Where do we go from here?

In an earlier blog, I made the case for 21st century technical professionals to acquire a set of Transformational Skills along with their academic and industry skills. Together, these three skill sets are the ticket to the new ball game – successful 21st century careers. To understand why, you must understand the Binary Economy:
• Economy 1: The few professionals, who create and implement new solutions better than anyone else across the globe, are richly rewarded (and hence can afford the highest standard of living anywhere in the world). These top professionals are engaged in improving sector productivity using advanced technology based on Physical Sciences as well as Digital Tools/applications. Sometimes they also create new sectors that may provide jobs for relatively small number of top professionals (locally) or create larger number of low-skilled jobs elsewhere (globally).Many of the jobs that cannot be readily filled today in the US, at all levels belong to this Economy 1.
• Economy 2: The large majorities of educated professionals as well as the workers without higher education feel the brunt of the constant and un-ending effort to de-skill and routinize most jobs. These are in turn automated fully or in part. Continuous improvement, standardization and relentless use of IT applications are very useful here. Such jobs are then de-localized and replaced with low skilled workers from low cost regions across the globe. More complex jobs, once standardized are also automated. The automation itself is no longer hard or inflexible and hence limited to a few situations. Instead we now have a range of solutions from flexible automation to programmable automation useful for a wide variety of needs. Technical professionals engaged merely for assigned tasks related to the above efforts find constant downward slide in their wages and rewards (tending towards the lowest sustainable wages across the globe).
It appears these two economies are driving the jobs and wages in the opposite directions. They are discrete or binary. They are no longer parts of a continuum. There are far fewer jobs needed for the growth in Economy 1. But these few are also the more value added and higher reward jobs for the technical professionals. Those who aspire to work in Economy 1 have to be extremely selective and targeted . The output has to be focused on end to end innovations (i.e.) carried out from discovery to final implementation and use. Transformational Skills are the distinguishing hall marks of these few stars. Large number of jobs that require execution of tasks focused merely on cost reduction and continuous or incremental improvements belong to Economy 2. These efforts are adequate to replicate the solutions already on hand and globalize them.
To expand opportunities in Economy 1, society must shift gears. There is an urgent need for the society as a whole to drive the growth in Economy 1. None of the big ideas –technical, engineering and scientific solutions – which enabled the US to become the advanced nation would have progressed if market driven economics were the sole criteria at the starting gate. A good example is the suggestion to “create a colony on the moon”. Today, anyone coming up with such “big ideas” will most likely be fired, experiencing the scalpel of executives in Economy 2. Growth in Economy 1 is needed to mitigate the adverse effects today of the growth of Economy 2, and the slipping away of the middle-class. Advancements in Economy 1 today are also the growth engines for the tomorrow’s Economy 2 !
The nation aspiring to be the leader in the 20th century also found the national consensus and resources to put the man on the moon, develop internet, build interstate highways, dams and bridges or advances in medical research. Such initiatives also employed the STEM professionals in droves. Of course the 21st century binary economy does not give the same degree of freedom and latitude for unlimited funding. What is needed is a better balancing of the two modes for innovation, between the needs of the society to be at the cutting edge (and thus create Economy 1 jobs for larger number and higher levels of STEM professionals) and the need to be economically sound and fiscally prudent. This balancing act is the shared responsibility of the national policy makers as well as the STEM professionals. The recently announced US Big Data initiative, the efforts by NSF to promote Engineering Research Centers, the X-Prize for innovation, “all of the above” strategies for energy resources, etc. are encouraging signs in the right direction.
On the education front, in addition to teaching STEM disciplines and training on today’s industry sectors/systems, we need more emphasis on Transformational Skills. Embracing societal change is hard – but more emphasis on Transformational Skills can help. Finally, there is also an individual responsibility for all STEM professionals. In order to gain the most out of their jobs and to align with the limited few Economy 1 opportunities, these professionals need to seek out and acquire structured education and knowledge on the Transformational Skills outlined in our earlier blog***
*** Education for “sustainable jobs and careers” –Why? What? How? by Dr. K Subramanian http://service-science.info/archives/1721

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