Worried About Unemployment? Find a "High Touch" Profession

Writing for Slate, Ray Fisman (who’s been on the blog before) explains why “the bottom 20 percent of American families earned less in 2010 than they did in 2006, the year before the recession began”:

There are two broad shifts that account for much of this decline: globalization and computerization. From T-shirts to toys, manufacturing jobs have migrated to low-wage countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and of course China. Meanwhile, many of the tasks that might have been done by middle-income Americans employed as bookkeepers or middle managers have been replaced by spreadsheets and data algorithms.

Fisman argues that in order to succeed in the new economy, American workers need to shift away from construction and manufacturing jobs to “high touch” professions. “If jobs are being lost to low-wage Indians and computer programs, then what today’s worker needs is a set of skills that offers the personal touch and judgment that can’t be provided by a machine or someone 12 time zones away,” writes Fisman.

Steve Nations

“If jobs are being lost to low-wage Indians and computer programs, then what today’s worker needs is a set of skills that offers the personal touch and judgment that can’t be provided by a machine or someone 12 time zones away,” writes Fisman.

Fisman gets my vote for "Captain Obvious."

Bryan S.

"Fisman gets my vote for “Captain Obvious.”"

An obviousness that seems to be lost on many people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Jamie M

This is true, but then the goal posts will keep shifting too. Judgement or skills that can't be provided by a machine now soon might be. Look at the current discussions on making Freight Planes fully AI piloted. How long before Googles autonomous cars does the same to road freight? I never would've imagined any prospect of those jobs being under threat just a short while ago. Safe professions we might aim for now might also unexpectedly be in the sights of autonomous software in another ten years. I cannot predict which!


Customer Support is a high touch profession. Guess which countries have the most call centers.
I think the focus should be on high innovation jobs for which machines have not been designed yet. I work in analytics and one of the first quotes I heard from my first super manager was "today's analysis is tomorrow's excel and day after tomorrow's standard automated report" - most of our jobs will sooner or later, be taken over by machines (when they become capble of executing more complex algorithms). To be ahead of them, one needs to be innovative, constantly learn new stuff to keep oneself in business

Erck halfabee

Workers in the worlds oldest profession need not worry about technology or globalization.


We might develop machines to take over their profession too. The men working in the oldest profession already have machines to replace them! Soon, the women too may be replaced by machines

Brandon W

Customer service: outsourced. It doesn't matter if they're 12 time zones away, they'll work through their night. Things like legal work: increasingly outsourced. No, incomes are being crushed and will continue to be.

What is a workable strategy? Doctors make a lot of money, substantially because they've lobbied for and established system that restricts supply while allowing for price collusion between health care providers and the insurance system. So get involved in collusion and government-supported supply restriction.

Another good idea? Own the machines. Obviously the realm of those with access to large amounts of capital.

Yep, that's about it. The rest of us are S.O.L.


This is the type of job advice is related to the equally unhelpful advice of: "find a niche" or "do that which no one else is doing" or "differentiate" or "make yourself indispensable" and on and on.

The contrary advice is essentially: find a job that is easily replaced. It is basically meaningless advice that pre-supposes both access and opportunity.

Moreover, taken another way, this advice could also be unhelpful. Local service jobs, like food service or janitorial services, are not going to be outsourced to India and can't be done with a computer, and this advice would seem to apply to those jobs. However, those jobs do nothing to advance the middle class or which capitalize on typical, middle-class qualifications like education and technology skills.


While it is anathema to academia, many of the very jobs that cannot be outsourced are those that do not need a college degree: auto mechanic, plumber, electrician. Watch Mike Rowe's TED talk on Dirty Jobs. This country is facing a severe shortage of people qualified to do the things that make our world work in part because doing anything less than "going to college" is viewed as some degree of failure. The reality is that it doesn't take a college degree to repair diesel engines, and yet life as we know it will shut down if those engines that run our trains, tractors and semis don't run.


This is my huge problem with education "reform" as currently envisioned, with its "everyone to college" mantra. There will be a couple of effects -- if everyone needs to go to college, it will effectively add 4 more years of schooling and 4 fewer years of employment (okay) BUT often requires debt that will be greater than earning potential (bad). Also, it's likely that jobs that really do need the things that *should* be considered part of a college education will begin to require more schooling after that. (Note the huge increases in "remedial" classes at many colleges, especially those catering to the more recent grads who came of age on the "college for everyone, right after high school" bandwagon.

Truth is, if someone has a skill or trade, they may well want to go to community college in a few years and learn accounting, say, or some marketing, management, or other business skills. And they will be focused and motivated students, too, less likely to be spending money they don't have on classes they aren't interested in.

Problem solving and critical thinking skills come about after someone has hours/days/years of experience with the issues they need to think about. These skills are very hard (impossible?) to teach in the abstract -- when the person being taught doesn't have much knowledge in his/her head about the topic to be discussed or problem to be solved no amount of discussion (not lecturing/learning but "group discussion") or following problem solving steps is going to lead to a good solution.

And yet, more and more HSs are gearing their reading, writing and math tasks to content-free "critical thinking" and not giving the basic skills in reading comprehension, writing and math that would enable real live thinking about a topic.



The question that nags me: Who are the high-touch people going to touch if everyone else's job has been outsourced or assimilated?

Jamie M

Further thoughts;
How many high touch jobs are there anyway? (less than the number of people needing jobs)
What if the current shift means that 20-30% of people become unemployable forever?
Is that acceptable?
What are we going to do about it?
Is the economic benefit of not employing them worth the cost to society? (different balance sheets)
Can education solve any of this really?
Can we lead our 'increased leisure citizens' to live fulfilling lives, or will this destroy them, and those around them?
This is something of a new paradigm I suspect.


An obvious response would seem to be to reduce the standard work week to 32 hours (4 8-hour days). After all, it wasn't all that long ago that a 6 day work week was fairly standard.

Of course there are two problems with this: the fixed per-individual overhead (health insurance, etc), and the fact that it's already so difficult to find some particular high-skilled workers that the existing ones work more than 40 hour weeks anyway.


If people are looking for more guidance as to what a "high touch" profession is, or how to future proof your career, I recommend reading Seth Godin's book "Lynchpin."


Did you hear the one about the lawyer who called a plumber for emergency service? He was charged $200 for 15 minutes of work. He complained, saying that even as a lawyer, he didn't earn $800/hour. The plumber replied, "Neither did I when I was a lawyer..."