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Rethinking Our Thinking About Veterans and Jobs

It is pretty simple: people who are fulfilling their purpose in life tend to feel better about their lives. We believe jobs provide us that empowerment. This is true sometimes. But the world is moving away from the types of jobs that are being touted as what will save the American economy. What the US needs is not just jobs but leaders; thought leaders in the fields of expertise that will play critical roles in the growth of the global economy in the next few years.

I was guilty of this in my previous article about smart grid jobs. Yes, the utility industry needs people to fill jobs in repair and maintenance. Veterans, with their expertise and ability to follow orders, would be ideal candidates to fill these jobs. Good soldiers are probably better than regular civilians in these sorts of roles because they follow orders and make decisions quickly based on an understanding of the plan. The sorts of jobs that good veterans and soldiers would excel at are management jobs in predictable business environments. But ‘work and jobs’ of the future will be anything but predictable.

But the repair and maintenance jobs required in the utility industry will become obsolete. The issue with these ‘basic jobs’ is that they eventually get commoditized, then automated or outsourced to places where it can be done cheaper or more efficiently. In the utility industry the regular maintenance and repair jobs will become obsolete even quicker if the promise of a self-healing smart grid infrastructure is fulfilled. The jobs of the future will require the analytical and critical thinking skills that cannot be commoditized.

Automation and Commoditization of Jobs

Basic jobs are made up of simple tasks combined to generate output. Once these tasks become standardized and predictable enough it makes business sense to farm them out to machines that can either do it better or cheaper or to individuals in other countries that charge less. An obvious example of where this has happened is the farming industry. There was actually a time when people plowed the land (believe it young ‘ins), then animals were used to plow before it finally gave way to more efficient equipment that increased the speed and reliability of the simple act of plowing.

A less obvious example of the commoditization, and eventual automation, of tasks can be found in the computer app making industry, especially web and mobile apps. There was a time when you needed a lot of expertise in computer programming to develop a website or a mobile app. Now, with next to no expertise and a little money, any businessperson can develop a website using a tool like Wix and even convert that website for mobile phone using ConvertWebsite or Mobify. Not to say that website or mobile app developer jobs are fully automated (not yet anyway) but the future of web development will mean it is a more commoditized skill set at the basic level. Work will be commoditized or automated the more menial it is. Amongst many segments in the society that will be greatly affected by this imminent change in work, one that currently needs help and will be more adversely effected are veterans.

Impact of ‘future work’ on veterans

The workforce of the future will be required to perform more flexible thinking in their roles and will be required to collaborate more as the connections between different corners of the world shrinks. Unfortunately these requirements will place veterans of past wars in a position of difficulty: good soldiers and veterans were individuals who could follow orders and execute a plan very well, these skills will not be well suited to work of the future. Reorientation will be required to improve the chances these veterans have of successfully navigating their post armed forces careers.  

Fortunately soldiers are already being prepared for future work through the foresight and leadership of some armed forces officials. A recent Fast Company article highlights how Retired General Stanley McCrystal started implementing the necessary restructuring of the US army centered around design, execution and leadership. The need for leadership (most certainly not design) was never the way of the army at the lower ranks as shared in ‘Little Bets’ by Peter Sims this was an issue that had to be addressed by Army General H.R. McMaster during the Iraqi war counterinsurgency: battlefield situations required soldiers to engage and understand the enemy, terrain and not just simply follow battle orders as they were instructed. Granted there are roles and situations where following orders is beneficial but there is a correlation between these roles and situations to low paying employment.

The benefits of training soldiers (and frankly the entire workforce of the US) to think critically, follow orders less and be creative in their approach to work cannot be overstated:

  1. Critical or creative thinking skills will enable employees to work in roles that cannot be outsourced
  2. Critical or creative thinking jobs tend to be higher paying jobs. This will translate into increased spending power for said employees and increased tax revenues for the government.

What is required to achieve this a society of workers that are critical thinkers? It will require a concerted effort by the private sector of both private and public agencies to modify the educational system with robust curricula and make this knowledge widely available. The democratization of education through online learning such as Coursera, edX and Udacity means most people can take courses from the highest institutions of learning from the comfort of their homes. Access to educational information, a collaborative learning system and a business environment that provides fulfilling roles to this next wave of change-makers.

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