Knowledge Workers and Tomorrow’s Jobs

President Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union address, proposed that America’s community colleges be made tuition free.[1]  With advancing technology, including on-line instruction, that seems to me to be a sensible step. But only a step. America’s education system needs a comprehensive overhaul in order to educate enough people rapidly enough to meet the rapidly changing demands of the 21st century, rather than those of the 20th.

Peter Drucker discussed this need for what he termed “knowledge workers” and provides his usual profound insight to the matter. Here is a post from a year ago that discusses Drucker’s ideas. It is well worth repeating.    — C.H.

Peter Drucker and the Knowledge Worker (from 10 January 2016)

Peter Drucker is arguably the most widely respected of the 20th century management consultants. Drucker wrote over 30 books on management, which are largely focused on human behavior. His 1999 book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, offers a forward looking assessment of what demographics suggested would be the key problems facing manager in the early decades of the 21st century. Drucker’s concept of a knowledge worker – those whose work is focused on knowledge and its applications – is central to this book. He contrasts knowledge workers with manual workers – those whose work is essentially focused on things and the manipulation of things.

The Knowledge Worker

With his characteristic bluntness and surety, Drucker states:

“Knowledge-worker productivity is the biggest of the 21st century management challenges. In the developed countries it is their first survival requirement. In no other way can the developed countries can the developed countries hope to maintain themselves, let alone to maintain their leadership and their standards of living.”

Drucker credits Fredrick Taylor’s “scientific management” for the awesome improvements in manual worker productivity that characterizes 19th and 20th century industry and agriculture in the developed countries. According to Drucker, those increases in productivity have been the primary source of incremental wealth in the developed world.

The industrial engineering concepts that constitute “scientific management” are quite portable, so they can be quickly applied anywhere, using workers with little education or training. Developing countries have lots of people, many with rudimentary educations at best, who are willing to work for close to pre-industrial wages. Developed countries have aging populations and declining birthrates, hence much higher wage expectations.  

The bottom line is that labor intensive, repetitive manufacturing in the developed countries simply isn’t competitive in this globalized world, a few special cases excepted (at least for a while). Developed countries need sophisticated work based in knowledge, rather than in method. Economies in developed countries need knowledge workers. As Drucker puts it:

“The only possible advantage developed countries can hope to have is in the supply of people prepared, educated and trained for knowledge work. There, for another fifty years, the developed countries can expect to have substantial advantages, both in quality and quantity”.

What To Do?

There have always been knowledge workers, so much is known about knowledge work. Much can be learned about knowledge worker productivity from professional firms such as surgical practices, legal firms, architectural firms and accountancy firms. Today’s medical practices, for example, have several types of knowledge workers – specialized nurses, radiological technicians, physician’s assistants and such – that enhance the productivity of physicians, the practices’ key resource..

For manufacturing firms that intend to become and remain Sustainable, significant changes in organizational practices and organizational structure will be needed. This means new and innovative business models. Obviously, doing all of this will require study, careful thought and even more careful implementation. There isn’t any real alternative to embracing the change. Start by reading (or re-reading) Peter Drucker’s Management Challenges for the 21st Century !

Chuck - Austrian AlpsThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are always welcome.

[1] For more on my thoughts on President Obama’s proposal, see: