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Is Your Job In or Out?

It's almost trite to say that computers and the Internet are changing the world — including our careers. A new book discusses the kinds of jobs that are likely to endure and those that will fall by the wayside.

In The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, economists Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane state that "rules-based" repetitive jobs, such as back-office and assembly-line work, are most likely to be contracted to a lower-wage country. Jobs that involve complex communication, and identifying and solving new problems are less vulnerable.

What's more counterintuitive, however, is that low-skilled service jobs, such as janitors, waiters and security guards, are also less prone to be off-shored, Levy and Murnane say. They show that the percentage of U.S. employees holding these jobs — as well as sales, technical and professional positions — has grown over the last 30 years, while manufacturing and clerical jobs — or rules-based jobs — have declined.

When writing about Kinetics self-service machines, Fast Company senior writer Charles Fishman says that "it's unlikely that these machines will mean the end of ticket agents, rental-car clerks, or the front-desk staff at hotels. Instead, those jobs will change — and eventually, there may be more of them, not fewer, because of self-service."

Levy and Murnane's new book provides an explanation to the phenomenon: As automation attracts more customers, there's more demand for personalized service and trouble-shooting, something that computerized programs or voice-mail systems cannot do.

Or not even call-center staff overseas, for that matter. Recently, I asked my bank to add a co-signer to my account but hadn't received a new card by the due date. I called the 800 number on the back of my card and spent 20 minutes speaking to two people with the South Asian accent, who read me rules off the computer screen. I then went to a local bank branch and talked to a customer rep. A week later, I got a new card.

Much has been said about off-shoring, but it helps to know what jobs we are better at than machines — and people overseas.

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