What happens to tech workers when their skills become obsolete?

Adaptability is a lifelong skill.
Adaptability is a lifelong skill.
Image: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie
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In 2010, Steve Jobs announced in a blog post that Apple would no longer support Adobe Flash. At the time, Flash was a popular development tool for creating animations, web games, and other internet applications. Shortly after his announcement, the use of Flash would decline steeply—in 2011, 28.5% of websites used Flash, while last year, just under 3% of websites were using the technology, according to tech-usage survey site W3Techs.

While it’s clear that Apple’s decision would have a sweeping impact on Flash, what about all those tech workers who had invested time and money in building up their expertise in Flash?

Until now, there has been little evidence on how individual workers adjust when a specific skill declines. But a new working paper from economists John J. Horton, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Prasanna Tambe, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, suggests the labor market has the capacity for great resilience.

Their research shows that while demand for Flash skills declined after Jobs’s announcement, there was very little impact on Flash specialists in terms of wages or competition for job openings, even when hours were reduced. There was also no evidence that employers were flooded with applications from out-of-work Flash programmers.

Wages changed very little due in part to how rapidly workers adapted to the change and were quick to pursue other skills according to the researchers. The findings suggest that when their skills became obsolete, the IT workers who adjusted were thinking about the long term and were capable of learning by doing.

Move fast, think long-term

As demand for Flash skills started to fall, “forward-thinking” workers began applying to jobs that were more unlike jobs they had worked in the past. Although building up their Flash skills had required investments—mainly in time put into on-the-job training—workers were quick to abandon skills with no perceived future, the researchers found.

In a survey of Flash workers, respondents reported that, after Jobs’ announcement, their primary career strategy was to learn new skills by taking on projects they wished to learn. They regarded the “learn-while-you-learn” strategy as being more important than traditional approaches such as reading books or taking classes. (This insight was backed up by the researchers’ findings when they examined websites like Stack Overflow, the popular software-engineering forum, to see how workers went about picking up new skills.)

But those surveyed also reported being wary of choosing the wrong skill in which to specialize next. To reduce such risks, workers reported that they depended on information from other programmers, technical discussion boards, and signals from industry leaders at large technology companies for a sense of which technology would be the new standard in their field—showing the great influence tech companies can have on workers’ career choices. 

While illustrating what happened to Flash workers, the research does not necessarily represent common experiences of IT workers. And while the “learning-by-doing” approach may help programmers easily transition to another skill, this strategy doesn’t necessarily apply to other sectors. Those who learn Flash or similar programming skills may have other attributes that make them particularly adaptable or well-suited to the “learn-by-doing” approach.

Where does formal education play a role?

As the IT workforce continues to expand—standing at 4.6 million workers in 2016 versus 450,000 in 1970—the research suggests that “learning-by-doing” will play a bigger role in a rapidly changing economy. But this also brings up the question of where education plays a role—and whether formal education can catch up with the rapid rise of new technologies.

The “learning-by-doing” approach in the Flash workers’ scenario highlights the value of coding schools and boot camps designed to teach students in-demand skills in as little as eight weeks. And whereas traditional educational environments tend to view their curriculum as having an end date (generally aligned with their students’ graduation), Lambda School co-founder Austen Allred envisions students coming back to his coding school every eight years or so to learn new skills.

“We’re built to be a school for life-long learning, not just a one-time school,” he says. “Change is happening so quickly, you can’t study one thing and be set forever.”