Will technology make us a nation of unemployed?

Remember, not so long ago, when people used to talk about the turnaround in the IT job market that would arrive in the first quarter of 2003? Some of those people are still talking about a first-quarter turnaround, but now they mean the first quarter of 2004.

There are many predictions circulating about when the IT job market will rebound and the shape that the industry will take once it emerges from its deep sleep. Although it’s impossible to know what to expect in the future, most are now in agreement that the industry won’t be returning to boom times anytime soon.

In mid-2003, the American Electronics Association released its annual assessment of the high-tech job market, and the news was not good: The technology segment dumped 560,000 high-tech workers in the past two years.

Most of those workers, analysts agree, were dumped for one of two reasons: Their employers could afford to dump them, or their employers could not afford not to dump them.

William T. Archey, president and CEO of the group that sponsored the study, regards the two reasons as two views of the same situation. Archey points out that the lion’s share of jobs lost (415,000 of the 560,000) came from the high-tech manufacturing sector, where businesses have enjoyed the benefits of new technology. One of those benefits, he reminds us, is a reduction in the number of workers needed to meet production demands.

“That’s one of the paradoxes of this whole situation,” says Archey. “Technology has made the manufacturing dramatically more productive. Five years ago it may have taken three people to make a cell phone, and now it takes one.” It’s a paradox that presents a problem, and it’s a problem that appears to have no solution, Archey says.

Is the president of the American Electronics Association right? Will technological progress continue to reduce the need for technology workers? Or can the technology industry save itself from its own success? Got a solution? Tell us what it is.

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