In a twist, “working from home” benefits big tech in big ways.

Remote work has turned each new hire into a national competition.

Historically, one of the challenges faced by smaller urban markets was their ability to hang on to talent. Younger workers often found it more financially lucrative following their education to relocate to major metropolitan areas in order to snag higher paying positions with the companies based there.

In time, however, the high cost of living in the large metro markets, coupled with the desire to ditch the unbearable congestion in those areas, led to the formation of new businesses outside the major tech centers that found it easier to compete with the major urban areas for talent. 

Established companies found the same dynamics at work, too. The rise of markets like Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Boise underscored that the spread of the “new economy” had migrated to places beyond the traditional hubs of Boston, Washington, New York City, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and others.

Then the COVID pandemic came along. Suddenly, it didn’t matter where employees lived as companies quickly figured out ways to have, in some cases, nearly their entire workforce working remotely. 

It didn’t take long for employees in some of the market hardest-hit by COVID to flee to far-flung regions. New York City residents moved to the Hudson River Valley, South Florida and other locations. For California residents it was off to Nevada, Montana or Idaho. Boston-based workers decamped for Vermont or Maine.

It soon became apparent that for many tech jobs, the need to be clustered together in offices simply wasn’t that critical. And in an ironic twist, smaller-city startups and other firms are now starting to feel the effects of the establishment biggies poaching their own employees.

It’s particularly ironic; whereas before, companies that couldn’t compete with Silicon Valley heavyweights on salary could offer a whole lot of lifestyle to even the playing field.  Now they’re finding that “work from anywhere” policies have nullified whatever advantages they had. 

Those big-city salaries can be used to purchase a lot of house in whatever kind of environment desired — even if it’s a lakeside cabin in the middle of nowhere. 

It also means that, all of a sudden, everyone’s competing with companies all over the country for talent — and hanging on to the existing talent is that much more difficult. When people are being offered 20% higher salary with no requirement to relocate, that’s a proposition many people are going to consider.

Another interesting consequence is that tech labor force is probably geographically more evenly distributed than it’s ever been — and the workers residing outside the traditional tech hubs are benefiting accordingly — At least in the short-term. 

In the longer term, companies based in the smaller markets hope that they’ll have access to those same new tech migrants if work-from-home policies change yet again.  But that’s a big “if” …

Not so neat: The rise of the NEET generation.

Millions of Americans age 20 to 24 fall into the NEET category: “Not in Employment, Education or Training.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some interesting fault-lines in the socio-economic fabric of  the United States.  One of these relates to young adults — those between the ages of 20 and 25. What we find paints a potentially disturbing picture of an economic and employment situation that may not be easily fixable.

A recently issued economic report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) focuses on the so-called “NEET rate“– young Americans who are not employed, not in school, and not in training.

As of the First Quarter of 2021, the NEET category represented nearly 4 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 24. This eye-popping statistic goes well beyond the particular circumstances of the pandemic and may turn out to be an economically devastating trend with a myriad of adverse ripple effects related to it.

Look at any business newspaper or website these days and you’ll see reports regularly about worker shortages across many sectors — including unfilled jobs at the lower end of the pay scale which offer employment opportunities that fit well with the capabilities of lower skilled workers newly coming into the workplace.

At this moment, pretty much anyone who is willing to look around can easily find employment, schooling, or training of various kinds.  But for millions of Americans in the 20-24 age cohort, the  job opportunities appear to be falling on deaf ears. Bloomberg/Quint‘s reaction to the CEPT study certainly hits home:

“Inactive youth is a worrying sign for the future of the [U.S.] economy, as they don’t gain critical job skills to help realize their future earnings potential.  Further, high NEET rates may foster environments that are fertile for social unrest.”

… Daily urban strife in Portland, Minneapolis and Seattle, anyone?

It doesn’t much help that younger Americans appear to be less enamored with the basic economic foundations of the country than are their older compatriots.  A recent poll by Axios/Momentive has found that while nearly 60% of Americans hold positive views of capitalism, those sentiments are share by a only little more than 40% of those in the 18-24 age category. 

Moreover, more than 50% of the younger group view socialism positively compared to only around 40% of all Americans that feel the same way.

The coronavirus pandemic may have laid bare these trends, but it would be foolish to think that the issues weren’t percolating well before the first U.S. businesses began to lock down in March 2020. 

And more fundamentally, one could question just how much government can do to reverse the trend; perhaps the best thing to do is to stop “helping” so much … ?

More information about the CEPR report can be viewed here.  What are your thoughts on this issue?  Please share your views with other readers here. 

The predictable — and unexpected — economic consequences of COVID.

As the United States emerges from the COVID crisis, the shape of the American economy is coming into clearer view.  Part of that picture is the growing realization that lockdown policies, vaccination rollouts and government stimulus actions have created imbalances in many sectors — imbalances that will time to return to equilibrium.

Everyone knows the business sectors that have been hammered “thanks” to COVID:  hospitality and foodservice, travel and tourism, the performing arts, sports and recreation, commercial real estate. 

At the same time, other corners of the economy have blossomed — home remodeling, consumer electronics … and the public sector.  This last one isn’t a function of any kind of increased demand, but rather pandemic-long guaranteed continuing income to workers on the public payroll.

As we emerge, factories and the building trades are finding it difficult to ramp up their operations to meet growing demand, hampered in part by supply chain issues and shortages of raw materials and parts sourced from offshore suppliers.  As of now, most economists believe that such shortages won’t turn out to be long-term problems — but we shall see over time if this is actually the case.

Another imbalance is what’s been happening to the labor force.  Government stimulus checks and unemployment benefits have been sufficiently robust so as to depress the number of workers seeking a return to employment in certain sectors — particularly in the service industries.  As just one example, restaurants everywhere are finding it more than a little difficult to staff their reopened locations.

The latest forecasts are for the U.S. economy to grow at a blistering pace during the balance of 2021 — perhaps as high as an 8% or 9% seasonally adjusted rate of growth.  That would be historic.  But not everyone is going to benefit.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Lefkowitz of UBS Global Wealth Management points out that “the very sudden stop to the economy and then the very quick restart has created a lot of havoc — a lot of businesses have gotten caught flat-footed.”  But beyond this is the very real likelihood that inflation will emerge as a key factor in the economy, for the first time in more than 40 years. 

Viewed holistically, the situation in which we find ourselves is one where many new and unusual “ingredients” have gone into the economy over the past year, resulting in an economic brew that is just as unusual — and perhaps even unique in our history. 

An artificially depressed economy due to government fiat … followed by massive economic stimulus paid for by expanding the money supply … coupled with sudden demand propelling certain industries over others due to government-driven dictates: for sure it’s a new mix of factors.  Considering this, I’m not at all sure that very many people inside or outside of government have a clear handle on what the next 18 months will actually bring.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate about it, right?  In the comment section below, please share your perspectives on what’s in store for the U.S. economy.  I’m sure others will be interested in reading your thoughts.

Changing the “work-live location paradigm” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, its long-term implications on how we will live and work in the future are becoming clearer. 

Along those lines, a feature article written by urban studies theorist Richard Florida and economist Adam Ozimek that appeared in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal explores how remote working has the potential to reshape America’s urban geography in very fundamental ways.

Just before the first lockdowns began in April 2020, fewer than 10% of the U.S. labor force worked remotely full-time.  But barely a month later, around half of the labor was working remotely.  And now, even after the slow easing of workplace restrictions that began to take effect in the summer of 2020, most of the workers who were working remotely have continued to do so.

The longer-term forecast is that perhaps 25% of the labor force will continue to work fully remote, even after life returns to “normal” in the post-COVID era.

For clues as to why the “new normal” will be so different from the “old” one, we can start with worker productivity data.  Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom has studied such productivity trends in the wake of the coronavirus and finds evidence that the productivity boost from remote work could be as high as 2.5%. 

Sure, there may be more instances of personal work being done on company time, but counterbalancing that is the decline of commuting time, as well as the end of time-suck distractions that characterized daily life at the office.

As Florida and Ozimek explain further in their WSJ article:

“Major companies … have already announced that employees working from home may continue to do so permanently.  They have embraced remote work not only because it saves them money on office space, but because it gives them greater access to talent, since they don’t have to relocate new hires.”

The shift to remote working severs the traditional connection between where people live and where they work.  The impact of that change promises to be significant for quite a few cities, towns and regions.  For smaller urban areas especially, they can now build their local economies based on remote workers and thus compete more easily against the big-city, high-tech coastal business centers that have dominated the employment landscape for so long.

Whereas metro areas like Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC and New York had become prohibitively expensive from a cost-of-living standpoint, today smaller metro areas such as Austin, Charlotte, Nashville and Denver are able to use their more attractive cost-of-living characteristics to attract newly mobile professionals who wish to keep more of their hard-earned incomes. 

For smaller urban areas and regions such as Tulsa, OK, Bozeman, MT, Door County, WI and the Hudson Valley of New York it’s a similar scenario, as they become magnets for newly mobile workers whose work relies on digital tools, not physical location.

Pew Research has found that the number of people moving spiked in the months following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – who suddenly were relocating at double the pre-pandemic rate.  As for the reasons why, more than half of newly remote workers who are looking to relocate say that they would like a significantly less expensive house. The locational choices they have are far more numerous than before, because they can select a place that best meets their own personal or family needs without worrying about how much they can earn in the local business market.

For many cities and regions, economic development initiatives are likely to morph from luring companies with special tax incentives or other financial perks, and more towards luring a workforce through civic services and amenities:  better schools, safer streets, and more parks and green spaces. 

There’s no question that the “big city” will continue to hold attraction for certain segments of the populace.  Younger workers without children will be drawn to the excitement and edginess of urban living without having to regard for things like quality schools.  Those with a love for the arts will continue to value the kind of convenient access to museums, theatres and the symphony that only a large city can provide.  And sports fanatics will never want to be too far away from attending the games of their favorite teams.

But for families with children, or for people who wish to have a less “city” environment, their options are broader than ever before.  Those people will likely be attracted to small cities, high-end suburbs, exurban environments or rural regions that offer attractive amenities including recreation. 

Getting the short end of the stick will be older suburbs or other run-of-the-mill localities with little to offer but tract housing – or anything else that’s even remotely “unique.”

They’re interesting future prospects we’re looking at – and on balance probably a good one for the country and our society as it’s enabling us to smooth out some of the stark regional disparities that had developed over the past several decades.

What are your thoughts on these trends?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

The Music of Your (Work) Life

Well, yes and no …

I’ve been in business long enough that I can remember a time when it was pretty commonplace for the radio to be playing in the background in offices and other work settings.  Sometimes the result of doing so was a bit distracting – most especially during radio program commercial breaks, but also the general distraction of hearing the radio announcers.

These days, the only workplace where I hear the radio playing is at the office of my dentist.  Perhaps they think their patients don’t have any choice but to sit captive in the operatory chair, so it doesn’t matter if the “irritation quotient” is high or not.

On the other hand, one of the things workers can do today is craft their own streaming-service playlists, filled with the kind of music that they prefer to hear.  And with so many people working from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s little surprise that playlists have become increasingly popular.

One question we might ask is if the music we listen to while working helps with our productivity, or hinders it.

It’s a topic that’s of interest to companies such as OnBuy.  This UK-based online marketplace has conducted a study of ~3,000 people, enlisting them to complete ten short tasks with music playing in the background to find out how many of the tasks they could complete when various different songs were playing.

The research subjects worked their tasks while hearing a range of different songs – and as it turns out, there were significant differences in productivity based on the songs that were playing.

According to the OnBuy study, the most productive music to work or study by were these five songs:

  • My Love (Sia)
  • Real Love (Tom Odell)
  • I Wanna Be Yours (Arctic Monkey)
  • Secret Garden (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobbie McFerrin)
Don’t Worry, Be Productive: Bobby McFerrin

The research participants were able to complete an average of six of the ten assigned tasks within the duration of those five songs.

At the other end of the scale, these songs were determined to be poor for productivity, with participants able to complete just two of the assigned tasks, on average, while they were playing:

  • Dancing With Myself (Billy Idol)
  • Roar (Katy Perry)
The Pointer Sisters: Everyone’s excited, but productivity takes a beating.

And at the bottom of the barrel? Of the songs tested, I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters was the worst one for productivity.

More generally, the OnBuy study discovered an inverse correlation between a song’s beats per minute (BPM) and productivity levels:  The higher the BPM, the less productive people were in completing their assigned tasks.

This is probably why I’m much more productive when listening to music that has practically no BPM associated with it – whether it’s the ambient music of Brian Eno, piano preludes by Claude Debussy, or the nature music of Frederick Delius.

Of course, when it comes to work productivity, nothing beats complete silence.  That’s the surefire way to be the most productive – but it isn’t nearly as nice, is it?

How about you?  What kind of music appeals to you — and works for you — while working?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The COVID pandemic and the race to raise digital skills.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly made its mark on many markets and industries – some more than others, of course. But one consequence of the events of 2020 appears to cross all industry lines. 

Because of the rapid adjustments organizations have been required to make in the way jobs are performed – borne out of necessity because of health fears, not to mention government edicts – workers have been forced to come up the digital learning curve in a big hurry in order to do their jobs properly.

This “digital upskilling” dynamic isn’t affecting only office workers.  It’s happening across the board – in the private and public sector alike. 

Simply put, digital upskilling isn’t a matter of choice.  If workers want to remain relevant — and to keep their jobs — they’re having to ramp up their digital skill-sets without delay.

Moreover, the new skills aren’t limited to the efficient use of mobile devices, digital meeting/presentation functions, cloud applications and the like.  According to LinkedIn’s recruitment data, highly in-demand skills over the past few months encompass wide-ranging and comprehensive knowledge sets such as data science, data storage, and tech support.

Not so long ago, there were “tech jobs” and “non-tech jobs.”  Now there are just “jobs” – and nearly every one of them require the people doing them to possess a high comfort level with technology.

Will things revert back to older norms with the anticipated arrival of coronavirus vaccines in 2021?  I think the chances of that are “less than zero.”  But what are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

A Strong Job Market and the “Gig” Economy

The two don’t go together very well.

It wasn’t so long ago that the so-called “gig” economy was all the rage. In the early 2010s, with a sizable portion of companies being skittish to commit to hiring full-time workers due to fresh memories of the economic downturn, many workers found opportunities to make money through various different gig economy service firms — companies like Uber, Lift, Postmates and others.

What those jobs offered workers were flexible schedules, reasonably decent pay, and the ability to cobble together a livelihood based on holding several such positions (while still being able to hunt around for full-time employment).

For employers, it was the ability to build a workforce for which they didn’t have to cover things like office expenses and various employee benefits — not to mentioning paying for payroll taxes like the employer social security contribution.

In the past few years, the environment has changed dramatically. With national unemployment hovering around 3.5% — and lower still in many larger urban areas — “gig” companies have found it more difficult to find workers.

What’s more, those workers who are hired are churning through the companies more even more quickly than before — many staying with these jobs for just a few months.

Tis is driving up worker recruitment costs to their highest levels ever.

In a May 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Micah Rowland, COO of Fountain, a company that helps gig companies acquire new workers by streamlining the hiring process, puts it this way:

“It [strikes] me that in some of these markets, they’re processing thousands of job applicants every month — and these are not large cities.”

In Rowland’s view, gig companies in some markets may be burning through the entire available labor market of people willing to work in roles of this kind.

It isn’t as though turnover rates aren’t high in other service sectors in the more “traditional” economy. In the fast-food industry, for example, turnover is running as much as 150% annually these days. But in the case of gig employment markets, it’s even higher — sometimes dramatically so.

With the tight labor market showing little sign of loosening anytime soon, it may be that we see some firms looking at “regularizing” employment for at least some of their workers. If it makes economic sense to hire some actual employees in order to curb recruitment costs, some will likely go that route .

There’s another factor at work as well. More of these gig economy workers are becoming more vocal about pushing back on pay and working conditions. Noteworthy examples have been recent protests by rideshare company workers in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Others have done the envelope math and have determined that once driver-owned vehicle costs of gasoline and depreciation are calculated against declining fares that have dropped below $1 per mile in some markets like Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, workers’ effective wages are significantly less than even $10 per hour.

Picking up on these worker concerns, a number of activist groups are making gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber into a “cause célèbre” (not in a good way), but loud, polarizing detractors such as these tend to muddy the water rather than bring fresh new insights to the debate.

As well, one wonders if the activism is even needed; I suspect what we’re seeing now is a pendulum swing which happens so often in economics — where an equilibrium is re-established as things come back into balance after going a bit too far in one direction. In the case of the gig economy, the low unemployment rate in many regions of the country appears to be helping that along.

Predicting the top tech jobs, 20 years out …

What with the inexorable march of technology – which sometimes seems more like a relay race – it’s interesting to speculate on which occupations will be most in demand five years or ten years from now.

That seems pretty reasonable. But what about 20 years on?

Is it even possible to predict which jobs will be most in demand by then – particularly in the tech sphere? Or is that a fool’s errand, destined to elicit howls of laughter should anyone deign to look back at 2020 predictions when 2040 rolls around?

As it happens, the prognosticators at British multinational defense, security and aerospace company BAE Systems are willing to stick their necks out on the topic. They asked their own futurists to tell the what the top jobs in tech might be in 2040.

In broad terms, the answer is that future jobs will be in professions that bridge technology.  More significantly, it will be the technology that is the primary job generator, not the profession itself.

But it you really want to bottom-line it, anyone who focuses on artificial intelligence, virtual reality or robotics should be able to future-proof his or her career.  At least, that’s the unmistakable takeaway from the jobs that have been earmarked as the “hottest” ones looking ahead 20 years.

And … here they are:

AI Translator – People in these jobs will train other humans as well as their artificial intelligence assistants or robot counterparts, tailoring AI to meet workers’ needs and tune it to acknowledge and correct human errors.  Smart-aleck machinery – it’s just what the world’s been waiting for …

Recommended educational background: IT studies, cybersecurity, mechanical engineering

Automation Advisor – As companies become more reliant on automation and robotics, people in these jobs will make sure that the automated workforce is in line with regulations.  Compliance officers for machines – why not?

Recommended educational background: Physics, mechanical engineering, robots

VR Architect – As AI models are used to predict maintenance, people in these jobs will use virtual and augmented reality to monitor components and manage maintenance activities.  That’s OK – plant maintenance has always been a responsibility with a lot of downsides …

Recommended educational background: IT studies, graphic design

Human e-Sources Manager – Differing from today’s human resources managers, people in these jobs will analyze data collected from exoskeletons, smart textiles, wearables and the like to perform predictive and preventive maintenance on human workers.  Isn’t that nice; sensors will now send alerts to your manager when you’re overworked, overstressed, overweight or otherwise unwell — brilliant!

Recommended educational background: Biology, medicine, psychology

Systems Farmer – people in these jobs will help companies grow large multifunction parts with nanoscale features, which will sense, process, harvest energy and perform self-repairs.  It’s otherwise known as “chemputing” – and it’s likely as unappealing as it sounds.

Recommended educational background: Biology, chemical engineering, chemistry

AI Ethicist – As autonomous systems are assigned more responsibility, people in these positions will make sure AI devices and robots don’t show bias, and will make decisions that best serve the business.  I wonder how well that initiative will turn out?

Recommended educational background: Math, history, philosophy

Kidding or snark aside, it is worthwhile to “navel-gaze” along these lines and think of the “what if” scenarios that could very likely paint an employment picture unlike anything we’ve ever contemplated before.

And indeed, BAE Systems fielded research that found that nearly half of people between the ages of 16 and 24 who were surveyed think that they’ll end up having a career in a job that doesn’t even exist yet.

The only problem is – practically no one surveyed had any sort of clue what that future job will be — or how to prepare for it.

What do you think about which jobs will have the most job security in 2040? Does the list above ring true, or are there others that deserve a place on it as well?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Evidently, America isn’t in IKEA’s manufacturing future …

Going, going, gone …

Over the past several years, the political mantra has been that jobs are now coming back to the United States – particularly manufacturing ones.

That may well be. But this past week we’ve learned that IKEA plans to close its last remaining U.S. production facility.  The iconic home furnishings company has announced that it will be closing its manufacturing plant in Danville, Virginia by the end of the year.

The Danville plant makes wood-based furniture and furnishings for IKEA’s retail store outlets in the United States and Canada.

The reason for the plant closure, as it turns out, is a bit ironic. According to IKEA, high raw materials costs in North America are triggering the move, because those costs are actually significantly lower in Europe than they are here.  Even accounting for other input costs like labor that are higher in Europe, shifting production to Europe will keep product prices lower for U.S. retailers, IKEA claims.

So much for the notion that imports from Europe are overpriced compared to domestically produced ones!

The Danville plant isn’t even that old, either. Far from being some multi-story inefficient dinosaur left over from a half-century ago, the manufacturing facility opened only in 2008, making it only about a decade old.  At its peak the plant employed around 400 people.

IKEA made staff cuts or around 20% earlier in the year, before following up with this latest announcement that will wipe out 300 more jobs in a community that can scarcely withstand such large economic shocks.

With the closure of Danville, IKEA will still have more than 40 production plants operating around the world. It employs around 20,000 workers in those plants (out of a total workforce of ~160,000, most of which are employed in the company’s vast retail and distribution business activities).

So, it doesn’t appear that IKEA will be exiting the manufacturing sector anytime soon.  It’s just that … those manufacturing activities no longer include the United States.

As a certain well-known U.S. political leader might say, “Sad!”