Initial Vision of the 21st Century Workers and Workplace

Viet-Dung Hoang

Allow me to offer you a vision of the future. Not too long ago, I worked for GTE Spacenet in its satellite division. So involved I was with the VSAT technology and its "marvelous" slotted Aloha protocol, that the PC 286 generation came and went without me. I just barely got to know the 386, when preparation to welcome the pentium generation started. I was unprepared for the revolution to put it mildly. I will not miss the next one!

1 Introduction

Telecommunications technology will continue to evolve. The speed of this evolution, however, is driven by the acceptance of this technology by the user community, the workers of the 21st century. With the merging of computers and telecommunications, and increasing power and decreasing cost of processors and data storage, the workers of the 21st century can be expected to have workstations that are sophisticated and flexible to handle a wide variety of tasks: production of publication-quality paper documents with color graphics, access to major libraries across the country and the world, teleconferencing via two-way video, and management of complex systems. Facing with this challenge, the workers of the 21st century are required to have higher skills and more of them, and well verse in the use of computers to effectively solve technical or management problems under minimum supervision.

One thing that clearly stands out during the past 15 years is that more and more people are using computers in their every day operations but less and less people know how these machines works. The computers are getting so user friendly, because sophisticated tools were being developed: accounting and tax packages, specialized office packages, word processors, spreadsheets, and graphing and charting packages, that there is very little need to know how these machines function. Not long ago most of these skills would have been demanded only of college-educated workers.

These trends will continue. According to a recent survey by the Army Times Publishing Co., an incredible 92 percent of active-duty military personnel in the United States use some type of computer in the office. About 76 percent use PCs. Fourty-six percent use LANs, almost 39 percent use computer workstations, about 17 percent use mini-computers, and 19 percent use mainframe computers.

In the 1990s consumers will be able to access many information without getting out of their easy chairs, according to Microsoft Chairman and CEO William Gates III. It will be a digital world with machines capable of reducing text, data, music and visual images to electronic bits, to be stored on computer disks. Mail can be delivered by computer, and meeting with co-workers can be a screen-click away. Users will have access through their computer terminal to television, videocassette recorders, games, home controls, films, news and information of every kind imaginable from outside sources, and music from tapes and compact disks .

2 Worker's Environment

Office environment will expand beyond the building boundary. Workers belonging to the same working group may be in different states, many hundred, and even thousand miles away. Telecommuting will be the standard. The workers can work in their office or at home or on the road in the same manner. The need for travel will go down. With multimedia desktop, and distributed computing environment, there is no need for travel as much. Relocation of workers will diminish considerably. There is no reason for this anymore since most of work will be done via telecommunication, with very little direct supervision.

Currently 53% of federal workers are on flexible or compressed work schedules; another 33% want to be on them. Approximately 20% of the U.S. workforce are telecommuting, and this number grows at the rate of 12% per year. At this trend some 40% of the workers will be telecommuting by the year 2000.

Wireless technology such as PCS, cellular and satellite will allow workers and supervisors to access enterprise wide information at any time in virtually any place. Customer Communication Terminal/Basic Personal Terminal (hand held) with micro-antenna (perhaps as small as 3.5" in diameter), currently being developed, will be as common as the car phone and will allow workers to access many information systems (national or international) as easily on the road as in their office.

The workers' distributing computing environment will expand considerably: they can interface to technology resources such as networks, switching equipment, main frames, servers, databases, printers & facsimile machines; with co-workers', vendors', or clients' workstations; to video conferences for meetings, seminars, and lectures; to services such as e-mail, telephone (voice- mail, call-back, call queuing, call forwarding), information databases, and file sharing.

3 Worker's Profile

The rate of U.S. population growth will be well below the average of the last two decades. The labor force will grow at a lower rate than at any time since the 1930s. In a recent survey, over 80% of firms anticipate workforce shortages of entry-level workers.

Mostly due to the baby-boom generation: the average age of the U.S. workforce will be 39 by the year 2000, and the federal worker will be 5 years older. The greatest increases in the labor force between 1990 and 2005 are expected to be in the 55-and-older age group. Two-thirds of the new workers will be women. Sixty one percent of all women will be at work by the year 2000. By the year 2000, 15% of the workforce and 29% of the new workers will be minorities. The immigrants of the 1970s were both less educated (25% had less than 5 years of school) and more educated (22% were college graduates) than the native-born population.

Slow population and workforce growths will slow the demand for goods and services. This may reduce the incentive to deploy new technology. Older workforce will be less willing to be retrained to use new technology in old or new job. Part-time, flexible, and stay-at-home jobs will increase. Only 13 percent of working women with children want to work full-time, regular hours. Sixty percent of the working mothers want part-time, flexible hours, or stay-at- home jobs, and 16 percent prefer not to work at all. Widespread and extensive training will be required with more automated and friendlier technology tools.

Supervisors are required to be highly educated with the ability to use computer effectively for management of project/problem resolution. More and more they will be confronted with tasks like budgeting and fiscal planning. They will have less direct supervision of the workers, and their supervising responsibilities will be mostly administrative and less technical management. Some direct supervision of workers will still be required: face to face meetings one or twice per week for status reporting and other needs.

The number of layers of management will be likely to decrease - the flattening of organization structure. Upper management wants the ability not only to review company-wide performance, but to tap directly into performance at the lowest level, making the middle level managers and their supporting staffs unnecessary. Many firms are considering a "two-tier approach" for managing the workforce of the future. The first tier of employees will be muti-skilled with limited assurance of job security. The second tier of employees, mostly professional and technical workers, will be employed by the firms on alimited basis with no expectations of continued employment.

Workers are required to be highly skills, especially in the technical areas, with the ability to use computer effectively for technical problem solving. They must be comfortable with computer-numerically-controlled equipment. Clerical and support personnel must be able to use complex word-processing and spreadsheet functions, even though very few of them will have college education. However, the majority of new jobs will require some postsecondary education. Only 27 percent of all new jobs will fall into low skill category, compared to 40 percent of jobs today.The majority of the new jobs will require some post- secondary education. 52% of new jobs will require some college education and 30 percent of new jobs will require a college degree. Only 27% of the new jobs will fall into the "low skill" category.

The workforce is starting to separate into two distinct groups: those making a good living and those struggling to survive. The middle-level jobs slowly disappear. The income gap between "professional" and "low-skilled" or unskilled workers is growing. The middle-level jobs will likely disappear. There will be a sharp distinction between "professional" and "low-skilled" workers.

4 Constraints and Uncertainties

This vision is based solely on the availability of the technology and on the industry trends. The goal of any new technology development is to increase the workers' productivity: either to allow the workers to work faster via friendlier user interface tools, or to relieve the workers of trivial and manual tasks via automation. However, a certain amount of education and training is required to bring the workers into this higher skill environment designed for people who are technically competent. The workers will need to be either trained to use the new tools in their old job, or educated to handle a different job altogether.

What if the education and training systems fail or there is no available funds for the training of these displaced workers for their new jobs? Not every worker is trainable. Companies have reported widespread deficiencies in the basic skills of recent high-school graduates. Some have noted that many workers have difficulty understanding the work environment and its expecteations, even such basics as attendance and punctuality .

The lion's share of most states' budgets goes to traditional education institutions for the young (K-12 and higher education), less than 5 percent is spent on adult education or direct workforce preparation. Yet by the year 2000 most worker's age group under 34 years will decline, and every age group over 35 will increase. The fastest growing group is among workers who are between 45 and 55 years old, which will increase by 60 percent by the year 2000. The number of young workers will decline both relatively and absolutely, with workers aged 16-34 accounting for half the workforce in 1985 but declining to less than percent by year 2000. Clearly the old rule of investing in traditional education of the youth does not serve well with the new reality - the increased need to raise the skill levels of the working adults.

There are other uncertainties: a stale economy that results into fiscal constraints to the Federal Government and most private companies. There are signs of recovery, but the economy may yet stay flat for next five years. The resulting fiscal constraints will play a major role in the development and deployment of new technologies. The worker's environment depends to a great extent the development and deployment of wireless technology as well as of the multi-media workstations. If the economy stays stale the next few years, the development and deployment of these technologies will further delay this forecast.

Another big uncertainty facing us will be the federal deficit. What if it goes so high, it goes beyond repair? This deficit will dictate the availability of money industry will budget for technology development. If the deficit problem is not resolved soon, a delay of 5 or 6 years is a certainty, and a delay of 10 or more years is not out of the picture. However, the vision of the work environment and the workforce of the 21st century will happen, because technologies supporting it will be there.