"Hidden Figures:" A Great Story on Jobs as well as Civil Rights

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a screening of 21st Century Fox’s “Hidden Figures.”  This is a great movie about the critical contributions made by three African-American women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson -  to put John Glenn into space in the early 1960s.  The movie depicts the struggles these women faced to be treated equally as the consummate professionals they were at a time when the state of Virginia still enforced segregation laws.  It is a wonderful and uplifting story about a mostly unexplored but important dimension of American history.  Go see it!

There is an interesting sub-plot to the movie, which has to do with the usually somewhat dry – at least on the big screen -  topic of automation and jobs.  Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were hired by NASA to be human “computers.”  Part of Johnson’s job was to calculate John Glenn’s exact landing zone in Caribbean as he reentered earth after his historic orbits around the globe.  She did that in her head!  Johnson really was a human “computer.”  Prior to providing NASA with the coordinates, however, Johnson was actually reassigned because the agency had acquired a new IBM supercomputer (for the time), which ostensibly did away with the need for human “computers.”  

Meanwhile, Johnson’s colleague, Dorothy Vaughn, becomes interested in computers.  There is a dramatic scene in which Vaughn is kicked out of a segregated public library.  The reason she dared to frequent the white section of the library was because she needed a copy of an introduction to Fortran, the programming language used to make IBM hardware work for NASA.   Once Ms. Vaughn learns Fortran, she goes into the computer room and masters the machine to make it perform the calculations the space agency needs.

When the IBM computer became operational, the question then became whether the human computers would become obsolete.  The question was answered when Dorothy Vaughn and all of her colleagues were transferred and assigned programming responsibilities to make the most of the machine's capabilities.

This story captures a couple of things that are worth recalling in the context of today’s debate about the relationship between technology and jobs.

First, although we are often reminded that this discussion goes back to the nineteenth century Luddites, it is always worthwhile reflecting on fresh examples.

Second, remember that NASA’s human “computers” were highly trained in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines.  No one in hindsight would argue that the advent of the computer age has lessened the need for people with STEM qualifications.

Third, what Dorothy Vaughn did – train herself and her team in computer programming – is exactly what is needed to take advantage of accelerating innovation, especially in the area of artificial intelligence.  We know that there is a shortage of something on the order of 140,000 to 190,000 people with “deep analytics skills” in the United States. Reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act could help in this regard and make a contribution to fighting inequality.  

Fourth, as a 2014 SIIA study found, software contributes $526 billion to the U.S. economy and directly employs 2.5 million workers and supports millions of other jobs.  These are good jobs, paying annual salaries of $86,457, three times as much as the other industries that grew during the last recession.

The point is not to minimize the challenge that technology can pose with respect to job dislocation.  There is job dislocation and it is legitimate to discuss what must be done to address the consequences of automation.  But by the same token, we must be alert to technology’s potential upside, including in creating previously unimagined jobs.  Dorothy Vaughn did not go to college dreaming she would one day become a software programming pioneer.  That is also worthwhile thinking about in appreciation of “Hidden Figures.” 

Carl Carl Schonander is Director of International Public Policy at SIIA.