Number please

As a little boy, I always dreamt of one day becoming a telephone operator. Sure, other kids thought it far cooler to be cops, firemen and underwriters, but I was entranced by the romantic life of a telephone operator.

I’d lie awake nights imagining myself manning a switchboard in some godforsaken backwater, but dressed like James Bond, sipping a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) and nonchalantly helping a complete stranger track down the phone number of a long lost lover, estranged family member or maybe even Money Penny herself.

Alas, I jest. I actually aspired to play centerfield for the Mets and bat lead-off just like my childhood hero, Tommie Lee Agee. Sadly, I was caught up in an early steroids scandal and my dream quickly turned to ashes (heavily-muscled ashes, but ashes nonetheless).

I dialed-up the “young Steve Cody as telephone operator wanna-be” tall tale for a short and not so sweet reason: a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey says telephone operators rank third on a list of the top 10 occupations most likely to disappear within a decade. The cause isn’t the hoax otherwise known as global climate change but, rather, robotics and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Getting back to the dead pool and which career is most vulnerable, you’d be correct if you guessed locomotive firers.

In case you didn’t know (and shame on you for not being more aware of the world around you), locomotive firers are responsible for monitoring instruments on trains as well as watching for signals and dragging equipment. Dragging equipment? I can’t speak for you, but dragging locomotives doesn’t strike me as a fun way of spending the next 40 years of one’s life.

The firers edged out your friends and mine, motor vehicle electronic equipment installers and repairers (a career I briefly considered pursuing after graduating from high school).

As you already know, your friendly local telephone operators finished third. They were followed by postal service sorters (a real bummer for Newman fans everywhere) and shoe machine operators and tenders (one wonders if shoe machine tenders are as gentle as their job titles would suggest?).

You can check the article for the five other occupations that will soon join their horse-and-buggy maker colleagues in the special section of Elysian Fields set aside for those who don’t anticipate what’s next.

But, fear not. All is not lost.

In fact, one university in particular, Northeastern, has thought long and hard about the plight of everyone from locomotive fixers and motor vehicle electronic equipment installers to toll booth and telephone operators alike.

My alma mater’s visionary president, Joseph Aoun, began putting in place a revolutionary curriculum years ago that, he says, will graduate “robot-proof students.” This WashPo piece spells it out in far more eloquent prose than I ever could.

NU, which was one of the first universities to offer the cooperative education (AKA Co-Op) model, has extended and expanded the novel program globally while at the same time doubling down in such white hot emerging sectors as nanoscience, marine biology and computer design.

Co-Op is the school’s special sauce. It’s a five-year program that perfectly balances classroom theory with real world business experiences directly related to one’s major. Mix-in decades-long partnerships with mega corporations and more recent hook-ups with tech hub hot shots and you’ve got yourself all the ingredients needed to produce robot-free graduates.

And Northeastern is helping the individual who is already in the workforce stay relevant or change a career. For example, ALIGN allows individuals to combine their current background with new knowledge in tech and computer science and CAMD helps busy executives and current students update skills in the arts, media and design.

Traditional liberal arts schools are desperately trying to play catch-up, but how can students with little more than a sheepskin and a summer internship at TGI Fridays possibly compete with those who boast 24 months of on-the-job experience in robot-proof fields? It’s like asking the lowly New York Jets to blow away the world champion New England Patriots at Foxboro.

I could go on, but I’m handling the midnight shift at the Middletown, NJ, train station and need to call the operator for the number of the nearest locomotive dragging service. Those babies are heavy!

 

6 thoughts on “Number please

  1. With all due sympathy for anyone who’s lost (or will lose) a job to automation, I’ve been around long enough that I was working for the Bell System when the introduction of direct dial for long distance calls (“what’s long distance?” we ask today) was a big issue for those worried about telephone operators being laid off. We had a number (worked up by Bell Labs I think) that if LOCAL call dialing hadn’t been introduced 50+ years earlier, every man, woman and child in America would have to be employed to put through each others’ calls! When it comes to economic and productivity growth going forward, robotics/AI are probably our best hope, though it won’t feel that way to those who lose their jobs.

  2. I distinctly remember your desire to one day become a mirror which, in retrospect, was brilliant. Mirrors will never be replaced by robotics or A.I.

  3. I always wanted to be a mirror when I grew up. I then learned that that was impossible.

  4. I heard that telephone operators have their hangups. Not the right job for you.