High-knowledge workers such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, clerics and teachers have been around for a long time, although their number has increased exponentially in the past 100 years. The largest group of knowledge workers, however, barely existed until the start of the 20th century, and took off only after the second world war. They are knowledge technologists — people who do much of their work with their hands (and to that extent are the successors to skilled workers), but whose pay is determined by the knowledge between their ears, acquired in formal education rather than through apprenticeship. They include X-ray technicians, physiotherapists, ultrasound specialists, psychiatric case workers, dental technicians and scores of others. In the past 30 years, medical technologists have been the fastest-growing segment of the labour force in America, and probably in Britain as well.
In the next 20 or 30 years the number of knowledge technologists in computers, manufacturing and education is likely to grow even faster. Office technologists such as paralegals are also proliferating. And it is no accident that yesterday’s “secretary” is rapidly turning into an “assistant”, having become the manager of the boss’s office and of his work. Within two or three decades, knowledge technologists will become the dominant group in the workforce in all developed countries, occupying the same position that unionised factory workers held at the peak of their power in the 1950s and 60s.
The most important thing about these knowledge workers is that they do not identify themselves as “workers” but as “professionals”. Many of them spend a good deal of their time doing largely unskilled work, eg, straightening out patients’ beds, answering the telephone or filing. However, what identifies them in their own and in the public’s mind is that part of their job involves putting their formal knowledge to work. That makes them full-fledged knowledge workers.
Such workers have two main needs: formal education that enables them to enter knowledge work in the first place, and continuing education throughout their working lives to keep their knowledge up to date. For the old high-knowledge professionals such as doctors, clerics and lawyers, formal education has been available for many centuries. But for knowledge technologists, only a few countries so far provide systematic and organised preparation. Over the next few decades, educational institutions to prepare knowledge technologists will grow rapidly in all developed and emerging countries, just as new institutions to meet new requirements have always appeared in the past. What is different this time is the need for the continuing education of already well-trained and highly knowledgeable adults. Schooling traditionally stopped when work began. In the knowledge society it never stops.
Knowledge is unlike traditional skills, which change very slowly. A museum near Barcelona in Spain contains a vast number of the hand tools used by the skilled craftsmen of the late Roman empire which any craftsman today would instantly recognise, because they are very similar to the tools still in use. For the purposes of skill training, therefore, it was reasonable to assume that whatever had been learned by age 17 or 18 would last for a lifetime.