A select audience of industry practitioners and university researchers recently gathered in Kansas City, Mo., to grapple with a mind-boggling quandry: how to define the next industrial era of the global economy. As this prestigious assembly of thought leaders debated the details of the future of the economy, industry and labor, Brad DeLong, former economic adviser in the Clinton administration, summed it up, declaring, “The next industrial era will be about doing more things—rather than doing things more cheaply.”
DeLong described the current industrial era as the most recent of four since the 18th century. The first industrial era—from 1730 to 1840—was spurred by the need to replace firewood with coal for heating fuel in Britain because of concerns over deforestation. The steam engine—the symbol most highly associated with that era—was invented to power the pumps needed to remove the ground water that constantly interfered with coal mining. The second industrial era overlapped the first, running from 1790 to 1890, and was characterized by the formation of new industry based on new technologies. The ensuing build-out created the leading industrialized economies that continue to rank on top to this day.
With the next phase of industrial revolution (1860–1950) came the automation and economy-of-scale phenomena that gave the world mass production as a new paradigm. Finally, the industrial era of 1950 to the present has produced a “broad front build-out” of distribution and, increasingly, the dissemination of information.
Looking to the future, DeLong believes we will depart from the “hand-eye-brain” interaction that has been central to the rise of globalization. This change will increasingly bring automation enabled by information technology. All industries, regardless of whether they can easily transition, will need to “do more things—rather than do more things cheaply.”
In our December 2012 column, we trotted out the idea of additive construction, borrowing philosophically from the well-known concept of additive manufacturing. Taking a cue from 3-D printing, we wondered how we could eliminate the “subtractive” aspects of the field installation work that we do and mimic aspects of this modern manufacturing approach. As we think about DeLong’s vision for the future, once again we are relating what we do to what occurs in the manufacturing sector.
Where will there be increasingly greater opportunities to do more things? Let’s examine green construction as an example. A recent Kauffman Foundation study (2010) described the green jobs potential in our economy. No industry was so apt for these jobs as the construction sector. The construction industry has added the most green jobs of all industries. Many green jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Since the construction industry has always been fertile ground for entrepreneurs, says the foundation study, such jobs are especially ripe for the young generation of workers who could easily be the frontline of innovative technology adoption for firms and facilities.
The best source of new and enduring ideas to advance and benefit electrical contracting has most often been the creative thinking of individual electricians. So, how should forward-thinking ECs prepare for new directions of industry? More to the point, how should they prepare for the next generation of workers? We suggest that the process of bringing in new hires and getting them quickly up to speed (“onboarding”) is critical.
Rachel Silverman recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the new generation of workers expects direct communication about their role from the beginning and a culture of community in the workplace. Some companies in the technology sector spend time helping new employees develop personal and networking skills immediately as well as placing them on the front line to implement and observe daily operations. During technical training, new hires are often provided with a “peer coach.”
No electrical contractor possesses the resources of the huge technology companies she describes. But it is hard to imagine any EC with an active service organization that cannot informally accomplish at least a homemade version of such a program devoted to the development of its field-service people resources—looking to a goal of doing more things rather than doing things more cheaply. These ECs would be well-prepared and ready to embrace the next industrial era.