Paul F Renda
Hacking Technologies Impact on Middle Class Jobs in the United States
During the 1980s, I worked at a major brokerage house in New York City. This brokerage house was located in the World Trade Center. Unbeknown to much of the public, each floor of the World Trade Center has an entire acre of rentable floor space, which was made possible by the lack of interior concrete pillars. Anyone familiar with construction knows that if one of the corners is removed from this type of building, the structure will collapse, which bin Laden no doubt understood.
During the 1980s, the technology department of the brokerage house managed to put a PC on each employee’s desk. This meant that managers and vice presidents had immediate access to real-time information about markets. In the past, managers needed a systems analyst to provide the specifications for reports or queries. They would then send the specs to a programmer to code them. With the networked PCs, they were able to download flat files from a DB2 database into Excel or Lotus spreadsheets. They could format reports and create their own queries in addition to reviewing real-time information. At the same time, this system eliminated an intermediary level of analysts and programmers.
Secretaries, systems analysts, manual systems analysts, documentation analysts, and mail room personnel were also affected by this automation. Managers and vice presidents now had email and did not need the physical mail system. The mailroom became less busy, and therefore had fewer people working in it, because routine memos would be sent through electronic mail, which allowed for real-time updates. Management could also produce documentation using Microsoft Word or WordPerfect rather than relying on a secretary. Furthermore, real-time information about markets was becoming more accessible to the higher-level staff who actually made decisions. The mezzanine group of people was thus largely displaced.
The mainframe computers of the day were hungry for information. That hunger was satisfied by the large bullpens of keypunch operators. A keypunch operator would take a manual form that had been filled in by a client or customer, and then keypunch it on an 80-column Hollerith card. This card system was ancient, and it had been in use during the 1890s for the census. Brokerage houses, national banks, insurance companies, and utilities would have large bullpens of keypunch operators working for one or two shifts each day. Keypunch operators never had any type of career ladder—they could become a section leader or a supervisor, but they could not generally gain entry into the field of programming. Therefore, as customers began more frequently typing in their information online rather than filling in paper forms, keypunch operators’ careers were jeopardized. Additionally, machines’ optical character recognition had greatly improved, making them better able to read documentation and further diminishing the need for keypunch operators. Today, the large bullpens of keypunch operators are a thing of the past, as are the even larger bullpens of typing pools—and the operators had to find another line of work.
Technology also had a great impact on the computer room floor. In the computer room, the jobs of tape librarians and computer operators were generally entry-level positions for bright high school students or college graduates without math degrees. The tape librarians would physically pull tapes and mount them on drives as the tapes were needed. Increasingly, however, companies were moving to tape storage systems operated by a robot in a large enclosed area. This robot would pull cartridges and mount the tapes on drives when a call arrived from the executing program. Computer operator jobs were also becoming increasingly automated, and few people were needed to handle large-scale mainframe computer systems.
The career path of a librarian or operator could include tech support, system programming, or application programming. Computer operators and tape librarians were considered junior-level positions.
From the early 1970s to the 1990s, a programmer could make a fairly good living programming an IBM mainframe using just COBOL or PL/1. Numerous companies also had training programs for people coming in with a bachelor’s degree and no programming background. However, companies found that some people with a bachelor’s degree could not learn programming, and more importantly, had scant ability to deconstruct a complex business or technological problem into its much simpler solvable elements.
The federal government also found problems with college graduates. During the 1980s, the government would give college graduates pre-employment tests consisting of basic eighth grade math, reading, and writing questions. The government stopped giving these tests because a large portion of college graduates, who had sixteen years of schooling behind them, could not pass them.
Currently, many technology departments seek to hire people with certification for C++ , Java, or C#. As a spillover from just-in-time manufacturing, in which the parts arrive at the exact day that they needed, companies now want to hire people as consultants on a short-term basis for a specific project. Computer language is evolving so rapidly that a programmer who does not update his or her skills can become obsolete in a short period of time, having no true employment security.
By the end of the 1980s, the brokerage house where I worked had about two-and-a-half vacant floors in the two World Trade Center buildings. Unfortunately, nobody had the time or interest to perceive or study what was happening in our industry. The assortment of entry-level, middle class jobs described herein, which paid between $12,000 and $40,000 dollars in the 1980s—and which served as escalator jobs, allowing people to move into a higher socioeconomic class—largely vanished.
Today, over 53 percent of college grads are either unemployed or underemployed, making it hard to feel optimistic about the future. The center of commerce is moving from the West to the East, and China and India will soon experience substantial middle-class growth. Today they are in the advantageous position of developing a high-technology economy, mainly because they have a culture of education and a population with a high IQ, which is extremely important to the software industry, as Bill Gates asserts (Karlgaard). Thus, college students would be wise to consider moving to Singapore, Australia, or New Zealand, where they will be able to capitalize on the growth of the East. Even the low-wage, high-growth jobs in food service and personal healthcare are not immune from the influence of technology, especially since the new healthcare law has come into existence. China has a robot that makes noodles, while Japan has developed a personal aide robot that can take care of elderly people. When the world recovers from the global recession, China will be the creditor nation and United States will be the debtor nation.
Jay and the Americans. “Only in America.” Youtube. Web.
Rich Karlgaard. “Talent Wars.” Forbes. Web.