On specialisation and diversity of skills

I recently caught an episode of the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent, Tomorrow Will Be Better (9 March 2021), describing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bali. As the title suggests, the programme mentions a number of positive things that might come out of the drastic reduction in tourism that Bali has suffered as a consequence of the pandemic: an opportunity to clean up the rubbish, for one, and an opportunity to reflect on what Bali can be other than a tourist destination.

I’m hardly in a position to say how Bali can or should respond to the pandemic, but Bali’s dilemma made me reflect on a similar dilemma at a personal level: on one hand, workers in industrialised societies receive nearly all of their income from a single activity (in my case, providing academic advice for students), and we mostly think of this as the most economically productive use of our time. Yet a change in economic circumstances might leave said workers suddenly producing goods or services no longer wanted, as for people working in hospitality and tourism when the COVD-19 pandemic struck.

It’s easy to say in the abstract that economies should be diversified or that workers should avail themselves of lifelong learning. Day-to-day, however, it’s much more appealing to follow the money: attracting tourists for a holiday destination like Bali, or advising students for an academic like me. Devotees of the Law of Comparative Advantage might even say that Bali doing anything other than welcoming tourists or me doing anything other than advising students represents a misallocation of resources. Occasionally I even feel a little guilty about using my time to work on pet projects when I could (in principle) be doing something more valuable as measured by society’s willingness to pay for it.

An early entry of this blog wondered what I’d do if the demand for software engineers (and/or teachers of them) disappeared. I didn’t find much of an answer, barring a miraculous increase in the demand for science fiction and/or history writing. In fact it wasn’t long after that that I took on the course advisor role that has provided most of my income since. Up until I saw the call for course advisors I’m sure I’d never considered such work as an option, and am not sure I even knew it existed.

For me, having a buffer against a loss of income, the availability of work near enough to what I’ve already done, and a willingness and ability to learn the rest when I start a new project has worked out well enough. I’ve never had to completely retrain and, while the times I’ve spent unemployed might have been boring and frustrating, I’ve never been in danger of starving or losing my home. Lucky me, maybe, and I’m not sure I could recommend simply trusting that opportunities will present themselves.

That said, I don’t seem to have a better idea. Who can predict what the next in-demand skill might be, or when it might be necessary to move on? And who’s going to pay for learning it even if anyone knew what it was? It’s a lot simpler to just keep on taking the money for what’s in demand now.

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