Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Job Market the Internet has Made

Last night there seemed to be a fair amount of coverage from a single American city where an unanticipated mob of people showed up just to get job applications (and why such a singular story seems to be eluding most search cues this morning strikes me as a mystery). Under current conditions the idea of an unmanageable number of people showing up simply to submit applications for a proportionately small number of openings has become an icon for the Main Street side of the current economic crisis. That this icon is now occupying more time on televisions screens may be news in itself; but this morning there was an element of irony in the BBC News choosing to run a story filed from Silicon Valley by Technology Reporter Maggie Shiels. The news itself concerned poll results just analyzed by the Pew Internet Project:

A majority of Americans believe the government's plan to deliver a high speed internet connection to every citizen by 2020 is either not important or should not be embarked upon.

I raise this item because there is at least one way in which this potential sign of rejection of the Internet by the American public is related to the unemployment crisis. This has to do with the extent to which every individual job application has become the proverbial "drop in the bucket," struggling to compete with other applications, all of roughly equivalent merit and all targeted at a very small number of slots (perhaps only one) to be filled.

San Francisco is probably not a representative city, but it may provide at least one clue to this sort of discontent. Walk by the entrance of the Employment Development Department (which happens to be across the street from where I live). You do not even have to walk through the doors to see large numbers of people all seated in front of computer terminals scanning the online job boards. Consider the problems that these people face. The highly inadequate search tools make finding a job a frustrating and time-consuming process in itself; and that is even before one worries about how one can possibly be noticed when so many applications will pour in once that job has been found. Do not expect to see any government officials on hand to provide guidance. Basically, the few that are there are around to point you to a free terminal; and presumably the rest have been laid off because of budget cutbacks. If you have any questions, you can use the telephone beside the terminal, where you can spend the usual inordinate duration of time waiting to be connected to a human being who is unlikely to offer very much assistance.

Shiels was correct in reporting that cool attitudes towards better broadband connectivity reflect a public that has other priorities. She let slide the possibility that the way the Internet has changed the very process of trying to get a job may be part of the problem. The Internet has fashioned technology to enable "transactions" with large numbers of people; but that technology impedes (and often just prevents) interactions with individuals. As the technology became more and more prevalent, it made every one of us just another brick in Pink Floyd's wall; and, now that the wall is crumbling (if not entirely fallen), we are all in the same pile of broken bricks.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama may share Shiels' myopia. Consider the text of his address given yesterday when he signed the Manufacturing Enhancement Act. More specifically, consider the following sentence:

I believe that if an American company wants to innovate, grow, and create jobs right here in the United States, we should give them the support they need to do it.

What Obama may have overlooked is that "growth" is a word that is of value to shareholders (the key sector of the "economic elite" that populate institutions such as the World Economic Forum) and that "innovation" is the Kool-Aid that those shareholders drink in their quest for the fountain of eternal growth. Ours has become a country littered with empty factories and shops, blighted real estate decaying because it cannot be occupied by all those people who want nothing more than to get back to work. While there are clearly assets within the provisions of the Manufacturing Enhancement Act, it remains to be seen whether the benefits from those assets will extend beyond the Wall Street shareholders to those on Main Street who want little more than to get back to work again.

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