Job Security: The Changing Paradigm

An analysis drawing connections between an increasingly technological society, its effects on our job stability, and our constant need to adapt.

10 minute read

As world economies change and technology advances the worker finds himself a victim of the changing paradigm of job security. To better understand this concept job security must first be defined. Job security is thought to be work which will provide a reasonable income over the worker's productive lifetime. This applies to the sector of the civilian labor force which is employed, that is, any person 16 years of age or older. Job security is a result of a paradigm, a set of conditions which is changing. The shift in the paradigm is the problem. The US is experiencing a deterioration of job security due to computers, robotics, world competition and third world labor entering the job security paradigm.

Job security was of little concern to people prior to the industrial revolution. Peoples' jobs were either dictated by an emperor or king or otherwise predetermined at birth. Class divisions and a lack of widespread education were the causes of an ignorant society. A lack of education limited the careers from which a person could choose. Early civilizations had few job options available. Agriculture was the primary industry because eating was one of the main concerns. Traders, shippers, craftsmen, and implement makers supported the primary industry of farming. It was simple, efficient, and secure as the weather would allow.

Later, as the industrial revolution was starting to affect a larger population of America, the definition of job security was beginning to be redefined. As America's agricultural society was beginning to find new and more efficient ways of harvesting crops, quantity of product became an issue. Profit was part of agriculture; no longer did people just farm for food. Security depended upon the amount of land you had, the more land, the more profit you could make and the easier it was to pay your debts. If debts were not paid, your land would be taken, and you would have no job security. Offsetting the displaced farmers and an increasing number of immigrants out of work, the manufacturing industry began to expand, requiring more labor. As manufacturing expanded, costs came down and demand went up.

The manufacturing industry changed the way job security was viewed by America. Now workers had to deal with large employers. Rapport with the supervisor became an issue because your relationship with the boss can affect your status in the workplace and can even determine if you keep your job. This employer-employee relationship will become one of the many issues of job security and gets added to the paradigm. During this early stage of industrializing America, the bosses of these industries were more concerned with making a profit rather than the safety and concerns of the workers. The lack of care for the working conditions of the workers gave the industrial revolution a dark side. Workers were exposed to dangerous machines, unsanitary conditions, and were underpaid. Women and children were also exploited as a cheap source of labor. There were no regulations or laws passed by government to protect the worker from these conditions and it continued until people began to organize into unions and demand a better workplace.

Complacency made way for new conditions in American labor. Workers began to form trade unions which enabled them to effectively decry the bad conditions of the workplace. The main objective in forming a union is to gain strength by representing a large group of workers. When the workers would individually make complaints to their boss they would get little accomplished. Through unionism, significant gains were made to alter the poor working conditions. Significant labor wins such as the Taft-Hartley Act, establishing the National Labor Relations Board, and the Adamson Eight Hour Act culminated in a tenable relationship between management and labor. Having obtained favorable working conditions, workers turned to improving their job security. To that end, the seniority system was established as a basic bargaining issue and pension programs were initiated.

It was the 1930s and 40s, manufacturing was king and we had a world market. Most employees enjoyed a secure future according to his abilities and so we languished for nearly fifty years. In the 1980s we were taken over by a technological revolution which added a new factor to the job security paradigm. Many jobs once held by skilled craftsmen were and still are being converted to robotic production. The continual rise of computer sophistication has revolutionized other skilled laborers such as corporate managers, accountants and secretaries allowing fewer people to do more work. Sometimes the result is displacement of jobs. The worker may lose his job in one field only to be moved to another position in the same company for which he may not be qualified.

Due to the creation of a vast computer industry, more jobs have been created but with different skills required. Many displaced employees do not qualify. Technology has put their job security in jeopardy. Secretaries must now learn how to operate word processors and get rid of the obsolete ways of the typewriter. Architects are faced with learning how to use CAD (Computer Aided Design) systems and retire the pencil and paper. Certainly in the automotive industry the use of robotic automation has put many people out of work. Fewer people are needed to monitor an assembly line producing an equivalent number of units.

Advancements in technology have created a disparity between the obsolete craft and the new. If the number of skilled employees goes up, the worker needs more education and training to compete in a more complex society. The transition between old skills and newer 21st century skills is often a difficult one and cannot be achieved without formal education. Others which do not succeed in retraining must find lower level jobs with less pay and subsequently lesser job security.

Automation has created an increasing number of temporary workers. These people work under contract on a part time or independent basis and are essentially under employed. They receive only a fee for service and no benefits at all. These people are often referred to as short-timers, per diem workers, leased employees, or supplementals. They have become the replacements for many full-time employees. This is the era of corporate down sizing. For all corporations to remain competitive they have to reduce staff to the essential level. All tasks which could be identified as intermittently required would be given to the temps, eliminating the need for full-time positions, thereby saving costs. There appears to be no limit to the power, sophistication, and influence of computers and robots in our foreseeable future, so the trend will continue.

Companies are faced with great competition in the worldwide market. With the availability of a worldwide labor market companies are forced to adapt in order to remain profitable. As American companies capitalize on cheaper foreign labor the result is fewer American jobs. When American jobs are replaced by cheaper foreign labor, the cost of production goes down, raising demand for the product. Relatively unskilled manufacturing workers have now had the foreign labor factor added to their job security paradigm. Worldwide competition has vastly increased the number of comparable products. Each company wants to make their product better and cheaper. This has forced US companies to forge ahead, keep up, or drop out. For American companies to remain a dominant world leader they must innovate.

Job security would not be a problem if we were able to adjust easily but that is not the case. More Americans are finding their jobs are being sent overseas to cheaper manufacturing locations. They are being taken by robots and computers. Jobs are lost as companies become more efficient. All these reasons affect the worker emotionally and financially. The worker finds himself looking for a financially equivalent alternative. Few of these workers can afford a sabbatical to reeducate themselves; few workers are able to accept the pain and expense of relocation. Some Americans see their jobs going overseas as an act of piracy, abetted by such trade agreements as NAFTA and GATT. The trade agreements are merely an attempt at controlling an inevitable fact of life, which is the presence of foreign labor, trade, and competition. The traditional method of control (tariffs) is no longer relevant because the majority of the market is off shore.

Americans have proven themselves unwilling to purchase more expensive (equivalent) products just because they are “Made in the USA”. This commonly found sticker is deceptive in many ways. For example, a TV may be assembled in the US but all the parts may not be made in the US. The sticker should read “Partially made or assembled in the USA”. The bulk of the jobs making product components are dispersed around the world, often in places like Japan, Korea, and Malaysia. Only a portion of the jobs to make the complete product are here in the US. Since fewer people are needed to assemble it, the company must lay off people; adding to unemployment and eroding job security among Americans. Many of these people are reduced to subsistence living, or worse, because they must take lower level employment elsewhere.

All of these changes shift the paradigm and as the paradigm moves, so must the worker to retain his job security. A trivial example: when dry-erase boards were introduced teachers had to transition from chalk to new dry-erase pens. This was a simple change but the teachers had to adapt. It’s quite different when the paradigm requires computer expertise and you have none. To move with a paradigm workers must be able to adapt to the changes around them.

America is in need of a “high-flex society” or one which can move with and conform to the working environment in a highly competitive world. College students are faced with similar problems: How secure will my field of study be when I graduate? Many students are taking two majors at the same time. If one skill becomes obsolete or there is little demand for the job, he will be able to fall back on the second major.

In our changing world economy we see a shift of US-based manufacturing to places like Mexico, China, and the Philippines. It’s almost natural evolution for the production of high volume products to shift to developing nations. The economic base thus established enables the developing nation to ascend up the economic ladder to eventually become a world competitor, much like Korea or Brazil. As a consequence, the market share of US manufacturers has declined. It has declined because business leaders failed to see this economic ladder of ascendancy.

A consequence of this activity and the heedless response of US industry is that more and more well paid US jobs are being lost. Industrialists must become aware that the key to our economic future does not lie in high volume production. The question then becomes: How can we restructure American industry to allow continued prosperity and resultant job security for American workers? According to Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor, an essential step is to convert our mass production industries to a flexible-system process. The flexible-system process requires that traditionally separate business functions (research, design, engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, sales) be merged into a highly integrated system that can respond quickly to new opportunities. This must be coupled with innovative engineering and corporate management capable of moving into new markets. In order to move into a flexible-system of manufacturing we must upgrade our manufacturing skills and know-how by upgrading networks of suppliers, distributors, and customers already in existence instead of leaping into a totally uncharted sea of products and processes unrelated to an industrial base of the past.

Take Swiss watch makers, for example. Prior to the 1970s they had 90 percent of the total watch market. They had thousands of workers occupied in assembly plants manufacturing mechanical watches. In the 1970s Seiko adapted a microchip and a quartz crystal to make the first electronic wristwatch. It was accurate, inexpensive, and reliable. By the beginning of the 1980s the Swiss saw their market share drop to 30 percent and employment in the industry had been cut in half. They were the victims of a high production, fixed-purpose industry. They were not capable of making the transition to electronic watches and no one saw the change coming. The Swiss could have saved their jobs and industry had they used the flexible production system and had been researching alternate products for use on their production line.

Our job security rests on our abilities to produce or provide something that no one else can make, but that everyone wants. To ensure that America constantly innovates requires that we have a flexible work force. Establishing a flexible work force should start at the lowest level of education. Flexibility and adaptability should first be introduced into elementary level schools, then to middle schools, all the way through a high school education. This includes basic education in a variety of fields so the student can acquire the fundamental knowledge to understand how advances in society are going to affect her. Good work habits begin at an early age and building on these will help the workers of tomorrow conform to a quickly changing society. Colleges and universities should also adjust to a flexible work force by offering more diversity of courses. In particular, computer courses should be mandatory at the college level for all majors because more and more jobs are requiring that you have basic to advanced skills in some field of computers. Economics is also a very useful course. We need to acquire more knowledge about how our economy works and how it affects us. The more we know, the easier it will be to predict coming paradigm shifts affecting our future.

Public educators, corporations, and government, all need to be involved in an ongoing reeducation process for American workers. Corporations, large and small, need to recognize that meaningful reeducation programs are necessary to support a flexible production system. Using on-the-job training and classroom techniques, workers need to be trained in new methods of production. Ongoing education for managers is necessary in order for the corporations to effectively deal with new products and markets. Research and development must be given high priority in order to maintain leadership on a technical level.

Government involvement in the economy does those things the market and business cannot or will not do. For example, manage the business cycle and finance projects such as the Interstate Highway System and the space shuttle. Equally important is that government sets the economic rules, such as antitrust and regulatory policy, to ensure the operation of the market and to set the legal boundaries of business activities. Within those limits, markets and businesses have much freedom to assign resources and balance consumer preferences with producer capabilities. Although the US has used this rule-driven market economy for many years, it no longer suits our changing needs. Watching industries fall one after another raises questions about how companies are running their business and also what the government’s role in the economy should be.

Today’s employees will still make up much of the work force at the turn of the century. They will require additional education and training many times during their careers. Employers are the logical source for government sponsored retraining funds. They operate the nation’s largest training system; their own. They are also the most familiar with their own needs. Although the company will receive the funding, there must be a way to monitor where the money goes. Government must establish an agency to monitor the needs of the employer and to oversee the ways which the company is using the money. The agency must make sure the money is going to the needs of the employee and not to the company’s equipment and technology. The government must ensure that long-term needs of the economy are met.

When thinking about my future and the job security that I will have, I always consider what kind of jobs will be the most secure. If being a garbage man is having job security then fine, but I don’t intend on spending my life in waste management. I see myself in ten years as a person involved in the area of computers. This area of electronics is certainly a growing field and there is plenty of evidence to back it up. We are in the age of the computer nerd (not meant to be derogatory), and nerds are in demand. Our world is becoming more digitized everyday. The Internet and the World Wide Web are growing at a fantastic rate and people (workers) are needed to make the best use of it. Bill Gates is a perfect example of someone who saw a paradigm shift. He realized that companies like Apple Computers and IBM were making tomorrow’s tools: computers. He used this to his advantage and created an operating system for the IBM PC: Microsoft DOS or MS-DOS. This became the standard in every PC and then he created another standard: Microsoft Windows.

Bill created his own paradigm by designing a standard by which all else is measured. His company, Microsoft, employs more than 10,000 people. Bill’s drive and creativity has given him the ultimate in job security and he is fast becoming the richest man in the world. America’s economy may be on the wane but not because of any lack of opportunity. If more people like Mr. Gates can be inspired and cultivated then America will remain on the top rung of the economic ladder. Anyone who says the riches of a few men won’t count is sadly mistaken. Think of all the people who made their fortunes or their livelihood from Bill Gates. All we had to do is believe in the product and invest in it.