The not-so-hidden message in Hidden Figures

Hopefully the movie Hidden Figures will inspire British Columbians to improve their technical skills, leading to a happy ending

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brexitVANCOUVER, B.C. Jan. 23, 2017/ Troy Media/ – Technological advances challenge economies, eliminating jobs and creating significant social problems for those displaced workers. How can we turn these negatives into positives?

The first step is easy: watch the recently-released movie Hidden Figures. It has no sex, no violence, no special effects and no chase scenes. But it’s entertaining and informative. It’s the story of “coloured computers” at NASA in the early 1960s, black women whose brilliant math skills helped the American space program advance before mechanical computers were readily available.

Apart from reminding us about racial and gender discrimination in the U.S. at that time, the film offers a lesson in how to deal with technological unemployment. The threat comes in the form of a roomful of new IBM equipment that’s going to render the human computers obsolete. The women would then face a job market that did not welcome young women of colour.

However, one woman with foresight realized that as certain jobs are replaced by machines, other often better jobs are generated in operating and servicing those machines. She went to the library (no Internet in those days), found books on the programming language Fortran and other aspects of dealing with early IBM equipment, learned it and taught it to her colleagues.

Once the IBM equipment was installed, the former human computers, far from being redundant, were among the most essential employees at NASA.

More than half a century later, the pattern of technology creating unemployment – and opportunity – continues. But far too few are following the example Hidden Figures offers.

Instead, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report shows that British Columbia has the second highest poverty rate in Canada. The report, Long Overdue: Why BC Needs a Poverty Reduction Plan, hints at a solution to poverty: a $5.8-billion increase in payments to the poor, plus other benefits like heavily-subsidized child care.

B.C. Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux doesn’t believe that government programs are the best way to deal with poverty. She’s right. Passing a law against poverty makes about as much sense as passing a law against the common cold. Taking ever more tax dollars from those working to give to those who aren’t doesn’t lead to a prosperous society.

Medieval Spanish philosopher and scholar Maimonides said the highest form of charity isn’t to give money, it’s to provide jobs. And there are lots of good, high-paying jobs in British Columbia’s fastest growing industrial sector. You guessed it – technology.

B.C. has a high proportion of poor people, but it also has the lowest output of engineers relative to population of any province in Canada. The tech sector in B.C., along with the technical components of more traditional sectors like forestry and health, employ about 150,000 people. Growth of seven per cent a year is forecast – that’s well above other sectors. But this growth will only happen if existing firms and startups can hire the talent they need.

Governments are helping by funding co-op programs, and making it easier and faster for companies to import talent. The potential supply of talent has increased since many Americans now seek positions outside the U.S. But importing techies does nothing for our unemployed and underemployed.

What we need is for many more Canadians to follow the example from Hidden Figures and acquire the knowledge and skills that make them valuable, productive and highly-paid employees. (Wages for tech jobs are about 50 per cent higher than average.)

Acquiring engineering and technical skills isn’t easy, but it’s possible for those who put the time and effort into it. Hard work is required but hard work is rewarding.

In the long run, doing difficult things keeps our brains young and active. In the short run, it can lead to good pay and a job that’s anything but boring, with plenty of opportunities to grow.

Hopefully Hidden Figures will inspire British Columbians to improve their technical skills. Then we can all have a happy ending.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. Roslyn is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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