The Changing World of Work 3: "Full-Stack" Skills

April 15, 2015

More important than being a full-stack employee is owning a full stack of skills.

My longtime friend G.F.B. sent me an article on the emerging value of tech-savvy generalists: The full-stack employee by Chris Messina:

Nearly two years after I left Google, I’m starting to understand what’s going on in the professional sphere. The conventional seams between disciplines are fraying, and the set of skills necessary to succeed are broader and more nebulous than they’ve been before. These days, you’ve gotta be a real polymath to get ahead; you’ve got to be a full-stack employee.

If you have a low tolerance (as I do) for breathless techno-buzzword dropping--worked at Google, UI, CSV file, Kickstarter, social apps, Vine, self-promotion, always-on connectedness, blah blah blah--you will have to shoulder through the techno-hip chatter.

(Is there no inoculation against peppering content with these cliches? If email is dead, please tell that to the 16,000 non-spam emails that pile up on my server every year.)

But the core point of the essay is worth examining: specialization is no longer enough outside of fields such as surgery. An increasing number of jobs now require working knowledge, or at least awareness, of cross-disciplinary advances.

Put another way: owning one skill is no longer enough. Virtually any skill that can be reduced to a procedure defined by a set of rules can be automated or offshored. Any skill with defined inputs and outputs can be commoditized: reduced to software or a set of procedures that can be performed anywhere in the world.

The only value creation model left for labor is to own the entire process of production. Depending on the industry or sector, this might include a variety of machining, 3D fabrication and injection-mold technologies, marketing, design and content creation, software development and sales--the combinations are almost endless depending on what processes are creating value.

As management guru Peter Drucker noted, enterprises don't have profits, they only have expenses. Creating value is what generates profits, and without profits enterprises can't pay employees, and government can't skim taxes from profits and wages.

Drucker foresaw that workers' knowledge (human capital) would become the primary means of production in a knowledge economy, a dynamic he described in his book Post-Capitalist Society.

What are the core skills everyone needs to own? In my book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy, I identify the Eight Essential Skills of Professionalism that are the foundational soft skills that enable the acquisition of specific hard skills within a sector or field.

The idea that a full stack of cross-disciplinary skills are what's valuable in an increasingly commoditized-labor world is the heart of what I have described as the emerging class of Mobile Creatives (as described in America's Nine Classes.)

More important than being a full-stack employee is owning a full stack of skills. Counting on Corporate America or the central state to employ everyone who wants to work is giving Corporate America and the central state way too much power over our individual destinies and the destiny of the nation. Opportunity is presented by life and the market for goods, services and ideas, not Corporate America and the central state.

Those pining for "good-paying middle class jobs" doing repetitive factory work or routine office data shuffling are looking backward to an era that is firmly in the past. Those who expect existing factory model educational structures to magically churn out students with a full stack of cross-disciplinary skills that create value are equally delusional.

Enterprises don't have profits, they only have expenses, and government funds its programs with taxes skimmed from the profits and payroll taxes of those creating value. Creating money out of thin air via Federal Reserve quantitative easing or Zimbabwe-style state printing presses is no substitute for creating value.

Opportunity, liberty and risk are not divisible. We either grasp the nettle of creating value or we devolve to wistful pining for what is irrevocably in the past.

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Thank you, Michael M. ($60), for yet another monumentally generous contribution to this site--(and the Yuja Wang CD)-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.


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