Hey, barista girl! Cheer up. Sure, the employment news seems grim. If you listen to the experts, the job market will never offer the opportunities your folks had. Everyone is worrying that globalization and technological change are gutting the middle class. The manufacturing sector has shrivelled away. Even a law degree won’t guarantee you a good life any more. Your options look depressing. You can move to Alberta and learn to drive a two-ton piece of metal. Or you can stay in the big city and practise your design techniques in cappuccino froth while you look for itinerant contract work.
But maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe the digital tsunami will create as many jobs as it destroys. Maybe a new wave of companies will emerge with products and ideas that will enhance our lives and provide stimulating new careers that we can’t even imagine now.
Here’s an example. Desire2Learn is a company you’ve probably never heard of in an industry you didn’t know existed. It sells digital products and services to schools, universities, big companies and governments – anyone engaged in the learning business. Its software is helping to change the way education is managed and delivered.
“This technology will modernize the classroom the way the computer modernized the typewriter,” says D2L’s founder, John Baker, a 36-year-old entrepreneur who was trained as a systems engineer at the University of Waterloo.
D2L’s technology allows instructors to treat everyone as an individual by understanding how they’re doing and providing targeted help. If Susie is having trouble with fractions or not relating to her classmates, it will flag the problem. School systems are using its predictive analytics to identify at-risk students, and to boost performance, retention and graduation rates. Its software is also turning the classroom on its head. One of the hottest ideas in education is the “flipped class,” which involves moving lecture content offline so that students can read it on their computers or smart phones on their own time, and spend class time in discussion and group work. There are also lots of nifty apps. The Assignment Grader app allows a teacher to leave those stacks of paper at school and grade assignments on her mobile device, using written comments, as well as video or audio feedback.
The learning industry – which has barely changed in the past 100 years – is ripe for transformation. And it’s huge. “There are 100 million learners in North America alone,” Mr. Baker estimates. Several statewide college systems are now using D2L’s technology, and the next big opportunity is K-12. The company has doubled in size since a year ago, and now employs 600 (mostly young) people.
But if the idea of working for someone else doesn’t appeal to barista girl, she’s in luck. Thanks to the IT revolution, starting your own business is easier than ever, as American thinker Walter Russell Mead has pointed out: All you need is a computer and an Internet connection. You can provide math tutoring to kids, music instruction, even long-distance psychological counselling. You don’t even have to be in the same country as your clients. You can find cheap marketing information to identify your potential customers, and you can reach them via social media. You can buy inexpensive accounting and billing software. If you have employees, you can even get HR advice online.
The IT revolution is wiping out entire industries, like bookstores and travel agents. But it is also creating virtually unlimited opportunities for new service businesses. Do you hate package tours? Try Trufflepig, a custom travel agency based in Toronto that was founded by three friends with tons of travel experience. The company can custom plan a child-friendly trip to Paris for you or line up a traditional Samburu warrior to introduce you to Africa. Trufflepig now has a loyal clientele, plus a dozen employees who live in several different countries.
Today people are happy to pay for services that used to be available only to the rich. Food preparation is a great example. Only wealthy people can afford private chefs. But almost anyone can afford a pre-cooked dinner from Loblaws. If you don’t want to pick up your dinner, there are a dozen ways to make dinner come to you. There are even services for people who like cooking but don’t have time to shop. The latest twist, according to The New York Times, is the dinner kit. Just click and order your Maple-Glazed Salmon online, and a box will show up at your doorstep with fresh ingredients that are labelled and premeasured down to the last cilantro sprig. Recipe included. Just do what it says, and serve.
Entrepreneurs who can sense changes in what people want and need are always going to do well. In 2000, a couple of smart people figured out that there was a market opportunity in young urbanites who don’t own a car but need one from time to time. So they started Zipcar, which lets you rent a car online for a few hours at a decent price, without the hassle of a standard car rental. I know a ton of people who use Zipcar. Avis bought the company last month for $500-million.
This is scarcely the first time that a great disruption has made people gloomy about the future. As Prof. Mead notes, the 1890s were much worse. A revolution in agriculture was driving people off the land, and nobody could imagine how they or their children would make a living. People thought that when the farming jobs disappeared the economy would be finished. They were wrong then. And they’re probably just as wrong now.