Is computer programming really a ‘dirty job’?


Mark Zuckerberg

Joy Buchanan, Tribune News Service

In his TV show “Dirty Jobs,” host Mike Rowe is famous for promoting work that most people don’t want to do, such as septic tank cleaner or snake wrangler. He has exposed audiences to roles that are essential to our society but often avoided, especially by Americans who pursue a college education. Employers find it difficult to recruit people to these positions. Usually the drawbacks to the “dirty jobs” are obvious, even if the pay is high, as it can be for plumbers.

In contrast to the vital roles of maintaining a sewage treatment plant or catching rattlesnakes, tech jobs are comfortable in a physical sense, and they are not low-status. Why does it seem like tech workers are in short supply, along with plumbers?

For the past decade, tech companies have been fiercely competing over a small pool of talent. This competition has increased wages for experienced computer engineers. In 2020 the median income for computer occupations was $88,240, which is more than twice as large as the median income for all occupations in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of Americans training for tech jobs has also increased over the past decade, but not at a rate to match demand. There are drawbacks that prevent more people from entering the industry.

Private sector tech jobs can provide high wages, but low job security. For example, in November, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook parent company Meta would lay off more than 11,000 workers, or 13% of staff. The most recent and widely publicised layoffs at Twitter follow other companies that are also downsizing.

Many companies like Amazon and Netflix expanded rapidly in response to the 2020 pandemic-driven surge in demand for digital services. As tech companies competed to grow their staff of highly skilled workers, they offered very high salaries. The hiring spree in tech continued into 2022, even though Americans were returning to pre-pandemic habits, which explains the current correction. Thousands of employees have been affected by this recent cluster of layoffs, but this is not the end of tech growth.

Amazon first turned a profit in 2003 and last year it saw a revenue of almost half a trillion dollars. The company will keep hiring and will continue paying high wages for the foreseeable future. In the long run, it is good for the profitability of the tech industry to be able to adjust to change and re-allocate labour, even if these adjustments are painful for tech workers. The risk built into these employment situations will keep wages high for what economists call a compensating differential — the elevated wages that must be paid to keep an employee at a high-stress or unpleasant job.

What are the other drawbacks to jobs in tech, aside from instability and the risk of skills becoming obsolete? In new research from the Center for Growth and Opportunity, we document evidence of burnout and frustration among tech workers. Another study about workers who quit tech found that many of them felt like they had been treated unfairly by management. The research indicates that better management practices might significantly alleviate the perceived shortage of talent. Along with advances in new software, tech companies can innovate on ways to manage and reward the contributions of their workers. A third study examined why people reject paid opportunities in computer fields, finding that participants who expected not to enjoy programming were more likely to reject a short-term programming job.

A high-tech desk job does not have the same drawbacks as the schedule of a truck driver or the physical danger associated with oil rigs. However, there are real downsides limiting the number of Americans entering (or staying in) technology fields — despite the higher pay.