The Unemployed... and Unemployable

Normally, the term "unemployed" means that you are between jobs, that (by choice or by circumstance or occasionally by fiat) you have completed your work at one employer and are ready to move on to another employer. I've been unemployed. Most of us have, at one point or another. No big deal.

Increasingly, however, I am running into people who are a different sort of unemployed: people who are NOT ready to move on to another employer, because they have been unwilling, for at least two decades, to ever learn a new job skill. No wonder they are unemployed!

Let me be a little more specific. I'm not talking about people who for some reason have missed some particular new technology and are otherwise generally able to function in society. "Oh, man, I haven't learned ZYML yet, and I'd kind of like to apply for this job, but it requires ZYML. What can I do?"

No, those people can either find another job, or pick up the new skill, or both. They're not the ones I'm talking about.

I'm talking about people who are unwilling to function in the twenty-first century at all.

They want to apply for white-collar jobs, but they don't have, and don't want, an email address. The job application requires an email address, of course (duh), so they ask, "Can I use yours?" Umm, no. *I* already have a job. The prospective employer wants to contact the prospective employee, which would be you. Are you going to give them my name and phone number as well? What do you use your head for, just holding down your shoulders? You're going to need an email account. There are a number of websites that offer them for free. I'd be happy to recommend one. But you're going to have to actually start checking your mail, if you want to, you know, hear from anyone who might be trying to contact you, such as a prospective employer.

It's not just about email. It's much more general than that. They want me to "help them" fill out online job applications (where "help" is often vanishingly close to "please just do it for me"), because they've never used a computer before, and now their job has evaporated. Of course it has evaporated. Any white-collar job that does not require using a computer was destined to evaporate sooner or later. Frankly most blue-collar jobs that don't require using a computer have evaporated at this point. Is this a surprise to anyone? Anyone? Anyone with a brain, I mean? Come on.

But they don't want to see it that way. They want me to basically fill out the online job applications for them, so they can avoid ever using a computer. Learn? What does that mean? You don't think your new employer will notice that you can't or won't learn to do anything you've not done before? I picked up on it in thirty seconds flat, so I'm guessing the employer will probably notice sooner or later.

Has it occurred to these people that if the job application is online, the job itself probably requires using a computer? If the employer assumes that prospective employees will be able to fill out an online application, it probably means their employees use computers as a matter of course. (After all, who doesn't? Neanderthals?) Similarly, if they insist on an email address from all applicants so they can contact prospective employees by email, it's probably a sign they use email within the organization. Duh. Not only does your prospective employer use email within the organization, they probably takes it for granted. You might have some difficulty functioning on the job if you don't know how to do these things. You'll probably have to (shock, horror) learn.

Can you even think of a job, in the developed world, that doesn't require using computers or electronics in some way or at some point? What kind of employment do these people think they want, migrant berry picking? Even the old saw "would you like fries with that" may be out at this point, since most cash registers are computerized these days.

I wouldn't be surprised if even janitors use computers for something or another. Why not? It's the easiest way to do some kinds of things. I mean, you probably don't need a computer to sweep the floor, but I bet it might be the easiest way to order replacement light bulbs, and it might be pretty handy for tracking how many of them you use, too...

The thing is, this is not some new sudden revelation. We've known since the eighties, maybe even since the seventies, that more and more of society was running on computers and that learning to operate them was going to become an increasingly necessary life skill. That was *decades* ago, PLENTY of time for even the slowest learners to pick up at least the basics. I can see putting it off until the nineties (because, until then, even used computers could be fairly expensive to obtain), but now?

Now, granted, the Amish (well, the conservative ones) don't use computers. But the Amish nonetheless manage to maintain useful skills and contribute things that have value to society. Granted, their job options are limited, but how many of them are unemployed? No, the Amish are industrious. They find *useful* things to do with their time, things for which people are willing to pay money.

That brings up an important point: there ARE non-computer jobs out there. But they're hard work. You want to do a job that doesn't involve computers these days, you're going to break a sweat. There's no magical fairy-tale job where you can sit at a desk in the air conditioning all day and talk on the phone and NOT use computers and somehow get paid for it. No, if you want a job where you don't have to use computers, you're going to have to bail hay or pour concrete or something. Are you willing to do that? Would you rather work that hard than ever learn anything new? Because that's what it's gonna take.

Society does not owe you a job unless you are willing to cough up something society can use. That's what a job is, when it comes down to brass tacks: something you do that seems useful to the rest of society and provides enough value to motivate others to do stuff for you in return. In a modern economy, that means something people are willing to pay money for.

But the people I'm talking about are chronically unemployed because they apparently either don't know how to do or aren't willing to do anything that society as a whole values enough to add up to a steady paycheck.

So they are unemployable. I don't mean just "unemployable by a few bleeding-edge employers who insist on embracing all the new technology as soon as it's available". We're at least a quarter of a century past that point. A quarter of a century, by the way, is generally at least half of one person's career, often more. What kind of worker spends half his career not learning any new job skills? A worker no competent boss wants working under him.

Employers willing to even look at applications from these people are dropping like flies, and for good reasons. Quite aside from the fact that a computer-free work environment is a good deal less efficient and means paying for significantly more labor per unit of work accomplished, there's also this other small matter: how on earth can a business compete against its competitors if its employees are unwilling to ever learn anything? How could you hope to deal with *any* change in circumstance, if that's the mindset of your workforce?

Today it's the internet. In another decade or two it'll be something else. The point is, you have to be willing to learn new job skills if you want to stay employable. Any employer who claims to offer you job security without requiring you to learn new skills is either lying through their teeth or doomed eventually to go out of business and take your supposedly secure job along with them.


Andy said...

Feel better now? :-)

I had much the same problem when I worked at the library computer lab. I helped the ones that genuinely needed help.

The ones that got my goat were the kids. There was one who summed it up for me:

Kid: I'm bored.
Me: And is it my job to entertain you?
Kid: Yes.
Me: No, it's not.

It devolved from there.

Jonadab said...

The ones who really drive me crazy, on a personal level, are the middle-aged people who want me to solve their domestic relationship issues.

I can usually manage to put up with bored kids. They're more firmly grounded in reality, as a rule.

But the "I want a job but I don't want to work for it" crowd bother me for a different reason: they make me worry about the future of our economy. How can we whip our GDP into shape when so many of us don't seem inclined to do anything productive?

What troubles me is that we're not talking about a small handful of people here. I encounter somebody in this general category just about every day. It's little wonder our unemployment figures in this area are topping fifteen percent. I have no confidence that they're going to recede any time soon, even if the national economy recovers.

Mark said...

As a janitor, I can shed a little light on that one paragraph: no, we don't use any computers (at this point) to do anything in the actual janitorial position. I bet the office workers who process the requests for supplies do, though, but they're not janitors. :)