Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: Global Polarisation of Skills
Throughout the world, education levels are equalising much faster than the values of national currencies. As a result, top skills are polarising into the poorer countries, leaving millions of highly qualified people in the richer countries to face a bleak future of unemployment and hardship.
The Mist Has Risen
Before the early 1980s, our somewhat parochial market was protected from extreme foreign competition by the mists of time, distance and cultural difference. Since then, the dramatic advance in telecommunications and transport technologies, coupled with our government's fanatical pursuit of free-market principles, have lifted those mists and laid bare our home market to the world.
This has allowed powerful, aggressive foreign multi-nationals to wrest away from the indigenous people their local established skills markets. The laissez-faire dogma which seems to underlie all U.K. government policy has thus left every business, and every individual, naked and alone to compete for survival in the new all-encompassing global free market.
It may not be, but from where I stand, this laissez-fare policy appears to be unilateral on the part of the U.K. government. Other countries seem to protect their basic industries and the skills needed to support them - some by direct government intervention, some by virtue of their sheer economic size and superior strength. In their obsessive endeavour to maintain their precious international 'level playing field' the U.K. government seems to offer no help to its own to compete against foreign enterprises whose governments do not subscribe to their inverted one-sided sense of fair play.
The international free market has thus created (particularly for the one-man-business) an environment of unequal opportunity through unfair competition. For instance, trying to compete with American vendors in the U.K. marketplace is futile. Even small American software firms seem to receive overwhelming help from their government to launch their products in the U.K. The British producer appears to be left to stand alone.
As a result, the superior marketing resources available to American software vendors has enabled them to take complete ownership of the U.K. market. The demand for my skills has consequently declined to the point where I am now permanently unemployed. Any demand (where it exists at all) seems to have switched to a far less skilled breed of what I would term 'configurers' who are simply able to 'set up' ready made parameter-driven software packages which are predominantly produced by American multinationals.
These are more and more leaning towards the use of off-shore labour from such places as Russia, India and the Pacific Rim. The differences in the values of national currencies makes labour of a given skill-level in a Third World country vastly cheaper than in a First World country. The upshot is that those in cheap Third World countries will get more and more work. Those with the same skills who live in First World countries will get less and less. Eventually, skills whose deployment is unaffected by distance (like the development of computer software) will die out in First World countries.
Such skills will thus become geographically polarised into the so-called poorer economic blocs. Of course, in the fullness of time, these blocs will become rich from the trade they thus gain. Economic balance should eventually be achieved. But not without destroying the careers and precipitating undeserved hardship upon at least one generation of hard working people.
This reasoning could get me classed as a Luddite. However, there is a critical difference. My concern is not with skills which have been superseded by advances in technology. On the contrary, my concern is with the global polarisation of advanced skills, and with the resulting social, economic and strategic implications. The polarisation of vital skills on a global scale will necessarily result in extreme and
chaotic fluctuations in their supply and demand. This is bound to precipitate violent disruptions in the businesses of those who employ them, and to the lives and careers of those who possess them.
Any society in which computers are vital to its day-to-day life is extremely vulnerable if it relies totally on advanced skills which are available only outside its own boarders. Even more so if they can be obtained only outside its own economic, cultural and military affiliations. This is especially true of skills required to create and maintain software for defence applications and government services.
Every society should protect the complex mix of skills fundamental to its efficient operation, irrespective of whether some or all of these skills can be obtained cheaper elsewhere. The general aim must be to keep the availability and demand for every key skill as homogeneously distributed as possible so that it is readily available close to wherever it is needed. This is vital to the stability and well-being of every industry, the people who work in it, and the society they help to support.
I do not want to see my skills die in this country. They are still current and will remain so since I spend much of my down-time keeping them up to date. The use of cheap foreign labour is a steady-but-relentless trend which, if it is not curtailed, will result in Britain coming to rely totally on the Third World and perhaps other less benign sources for a vital commodity.
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©Sep 1995 Robert John Morton