Jon Roberts consults with local governments and economic developers throughout the country, and almost every time he goes the questions tend to lead to the same point — jobs and how to get more of them.
But Roberts, principal of Austin economic development firm TIP Strategies, has spent much of the past two years pondering and writing about what the term “job” really means in this day and age. The employer-employee relationship is transforming at a fundamental level, he said, and more workers will opt out of traditional jobs and move into what he and other economists have dubbed the Free Agent Economy.
American-Statesman: How would you say the idea of a “job” has changed from past to present? What’s fundamentally different today?
Roberts: It wasn’t that long ago that we took that (employer-employee) relationship for granted. We thought of it as long term and we thought of it as having varying degrees of obligation on each side. But that has undergone change from a number of different areas. Obviously, the dissolution of unions is one of those factors. The Affordable Care Act further distances one of the more recent perks associated with being employed (health insurance) that may or may not be necessary anymore. And then I think just the larger sense that, in the world of economic development … the offshoring of so many jobs has meant that the confidence in the employer as a paternalistic partner has all but disappeared. So when we think about a job now we don’t think of it in anywhere near the terms our parents did or even we did in the ’70s.
So how do you imagine our definition of “jobs” might change going forward?
It’s fun to speculate on that, and I think it matters hugely from a policy standpoint, and it matters very much across the political spectrum. If there’s one thing that unites Democrats and Republicans, it’s the belief that if we could only create enough jobs, then we would solve our economic problems. But that’s to some degree at odds with the way the private sector works and the way individuals choose to be gainfully employed. We won’t even use the word “employed” – the way individuals choose to get compensation, to create wealth for themselves.
On the corporate side, we’ve always known but never felt comfortable saying that businesses aren’t in the business of creating jobs. When you say businesses aren’t in the business of creating jobs, that sounds right. And it is right. But when you take it to the next step—Why would they want to create jobs? Why is it in their interest to create jobs?—then you begin to see the disconnect between what politicians are angling far and the way corporations have to operate to be competitive. Hiring is often a policy of last resort (for businesses)—when they are forced to, in effect. …
As we look forward, then, what forces are shaping that? Will there be any type of “job” as know it now, or is technology changing that permanently?
It’s not only technology per se. It’s not only because machines can do (certain tasks) — that’s not news; that’s been the case for the last hundred years. The business models are changing. … Take the recent story about Tesla. You can’t buy a Tesla per se in Texas because the distribution network is such that our state laws require dealerships. Well, Tesla sells direct, so they’re having to circumvent Texas law over what is, in effect, the protection of a middleman. But if I’m a traditional automotive company and I look at my existing dealer network and then I look at Tesla, I think to myself, “Well, state law notwithstanding, can I picture a time when I will sell my Ford F-150 direct?” And the answer is absolutely I’m picturing that. So the moment you picture that, you say to yourself, “These are jobs that will be lost not because of technology, but because of changed business models.”
Now, of course, technology stands behind that as well because you get information from the Internet … but that technology has already happened. Now, the business model will change. So we could do a quick look and see the employment numbers for all automotive dealerships in Texas, and it would be a fairly substantial number of people. It’s not a difficult case to make that every one of those jobs could be gone in 10 years.
Those are the ways in which we really have to think about the future of jobs. What does it mean for an individual to create value by the things that he or she does, but that is not as a result of working for an employer? That’s a very difficult mindset change that has to occur. But my point is it’s already happening, and it’s hitting us in a constant series of ways that are driven by both technology and business models.
So what does that mean for workers, particularly in a place like Austin?
You begin to think of (compensation) not in the context of what you do for an employer but what your individual skills are. … (Workers) will begin to rethink their work relationship, and that could play out in any number of ways. It could play out in corporations, where the traditional model is gone and it becomes something like a guild with de facto supplier networks of individuals. You’re seeing that in the software field already. … It’s just like when we first see some new technology enter, it evolves and we’re not exactly sure what form it will take but we can see the outlines of it. I think we can see the outlines of corporations acting differently, both in their response to the technology and in their response to the individuals who will contribute to the success of the corporation. I’m not suggesting corporations will go away. I’m saying the dynamic between the corporation and the “worker” is going to undergo a radical change.
What does that mean for policy makers and businesses, particularly when it comes to questions of equity and sustainability?
The first thing that can happen right away is the metrics for economic success need to become more nuanced. That we can do straightaway. … So we say, what is the value of a corporation? Can we measure it by more things than jobs? And the answer is absolutely yes, and we know that, but we don’t let it play out. … Google Fiber would be a classic case of a company doing something in Austin that we’re very happy for, but we’re not concerned with how many jobs it will bring. That’s completely secondary to the fact that we’ll get decent high-speed access in this town. Those are the kinds of things we can do immediately. We can say, “Let’s think about the contribution of corporations, and technology in particular, as something that doesn’t have to be tied and, in fact, shouldn’t be tied to the number of jobs created.”
It’s easy to think of this for high-skill workers, but it’s harder to think about what this means for someone with no post-secondary education…
The ramifications for education, social services and all that, they’re really profound. This is not some little sidebar discussion. If we think about our education system and counselors and what it means to prepare (students) for a job, they’re still in the old mindset. They’re still out there thinking, “If employers are saying they want welders, then we have to produce welders.” But they’re only saying they need welders right now. By time we’ve trained them, (employers) may not need them. If our social services, education, counselors and even our criminal justice (system) were to begin to rethink this, we would ask: “What’s the value proposition of an individual in terms of how they can be compensated? Whose obligation is it to compensate them?” … We can’t get from this side to the other side under the old model. The idea of corporations creating jobs is not going to solve our long-term needs.
About this series: Statesman Sunday Interview
There are many interesting and insightful people in the Central Texas business community. On Sundays, the American-Statesman business team brings you in-depth interviews with some of them, focusing on topics that matter to our community. To nominate someone for the Statesman Sunday Interview, email Statesman business editor Barry Harrell at email@example.com.