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Thomas Russell

Friedman's insights shed light on the future of the U.S. work force

April 11, 2006

Having grown up in Minneapolis in the 1950s, author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently recalled a familiar refrain during the evening meal: Finish what’s on your plate because there are millions of people starving in China and India.

Today Friedman communicates a slight variation of that message to his daughters: Finish your homework because people in India and China are starving for your job.

Friedman shared that insight during a presentation at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., on April 5. The lecture dealt with his bestselling book, “The World is Flat — A Brief History of the 21st Century.”

Friedman’s basic thesis in both the book and the lecture was that several key historical events and technological changes opened the door to unprecedented connectivity around the world. Such change, he said, has leveled the global economic playing field between the United States and places like India, China and Russia.

Now companies and individuals from around the world can collaborate in ways that most never dreamed of 10 or 15 years ago.

While that connectivity affords economic opportunity to companies and entrepreneurs alike, it also presents challenges, particularly to U.S. workers. That has been obvious in the furniture industry, which has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs to factories in Asia and Latin America. Many of these factories can make goods much more cheaply and efficiently thanks to low labor costs and high investment in modern factories.

Friedman said many businesses understand the implications of a flat world. But hardly anyone is talking about it in public, he believes, and no one is telling the kids. And that’s a big reason he takes his message on the road to universities such as North Carolina A&T.

His concerns called to mind a trade mission Furniture/Today and several retailers made to Poland in August 2004. While on the bus ride to various factories — which, like their Asian counterparts, want to supply furniture to the lucrative U.S. market — several retailers tried to imagine what the world would look like for their grandchildren. What types of jobs would be left for them?

Given the decline of manufacturing and the prevalence of lower-paying service jobs, no one had any clear answers. But there was a sense of concern, particularly given the retailers’ understanding of the new global economy Friedman so eloquently described in his lecture.

While Friedman admits he doesn’t have all the answers, he shared some thoughts on what types of jobs and individuals might be protected from outsourcing in the future. They include:

* Trades that are highly specialized or individuals who are highly specialized in their area of expertise.

* People with who need to be where the consumer is, such as nurses, pediatricians, auto mechanics or restaurant owners.

* People who are great collaborators, or those who can work across boundaries and borders. Imagine, for instance, the value of a U.S. furniture worker who speaks Chinese.

* People who can leverage technology so that “one person can do the work of 20 as opposed to China, where 20 people do the work of one.”

* People who are great synthesizers, or those who can create innovative new products.

* People who understand the power of the global platform and can turn it into a great local business. Examples of this will likely include many small businesses, such as a “garage owner who can import cheaper hubcaps made in Romania.”

* People who are great explainers. This list can include managers, teachers and journalists.

* People who affiliate themselves with green industries, or industries such as construction, which are relying more on environmentally sustainable raw materials.

Important traits for success, Friedman says, include adaptability, having a passion for what you do, and having curious nature that will motivate you to educate yourself and, hence, better understand the world.

Notice though that the focus is on individuals rather than companies. That’s a strong testimony for the type of entrepreneurship that elevated the United States to where it is today.

The worker of the future, Friedman said, also won’t be dominated by white American males. It will be made up of many colors and cultures. The important lesson for us — not to mention our children and grandchildren — is to understand this shift so we can all be more adept and successful players in the global economy.    (to view or add public comments click on "Add your Comment" below each blog post)