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The New Division of Labor

I've been doing less reading this month as I start the business.  My reading habits, are, well, they aren't normal.  I read in the shower, at stop lights, on the way down to pick up the paper, and even, if you can believe it, in a dentist chair while they put tempories on my two front teeth.

That said, I still rifled through four books.  The fifth is proving challenging.

The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market: Frank Levy and Richard Murname.

Let me start with the quote for the book jacket - Every legislator, educator, and executive in American ought to have this book on this bookshelf.

This book has proven vexing precisely because I can't just power-read through it and produce a review.  It's one of those thinking books that has me putting down the thin volume and picking up pen and whatever paper is nearby.   

The cover of the book seems to take its imagery from an Ayn Rand novel, which should have been my first hint that this book is far from normal.  The thin volume packs philosophical insights into every day business sentiments in a subtle manner easily missed if you're skimming.

On the surface, what I've read is pretty straightforward.  Computers are replacing some jobs, and creating new ones.  Easily automated tasks are given to computers, and tasks requiring more cognition are left or formulated for humans. 

It's a headline ripped out of any newspaper defending progress - but there is more to the principle than the easy soundbite. 


Take for example this issue:

p. 106
A lack of basic computer skills is not what keeps many workers from good jobs.

"As recently as ten years ago, the point was not so apparent.  In 1993, Princeton University economist Alan Krueger published a paper in The Quarterly Journal of Economics documenting that American workers who used computers in their jobs earned about 15 percent more than those who did not. This wage bonus existed even among workers with the same educational attainments and the bonus was larger in 1989 thn in 1984, even though the percentage of American workers using computers gre rapidly during this period.The pattern seemed to suggest that basic computer skills were as important in the labor market as verbal and quantitative literacy."

The pattern didn't fit all of the data, and the use of e-mail turned out to be the biggest pay differential over noon-computer users.  Considering e-mail is among the easiest applications to use, it couldn't be the reason the pay differential was so high.

A second study of German workers showed the same result - 15 percent difference in pay. Then the monkey wrench showed up.  The second study, by Stefan Pischke and John DiNardo published in the same journal, showed the same 15 percent differential between Germans who used a pencil in their jobs and those who did not.

The appearance of computers in the study was a consequence of josb requiring a different kind of cognition getting computers first - which would explain the use of pencils (used in calculation and drawing for architects and the like).

In other words - it's not the computer that makes the difference, it's the human being and the job skill required.  The shift in thinking from saying we need to train the American workforce on basic computer skills to allow them to compete in the global economy changes to, we ought to be teaching American workers how to think critically to compete in the global economy.

The difference in those two statements is enormous, but I can see every executive in America bemoaning the lack of computer training in their staffs and the need to provide that training in earlier grades to better prepare the nation's workforce.

That's what this book does - it takes a simple statement you've heard on the news or from a executive or legislator and reorients us towards the difference between Human Jobs and Computer Jobs.  There is much more to come from this - but if you're interested, click the link to take you to Amazon.

The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market.