The Truth About Technology Jobs

They won't fully replace the jobs we've lost -- despite what Obama and GOP presidential candidates say.

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Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

When Steve Jobs died, one fascinating anecdote rose out of the sea of words about the co-founder of Apple. Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson recounted a dinner attended by Jobs and President Barack Obama. "What would it take to make iPhones in the U.S.?" the president wanted to know.

Blunt as always, Jobs replied, "Those jobs aren't coming back."

Can President Obama or any contender for the White House face the American public today and say, "Those jobs are never coming back"? Many of those losses include the $25- to $40-an-hour manufacturing jobs that created a middle-class lifestyle for people without a college education and enabled them to own a second home, a boat and the third car in the garage. For African Americans who have been relative newcomers to middle-class prosperity, the harsh realities are having an even more devastating effect -- as we have seen in black-unemployment numbers that run at twice the rate of whites, even if there was a promising dip in January.

Those jobs aren't coming back because a contract manufacturer like Foxconn can pay a young Chinese woman $6,000 a year to build iPads, iPhones and other products of our heart's desire. The Chinese worker feels fortunate to have that job and believes that she and her country are on the way up.

Growing numbers of Americans feel insecure about their jobs -- if they have one at all -- and worry that their country's economic status is going the other way. But when their leaders won't discuss the issues with them honestly, some Americans are left in the kind of limbo that makes Republican extremism, the Tea Party or white nationalism appear to be the answer.

It's not that our leaders simply don't have the guts to take up the issue of fundamental change; it's also that they don't have many answers. A decade or so ago, I had the intimidating experience of speaking on the same program at an alumni dinner as Arno Penzias, the 1978 winner (with Robert Wilson) of the Nobel Prize in physics for finding evidence to support the big bang theory of creation.

Penzias, who graduated from the City College of New York some 20 years before I did, was gracious, of course, but what he spoke about that night was no less profound than his great scientific work. He warned that the enthusiasm to embrace computer technology (which used to be called "office automation" back then) didn't address one of his biggest concerns: the loss of jobs.

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 He noted that, largely unnoticed, vast numbers of "middle men" were being eliminated by technology: file clerks, gatekeepers, cargo checkers, warehouse workers and middle managers. Techies had a jaw-breaking term for the process that reduced the human cost -- "disintermediation" -- but Penzias reminded us that real people were losing real jobs.

I didn't realize until later that Penzias' talk was a sly rebuttal to my enthusiastic paean to how computers were changing the way we worked and lived for the better -- and this was way before Facebook and Twitter or widespread use of the Web, of course. I was then editor of PC Magazine, helming the biggest tech magazine at the time, and probably like much of the audience, I found his talk too downbeat and theoretical at a moment when computer sales were exploding and most of us believed that technology was bound to create a better world.