Monday, April 30, 2012

The Big Picture - Service Trade Jobs

I just read a very intriguing article on the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US and the current calls by some in Washington to enact special incentives to slow the flow of these jobs to lower cost labor locales.  The author, Gary Becker, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel Laureate, references the decline of agricultural workers in the US beginning in the early twentieth century as a mirror, and rightly points out that agricultural subsidies did nothing to stem the decline of workers.  Steve Jobs also pointedly told President Obama at a dinner meeting “Those (manufacturing)  jobs are not coming back.”  This line of thought, along with a poke from Ashley Halligan, a facilities management software analyst, on careers in skilled service trades and facility maintenance, got me thinking about why this field of service trade work is so compelling as a source of good wage jobs. Service trade jobs are not at risk for offshoring (although technology driven productivity might shrink the quantity, as in agriculture), and they are becoming more interesting each day as the information and analysis content of the work increases with the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, mobile devices, and “smart” equipment.

Service trade work - the installation, maintenance, repair, and upfit of facility equipment (lighting, HVAC, refrigeration, cooking equipment, electrical, plumbing, fire safety systems, elevators, etc) - is certainly blue collar work.  Technicians are often in a truck, on a roof, or in a basement or utility room wielding multi-meters, wire cutters, pipe wrenches, duct tape, pressure gauges, screwdrivers and sometimes (when all else fails) a hammer.  The diversity of the environment and the satisfaction that comes from solving problems is actually what makes these jobs gratifying.  And the information and analysis content of these jobs is about to go WAY up - which makes them even more interesting.  And these jobs are not subject to offshoring because you cannot source a refrigeration chiller repair in Chattanooga to a technician in China.

Why are these jobs are going to become more interesting?  Because the information and analysis content is about to increase dramatically.  The cost of information collection, storage, transmission, and processing is getting lower every day.  Camera megapixels are cheaper.  Megabytes of storage are cheaper.  Gigahertz of CPU throughput are cheaper.  Megabits of transmission capacity are cheaper (on most networks, anyway).  Smartphones are cheaper.  And the price of steel, gasoline, and labor gets higher every day.  If facility maintenance is to get cheaper, the savings must come from the analysis of information.  Translation - do smarter maintenance through information technology.

How are we going to do smarter maintenance?  First, all technicians will (ultimately) have smartphones at their disposal - a remarkable breakthrough.  Why is this critical?  Smartphones provide a platform to communicate rich information (voice memos, photos, video) about what is happening on the roof, in the basement and the utility room to anyone else that can benefit from that information in supporting maintenance decisions.  The tech can show what she knows without being held accountable to a low bandwidth written report on a coffee stained piece of paper that may or may not make it back to the office in the course of a week’s work.  Communicating just became fun.

Second, and the other side of the smartphone coin, is that unstructured data (notes, photos, voice memos, videos) is going to surge to the forefront as the productivity driver for service trade work.  Historically, practically all maintenance decision support information (if it existed at all) was highly structured data - text or numerical fields in a relational database.  Structured data is necessary, but far from sufficient.  It is the language of accounting and control - not the language of collaboration and problem solving.  Collaboration and problem solving happens with stories.  As humans, we are wired to learn through stories.  The structured data must support the story, but the story is the breakthrough.  Techs will soon benefit from this capability to communicate and consume stories as part of their work cycle.  Show the customer a video of a piece of equipment that is exhibiting a pending failure mode with the tech narrating the reason for the imminent breakdown along with the steps for remediation, and you will get an informed customer ready to strike a check instead of a skeptic asking for two or more repair bids.

Third, all of these critical facility systems, from food processing to elevators to HVAC equipment to grease traps, are about to become connected - with the ability to transmit key information for maintenance decision support.  What is the temperature in the cooler relative to the amperage of the compressor motor relative to the ambient temperature?  What is the static pressure drop across the filters in the air handler?  What is the fuel consumption of the broiler relative to the temperature relative to the historic norm?  What is the amount of grease in the grease trap relative to the water level and how much sludge is at the bottom?  This information is going to break free of proprietary building control systems and be readily available for analysis by anyone due to the miracle of Internet protocols and low cost sensors.  What the service trade industry needs to decide is who is going to take the lead in configuring, collecting, and analyzing the information?  The last outcome we should seek is that some offshore locale becomes the harbor for the information and its analysis and US service trade labor is relegated to turning the wrench.  I doubt this will happen because the US leads the world in information innovation.

As labor costs rise, it is inevitable that the labor content of any good or service will be displaced either by lower cost labor or technological advances.  It doesn’t matter if it is agriculture, manufacturing, or service trade work.  In the case of service trade work, however, the labor content cannot be delivered from afar - the wrench must turn where the pipe is located.  The goal should be to deliver smarter labor (and less of it) based upon innovations in information that support better decisions.  Smart labor in a connected world sounds like a recipe for good jobs to me.