driven productivity
I love technology and have long been an early adopter of most of the latest things. I’ve managed to work remotely for years and long before it was popular or even approved of. What this has meant to me, and has meant to the economy as a whole, is that we have all become enormously more productive. If you are reading this then you are probably something of a technophile yourself so I won’t bore you with the history of tech productivity. Fast forward to today, for $499 I have my iPad that I am using to write this blog, connect to the internet, email colleagues, FaceTime or Skype my vendors in India and Asia and design our new network (cloud based of course). Needless to say, only a few years ago this would have cost substantially more and would have required numerous employees.
Globalization is not a dirty word and we have all benefited but unless we are as competitive as our foreign partners, we will lose jobs at home. Let’s just think about this for a minute. If I need more tomatoes for the spaghetti bolognese that I’m preparing tonight, I don’t go out and plant more tomatoes and I probably don’t drop in on the local tomato farmer. I go to the local grocer and buy tomatoes imported from Mexico or shipped from California or Florida. The same is true at Apple (and virtually every other manufacturer or service company). iPads are selling like crazy, I need another million units so what do I do? Hire a thousand new workers or pick up the phone, or more likely my iPad, and dash off a note to Foxconn – “Please send another million iPads”. Done. And no jobs created (at least not in the US).
The Great Recession
Finally, enter the Great Recession. Despite what some labor unions may think, most corporate executives are not cold hearted, financially driven automatons (at least not the ones I know). They don’t really like lay offs or closing manufacturing facilities. The recession was a wake up call from both a financial and productivity perspective. Corporations across the country were forced to layoff employees for financial reasons. But, as the economy recovered albeit anemically, they realized something else. Their companies really didn’t need all those middle managers. The combination of technology and productivity allowed their companies to deliver their products and services just fine without all those extra people. These jobs are not coming back.
The New Opportunity
American workers have a tremendous new opportunity but it will require a change in mindset. The language we use to talk about jobs and employment is indicative of the mindset that has to change. People talk about “finding” a job, being “given” a job or if you are a government contractor “needing coverage”. There are no doubt lots of companies still out there that will still “give” jobs but these kind of jobs are going away fast. The current crop of companies that are creating real value in the American economy are not producing that many jobs. The market value per employee of Google, Facebook and Twitter are off the charts compared to “traditional” companies. And, the real power is now in the hands of the workers (see recent Forbes article on Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution)
We need people who are focused on (and using words like) designing, creating, innovating, building and adding value. We need a new and widespread entrepreneurial mindset The economy and many enterprises have shattered into countless individual workers. Each of us, using the tools of technology and globalization and with a minimal amount of capital, have the ability to create their own gigs, projects and companies. We each need to stop looking to government or traditional companies to “give” us something or “create” jobs and step forward to create our own future.
The blog above is based on my own ideas and recent experience but others have written about some of the same issues. I particularly recommend: