January employment

Good news in this morning’s employment data from the BLS: the unemployment rate dropped to 8.3% in January as 243,000 jobs were created. All of those jobs were in the private sector with government employment holding steady (after declining for the past few months). And, contrary to previous months, the civilian labor force increased. So more people were looking for work and more people found work. That is a good sign.
The number of involuntary underemployed was essentially unchanged (increased very slightly). The somewhat worrying part, however, is that slack work increased. This may be a reflection of slowing demand – or simply a statistical correction taking into account last month’s large decrease.
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UPDATE: This story ran in the morning edition of the Washington Post (before the data was released) “Modest gains forecast for Jan. jobs report“:

With the government’s monthly unemployment report expected Friday, economists predicted it will show that the United States added about 150,000 jobs last month, sustaining a modest momentum in the economy.
The emphasis might be on modest.

Why do they even bother — and why are we still listening to them?

Kodak's epitaph

From Knowledge@Wharton – “What’s Wrong with This Picture: Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy”:

When new technologies change the world, some companies are caught off-guard. Others see change coming and are able to adapt in time. And then there are companies like Kodak — which saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on January 19 culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy. (emphasis added)

As the story points out, however, Kodak did more than just see the future. They helped invent it — especially in digital photography. But then they could not change to take advantage of what they created.
So here is the epitaph for Kodak: created the future; couldn’t adapt.

Yes, more STEM – but which STEM?

In the Fall 2011 Issues in Science and Technology, former Presidential science advisor Neal Lane has a thoughtful article on “Science Policy Tools: Time for an Update”. He takes on a number of policy issues in that piece. But there was one that especially jumped out at me, concerning STEM education:

The nation is producing more Ph.D.s in some fields than there are jobs, or at least jobs that graduates want and are being trained for, and the imbalance is likely to get worse. This may be especially true for biomedical research, but it is a problem for some other fields as well. The nation may need more scientists and engineers, even Ph.D.s, but not in all areas. There are policy options that could be employed, but they are not easy. Given the rapid pace of change in this age of technology, it is simply not possible to predict what the specific needs will be 20 years from now. The ability of the United States to continue to be a world leader in technological innovation will depend not only on having the necessary technical talent, homegrown and from abroad, but also being able to retrain and redirect that talent in response to new developments.

While we have given a lot of attention to the “original” STEM education activities (both K-12 and higher education), this issue of redeployment of scientific and technical personnel has not been raised. We seem to just assume that people with STEM skills won’t be displaced or need to re-focus their activities. Or maybe we assume that they just do this automatically.
Those may be bad assumptions. It is time to take a close look at the issue of life-long learning in the STEM fields and the process of redeployment of STEM talent. Maybe we need a new set of policies for mid-career STEM professionals – to be able to move in new directions. Dr. Lane has done us a service by raising the issue. Now the scientific community needs to follow up.

More examples of the fusion of manufacturing and services

R&D Magazine recently did a story on MIT’s new research project on Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE). That project will look at how manufacturing can thrive in America. One of the aspects that they are apparently looking at is something that I have been talking about for some time: the fusion of manufacturing and services (see earlier postings). As the story notes:

On a recent visit to a company that makes equipment pipes and tanks for biotechnology companies, she [MIT professor Suzanne Berger] found that a quarter of the company’s revenue comes from repairing and servicing the equipment. “What we’re discovering is that this connection between manufacturing and services is an integral one,” Berger says. “A set of capabilities is gained in making products that then get redeployed in the service part of a business.”

Exactly! I can’t wait to see the project’s interim report due out this spring.
BTW — the story opens with another vignette of a factory visit by Professor Berger:

As she saw on the factory floor, the company has developed an innovative automation system that has increased its business: Between 2004 and 2008, its revenues doubled, and its workforce did, too. (emphasis added).

Clearly, productivity increases in manufacturing can lead to increased employment — not that oppose as some are claiming.

The high value of personal — and social — data

Here is an eye catching story from today’s New York Times — “Personal Data’s Value? Facebook Is Set to Find Out?”:

Facebook, the vast online social network, is poised to file for a public stock offering on Wednesday that will ultimately value the company at $75 billion to $100 billion, cashing in on the fuel that powers the engine of Internet commerce: personal data.

But that punch line is only part of the story. The real value of Facebook isn’t just in the personal data that fuels advertising. It is in the social connections. Facebook does more than track your interests. They turn you into a viral, “word-of-mouth” advertising platform through the “like” and “friends” features. As the story notes:

If Google’s search engine cast the Internet as an instrument of solitary exploration, Facebook requires its users to share what they do with their Facebook “friends.” In some ways, the Facebook offering is a test of how valuable the social model of the Internet could be.
. . .
While advertising is its bread and butter, Facebook has sought new sources of income by becoming a place where goods and services are bought and sold, whether it is virtual farm animals or real concert tickets.
Analysts expect Facebook to be the driver of more such transactions, using the persuasive power of Facebook “friends.” Company officials use the word “frictionless” to signal that whatever you watch, read, listen to or buy on Facebook or its partner sites can be displayed automatically for the friends of your choosing.

That next step is what really makes Facebook worth so much.