Workplace technology

LAST week I saw a young adult who had asked me to write a job reference walking by a prominent retail outlet in the Capital City. He looked depressed and I assumed he would recount how a loved one had passed away.

He had a different story to tell. In his new workplace, staff were not allowed to use their smartphones during work hours. Not being able to access social media was sheer torture for him.

To make matters worse, one of the workers in his section had left after a very short period (not being able to bear the curfew on phone use) which meant he now had to do two people’s work.

This youth might have rejoiced if he had read the economist John Maynard Keynes 1930 essay titled “Economic Possibilities”. It prophesied technology would make us so productive (we’d only have 15 hours of work per week) that we wouldn’t know what to do with our free time. This prophecy has not materialised.

A poll by the Johnson Foundation showed that even with sophisticated workplace technologies, many professionals earning high salaries still work 50 or more hours per week. It also showed some lower income workers with fewer technologies still find it hard to get enough work.

Lifelong learning

The aim of this article is to remind the public that technology is here to stay and is part and parcel of our daily lives.

More importantly, we should not think that after we left high school or university that our learning has ended. Learning is a lifelong process and we must continue to learn through refresher courses, internet learning, googling about new innovations in our workplaces and other non-formal education programs.

If you are 30 or over, you should learn the basic advantages and disadvantages of information and social technology in your daily lives.

As I line up at the ATM, I still see people inserting their cards to find out their deposits, then reinserting it to do a withdrawal. They do not seem to realise that these actions can all be done together without inserting and reinserting cards.

There is also the very large number of people who do not realise that official sounding notices asking for your passwords are all part of a grand scam. Many academics still fall for this.

Some time ago, I told a lady (she has a masters degree) that a letter she received asking her to send $US50 ($F101) and she would receive $US5000 ($F10,127) was a scam. She lectured me on the goodness of people who wanted to bless the world with their generosity. Some time later I asked her how she had used her windfall and she became very quiet.

Workplace efficiencies

It you are a government worker reading this article, please note that the public requires the same kinds of efficiencies displayed in smart techs in the services they receive. This basically means that we do not want to wait at the counter for 10 minutes or more before being served.

Tech experts agree technology will change (or takeover) the jobs that humans do now but it will not mean that we will be jobless.

The most pressing question is whether people will have the skills to perform the jobs that are created. Technology provides new employment opportunities.

It is insightful that some of the best tech minds such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are making predictions on how smart tech will do more of our jobs.

However other job opportunities will spring up. We need to be prepared to deal with the changing workplace situations that call for new competencies as technology takes over our jobs and new ones emerge. If there is poverty in your spiritual life, please enrich it.

Mr Zuckerberg told his audience that, “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful.”

Automation and jobs

We are reaching a point where any business with a service counter; grocery stores, movie theaters, car rentals and even McDonalds will have machines serving us.

We should not be worried about mass unemployment. We should all accept that automation is here to stay and we should have the skills needed to compete with smart tech.

James Bessen, an economist, and author of the book, Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth, says: “The problem is people are losing jobs and we’re not doing a good job of getting them the skills and knowledge they need to work for the new jobs.”

Dealing with this skills gap will mean a change in mind-set in the way we approach job training and in the way we approach education.

Bessen says: “Technology is very disruptive. (Since) we don’t have an easy way to transition people from one occupation to another, we’re going to face increased social disruption.”

The proactive active learning approach taken by USP’s Pacific TAFE in Fiji and the Pacific region augers well for a workforce that is ready to deal with all kinds of contingencies in the workplace.

It is good news that Government has put in place the national policy on non-formal education to deal with lifelong learning not only in the workplace but also in traditional, faith-based and social spheres of our lives.

The focal point of the non-formal education (NFE) policy is the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The policy is not confined to youths and covers all Fiji citizens. The NFE Program at USP under Dr Sereima Naisilisili has been helpful in its formulation.

The policy also covers the point made by Bessen that, “We need to move to a world where there is lifelong learning. You have to get rid of this idea that we go to school once when we’re young and that covers us for our career. Schools need to teach people how to learn (and) how to teach themselves if necessary (self-directed learning)”.

Not new

Concerns about how machines will do more of our jobs is not new.

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor David Autor wrote in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2015 that in 1900, 41 per cent of American workers were employed in agriculture, but by 2000, automated machinery brought that number down to 2 per cent.

The reality is that when automation takes over our jobs, it can also bring down cost and improve quality, which, in turn, increases demand.

This was the case in textiles. In the early 19th century, 98 per cent of the work of a weaver became automated, yet there was an increase in the number of textile workers.

Bessen said at the beginning of the 19th century, clothes were expensive and the average person had one set of clothing.

As the price started coming down because of automaton, people bought more and more so that by the 1920s the average person had 10 times as much cloth per capita per year. More demand for cloth meant a greater need for textile workers.

When ATMs came out in the 1970s, people felt we would not need bank tellers.

However, since ATMs reduced the cost of operating a bank branch, more branches opened, which in turn hired more tellers.

The job of those tellers changed from simply giving out cash to selling other things the banks provided, like credit cards and loans. Tellers also had skills like problem solving which ATMs did not have!

To all of you reading this article, lifelong learning is important and you should not think that once you graduate with a degree that is the end of your learning.

You should be looking through the courses offered by the National Training & Productivity Centre of the Fiji National University, the USP Pacific TAFE and the University of Fiji continuing education courses among other providers.

* Joseph Veramu is a policy analyst consultant. He can be contacted on joseph.veramu@outlook.com or Facebook or twitter https://twitter.com/VeramuJoseph.

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