THE OFFICE WORKERS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Viet-Dung Hoang, Ph.D.
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 office workers of the 21st century. With the merging of computer and telecommunication, and increasing power and decreasing cost of processors and data storage, the office workers can be expected to have workstations that are sophisticated: production of publication-quality 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 office workers in the year 2000 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.
Not long ago, I worked for GTE Spacenet Corporation 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. Needless to say, I was caught unprepared for the PC revolution. In less than three years, the 21st century will be upon us. Will I be ready for it?
One thing that clearly stands out during the past 15 years is that more and more people are using computers in their every day life but less and less people know how these machines work. The computers are getting so user friendly, because sophisticated tools were being developed: accounting and tax packages, office automation, word processors, spreadsheets, and graphing and charting, that there is very little incentive to know how these machines function. Just a decade ago most of these skills would have been demanded only of college-educated workers.
These trends will continue. According to a recent survey, an incredible 92% of active-duty military personnel in the United States use some type of computer in the office. About 76% use PCs, some 46% use LANs, almost 39% use computer workstations, about 17% use mini-computers, and 19% 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, music, games, films, news and information of every kind imaginable from outside sources.
This is my initial vision of the office workers and their work environment in the next 15 years.
THE WORKER’S PROFILE
The rate of U.S. population growth will be well below the average of the last two decades. Projections of the population range from 256 millions to 281 millions by the year 2000 . The labor force will grow at a lower rate than at any time since the 1930s. More than 90% of service firms anticipate workforce shortages in the 1990s, as do 80% of manufacturers. Slow population and workforce growths will slow the demand for goods and services. This may reduce the incentive for companies to deploy new technology. Among the problems raised by those analyzing labor force data for the 1990s are possible shortages of entry-level workers and a mismatch between the educational attainment of workers and qualifications needed for employment. The most rapid occupational growth is projected for jobs that require post-secondary training.
There will be fewer young workers entering the workforce. The greatest increase in the labor force between 1990 and 2005 is expected to be in the 35-54 years age group [Figure 1]. Over half of all workers will be in this group. Older workforce, while more experienced, may have problem adapting to a rapidly changing economy and to new office technology; they are more resistant to changes and less willing to be retrained. This will hamper the ability of companies to grow rapidly or to respond to change. Older and higher-paid workforce, and generally more costly (e.g., requiring more medical services), will render many companies uncompetitive [2, 3]. Due mostly to the baby-boomers, the average age of the U.S. workforce is expected to rise dramatically over the next 15 years and will be 39 by the year 2000. The federal worker will be 5 years older.
Another substantial change in the composition of the U.S. workforce is the higher percentage of women and minorities. A continued increase in the number of working mothers and women of childbearing age is projected for the next 15 years. Surveys have shown that these women prefer part-time work, job sharing, and work-at-
Figure 1. The Aging of the U.S. Workforce
Figure 2. The Make-Up of the U.S. Labor Workforce
home programs. About two-thirds of the new workers will be women. By the year 2000, 48% of the workforce will be women, and 61% of all women will be at work [4, 6].
Thirteen percent of the workforce and 26% of the new workers will be minorities. The immigrants will represent the largest share of the increase in the population and workforce in the U.S. [2, Figure 2]. Interesting enough, 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.
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 post-secondary education. The trend is moving toward increasing of white collar professional and administrative and declining of blue collar "low skill" jobs. This reflects in the increase of hiring of older workers [Figure 3]. Thirty-nine percent of the new hires are over 30 years old.
Blue collar jobs (clerical, trades) decreased from 44% of the job market in 1982 to 34% in 1992. The demographic trends will lead to both higher and lower unemployment: more joblessness among the least-skilled but more jobs among the most educationally advantaged. Only 27% of all new jobs will fall into low skill category, compared to 40% of the jobs today. The job mix is moving toward the white-collar professional, administrative and technical as well [2, 3]. The majority of the new jobs will require some post-secondary education. Seventy-six percent of new jobs require some college education and 46% require a college degree.
The number of layers of management will be likely to decrease: some flattening of the 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
Figure 3. The Aging of the New Hires (1991)
staff unnecessary. Management's job will be to communicate company's goal and vision to the work group. Successful future managers will be people-oriented, skillful at motivating others, able to focus on relationships among staff and function comfortably in a variety of staff networks. Employees are expected to be self-controlling, with minimum supervision [5, 7].
Many firms are considering a "two-tier approach" for managing the workforce of the future. The first tier of employees will be multi-skilled with limited assurance of job security. The second tier of employees, mostly professional and technical workers, will be employed by the firms on a limited basis with no expectations of continued employment.
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, although some direct supervision of workers will still be required: face to face meetings one or twice per week for status reporting and other needs.
One thing is quite clear, the middle class is shrinking. The powerful economic forces are dividing the U.S. into two separate nations - one inhabited by prosperous, optimistic ‘winners’ and the other by struggling and increasingly embittered ‘losers’. The income gap between the "professional" and "low-skilled" or unskilled workers is widening. Economists are still struggling to understand the forces pushing apart the rich and the poor. Most experts, though, cite a combination of changes, including: dramatic improvements in computer, transportation technologies, and telecommunications. The economy has showered its favors disproportionately on workers with more education and experience. The family income of a typical American with a college diploma increased 28% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1974 to 1994, while incomes of high school graduates increased just 3%. And for those without a high school diploma shrank by more than 10% .
THE OFFICE 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 (flexiplace) or on the road in the same manner. The need for travel will go down as well. With multimedia desktop, and distributed computing environment, there is little need to travel. Relocation of office workers will diminish considerably as well. The ultimate goal is to provide the workers with offices wherever they are .
Part-time, flexible, and stay-at-home jobs will increase. Currently 53% of federal workers are on flexible or compressed work schedules; another 33%, currently under fixed schedule, want to be on flexible or compressed work schedule. Only 13% are satisfied with a fixed work schedule [2, 7, Figure 4] . Furthermore, according to recent survey, only 13% 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. This trend in work schedules is likely to result in added telecommunications requirements. Since workers will no longer be working the same schedules, face-to-face meetings must be supplemented by E-mail, voice mail, and other telecommunications technologies. Also access to and contact with workers away from work will required and will necessitate at-home or portable (wireless) equipment.
Figure 4. Federal Workers’ Work Schedule
Figure 5. Barriers to Flexiplace
Approximately 20% of the U.S. workforce are currently telecommuting, and this number grows at the rate of 12% per year. At this trend some 40% of the office workers will be telecommuting by the year 2000. However, telecommuting and other alternate work schedules will not happen unless required by government or corporate policies [Figure 5].
Certainly, the wireless technology needed for telecommuting will be there. Personal Communications Services (PCS), cellular and satellite will allow workers and supervisors to access enterprise wide information at any time in virtually any place. Hand-held Personal Communication Terminal 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 office workers to access many information systems (national or international) as easily on the road as in their office. With the emergence of the LEO (Low-Earth-Orbit) satellite systems, like the proposed 66-satellite IRIDIUM system, or the 840-satellite Ka-band Teledesic system proposed by Gates and McCaw, the whole world (oceans and all) will be but one big office .
CONSTRAINT AND UNCERTAINTY
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 highly 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.
Due to the older average age of the workers (42.5 years old in 1991), and older new hires (39% of new hires in 1991 are over 30 years old [Figure 3]), the federal workforce of the future will require more work-based adult training than traditional education. Eighty percent of new entrants into the workforce will be women, minorities, and immigrants. These traditionnaly less skilled and underutilized groups will require more training . Widespread and extensive training will be required with more automated and friendlier technology tools.
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 expectations, even such basics as attendance and punctuality .
The lion's share of most states' budgets goes to traditional education institutions for the young (Kindergarten to 12th grade); less than 5 percent is spent on adult education or direct workforce preparation. Yet by the year 2000 the age group of workers under 34 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 38% 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 and the federal deficit. There are signs of recovery, but the economy may yet stay flat for the 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.
The speed of telecommunications technology evolution is driven by the acceptance of this technology by the user community, the office workers of the 21st century.
Blue collar jobs will continue to decrease. The new job mix is moving toward the white-collar professional, administrative and technical. Yet fewer young workers will enter the workforce. The greatest increase in the labor force is expected to be in the 35-54 age group. Furthermore, the highest percentage of the new workers will be women and minorities. Eighty percent of new entrants into the workforce will be women, minorities, and immigrants. These traditionnaly less skilled and underutilized groups will require extensive training.
However, this initial vision of the workforce and of the work environment in the next 15 years will become a reality, because technologies supporting it is already here.
 Survey Finds Widespread Use of Office Computers, An Advertising Supplement to Army ARIAL, Navy ARIAL and Air Force ARIAL, 29 March 1993
 Workforce 2000 - Work and Workers for the 21st Century, William B. Johnston, Hudson Institute, June 1987
 The Bottom Line: Basic Skills in the Workplace, A Joint Publication by U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Education, 1988
 Economic Change and The American Workforce, Research and Evaluation Report Series 92-B, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Adiministration, Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Development, 1992
 Workplace 2000, Joseph H. Boyett and Henry P. Conn, Dutton Book, 1991
 The Changing Workforce - Demographic Issues Facing the Federal Government, Report to Congressional Committees, General Accounting Office (GAO/GGD-92-38), March 1992
 Office 2000, Leonard B. Kruk, The Knoll Group, 1993
 Reality Check Series: A Nation that Badmouths its Good ARIAL, Prosperity’s Imbalance Divides U.S., and The Great Divide: Economists vs. Public, The Washington Post, 13-15 October 1996
 Overview of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite Developments, White B.E. and Hulkower N.D., 1993 Annual Assembly Meeting of the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services, 4 May 1993
Dr. Hoang Viet-Dung received his BSEE (1972) from the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York; his MSEE (1973) and Ph.D. in EE (1979) from the University of Maryland, College Park, and Maryland. He is a Senior Staff Engineer with the SETA Corporation. He provides support to the US Coast Guard in their acquisition of the Ports and Waterways Safety System, and to the Veteran Affairs in their acquisition of the Integrated Data Communication Utility.
Previously, he was with the MITRE/Mitretek Systems Corporation, the GTE Spacenet Corporation, the COMSAT Laboratories, the Computer Sciences Corporation, and the General Electric Company .He was an adjunct instructor/lecturer with the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland from 1972 to 1983. He taught courses in microprocessors, computer engineering and computer programming languages. He also taught computer engineering at the George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia in 1984.
He was one of the founders and currently is the Past-President of the Vietnamese Association for Computing, Engineering Technology and Science (VACETS). He is the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Youth Education Association in the Washington DC Metropolitan Area.