Hmmm: Laid off retail workers should “Learn to Code”

Says Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago Mayor, Congressional Representative and former Obama Chief of Staff, said this in this news interview. Laid off workers should “Learn to code”.

He’s likely correct that due to structural changes accelerated by the pandemic, many retail jobs may not return. The U.S. had way too many square feet of business space devoted to retail, as compared to other developed nations before the pandemic.

Now with online ordering and delivery services, much of retail is irrelevant. This was going to happen away – but a variety of events accelerated the trend. $15 minimum wage plus mandated benefits dramatically increases labor costs (a variable cost) just as the cost of automation have plummeted (a mostly fixed cost).

It is sort of a “no brainer” [1] – automation, online ordering, even using an app while sitting at a restaurant table – all of these will reduce the need for lower skilled labor.

Second question, should they “Learn to code”? As a job skill, yes, but as a career choice, probably not. The same trends that reduce labor will, to some extent, occur in software and already have. Software tools today enable the creation of applications in far less time than was required in the past. Software development is a task that is easily off shored to cheaper locations (and has been being done for many years). A new Administration hints at expanding the H-1B visa program to import temporary software developers from other countries.

My recommendation is: Learn to code as part of a skill set applied to something else. Whether that be writing code to analyze your marketing and sales data, or your manufacturing line, or your science research data – coding skills are useful as an adjunct to other work.

Finally, just as training to become a lawyer is training to “think like a lawyer”, or training to be a nurse is training to “think like a nurse”, and so on, real computer science training is training to “think like a computer scientists”. Most “coders” learn a skill but seldom learn to think like a computer engineer.

Indeed, Emanuel says

“Give them the tools, six months, you’re going to become a computer coder. We’ll pay for it, and you’ll get millions of people to sign up for that,

Six months. That’s barely a blue collar skilled worker. It takes thousands of hours of apprenticeship to get licensed as a plumber or electrician, for example. Many states require specific course work and continuing education to qualify for these skilled worker positions.

[1] Some people get offended by the term “no brainer” – it just means this doesn’t require a lot of intense thought to figure out. And for the record, I’ve had six traumatic brain injuries and am hugely sympathetic to anyone with traumatic, acquired or other brain issues.