However, technology eliminates service sector jobs as easily as it does manufacturing jobs. Service workers whose main task is to repeat a process are on the fast track to replacement by machines. This is happening to grocery clerks right now. Self service checkout systems are being installed in double digit rates; more than 325,000 will be installed in the United States and Europe by 2016, and new installations are estimated at about 60,000 per year (Self Service World, 2011, October 30). The same thing happened to bank tellers when ATMs became popular, to accountants and bookkeepers when QuickBooks hit the small business market, and to telephone operators when voice recognition technology achieved the right level of sophistication.
The important point here is that those occupations did not disappear, but that the nature of the jobs changed dramatically and at a very basic level. Bookkeeping integrated with office management, for example. Bank tellers now sell financial instruments and handle sophisticated transactions that did not exist thirty years ago. Telephone operators have morphed into call center employees who handle a range of complex customer relations duties that software cannot (yet) manage. Occupations became a sub set of skills for other occupations.
The mistake that bookkeepers, bank tellers and telephone operators made is that they did not get far enough ahead of machines. Personal bankers, administrative assistants and call center employees are still looking over their shoulders at software on the verge of replacing them.
People who work in jobs that repeat a known process are in a race with technology. Software is constantly improving and getting cheaper at that same time that employing humans is getting more expensive. In the low end of the service sector – where most jobs are concentrated and are expected to be in the future -- job seekers are faced with convincing employers that they are more efficient that the latest computer technology. They are just a step ahead of replacement by a smart machine. Consequently, jobs at the low end of the service sector are becoming increasingly dehumanized and hiring criteria is more attuned to machines than people. These are also the jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts will grow more quickly than others in the next ten years (BLS 2010, October 3).
The criteria that defines and describes job skills is narrowing; that is, skills and traits needed for a particular job must meet very specific technical and psychological requirements. Not only must workers have a well defined and measurable skills set, but they also must be able to do it nonstop for hours. They must be willing to comply with orders even when those orders seem ludicrous or nonsensical, refrain from making independent decisions and allow analysis of their most intimate physical parts – blood, saliva and urine. These criteria seem more appropriate for the machines with which job seekers are competing.
What once were unique human traits, like facial expressions and the ability to non-verbally communicate sincerity, have become job skills. Note the inclusion of body language, facial expressions and even sincerity as skills in this job announcement from Bashas, a regional supermarket chain in Southern Arizona:
“Communicate openly and professionally through appropriate body language, facial expressions and speech, also communicating in writing when necessary.”
“Engaging with customers through smiles, greetings, product information and genuine thank yous.” (Bashas 2012, March 11)
Apparently, competition for low-level service jobs is so fierce that facial expressions and body language – the unique way we express our personality -- must conform to employer dictates.
This attention to detail, combined with modern technology and traditional methods, drives the hiring process. We now have the most educated workforce the world has ever seen and applicants are highly qualified. However, the hiring process is a 19th century procedure that uses 21st century automation. We copy and paste keywords into our resumes and include only those skills, knowledge and experience that most precisely meet the criteria in the job announcement. The importance of precisely meeting job criteria cannot be overstated. Exceeding minimum qualifications is grounds for rejection on the puzzling logic of “over-qualification”. In order to be “over-qualified” one first has to be qualified, so there is no argument that the applicant meets the criteria to do the job, yet exceeding minimum criteria results in disqualification, just as not meeting the minimum qualifications does.
The problem is that this situation does not allow for unique skills or qualities to enter the decision making process when matching jobs to applicants. Whoever most closely meets the criteria for the job becomes an employee. This focuses competition for jobs on meeting narrow and highly specific hiring criteria that does not allow for differences between candidates. Human resource professionals complain about both large numbers of unqualified applicants as well as the difficulty of choosing one highly qualified applicant over another. The result is that candidates for low-end service jobs become indistinguishable from one another.
Products that are indistinguishable from one another are commodities. Sugar, gasoline and precious metals are commodities because they are identical no matter who refines or sells them. Price becomes only difference upon which customers can make a buying decision. That is the worst place a product can be because competition turns into a race to the bottom. Competition focuses on selling products with the least value, not the most. Profit margins disappear and product lines depend on mass marketing, economies of scale and efficient production and transportation. That is what is happening in the job market in the low-level service sector.
So how do you get out of the commodity zone?
Forget about conforming to what the employer wants. That is like a marketer describing a low cost, low value, low margin commodity in terms of appealing to the most customers. Pretend you are a marketer describing a unique product appealing to only a few customers with unique needs who are willing to pay for quality. You are not a bar of soap or bag of potatoes. You are a unique human being for whom the right employer will value highly – and pay handsomely. It is a matter of assessing your skills, talents and traits, then presenting them the right way to the right people.
The goal should be to become a self-directed professional who solves unique and constantly changing problems for customers. Knowledge, skills and abilities need to be broad, not narrow. The job should address constantly changing challenges, not the repetition of a known process. Identifying and leveraging unique traits, personal preferences and rare abilities in order to differentiate oneself from the competition is the path out of the commodity zone. In order to create a job for yourself you must exploit uniquely human abilities that computers cannot yet duplicate.
Bashas. (2012, March 11). Non-checking Clerk. Requisition # 46485. Tucson Store 122. Retrieved from: https://www.hrapply.com/bashas/AppJobView.jsp?link=46485&page=AppJobList.jsp&skimSessionName=com.hrlogix.view.cont.table.cs.req.JobListTable&skimName=requisition.requisition_id&skimNdx=12&op=reset
BLS (2010, October 3). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Overview of the 2008-18 Projections. Retrieved from:http://www.bls.gov/oco/oco2003.htm
Self Service World (2011, October 30). Study: Self-checkout is mainstream. http://www.selfserviceworld.com/article/186441/Study-Self-checkout-is-mainstream?rc_id=17