Who are the knowledge workers?

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand, we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries — knowledge workers are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workforce outnumbers industrial

Throughout the developed world knowledge workers already outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber these two groups added together.

America has roughly as many knowledge workers as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work the most important economic sector in terms of economic and political clout.

Knowledge worker is a new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase saying the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Nevertheless, Drucker popularised the term and has spent many of the last 40 years expanding on the original idea and explaining its wider implications.

Don’t let me be misunderstood

Although the term knowledge worker is widely used and people generally understand what the term implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning — even among knowledge workers.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers are knowledge workers, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. Teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics are clearly included. Writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people can all be categorised as knowledge workers – we’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants can all be described as knowledge workers.

One key difference between knowledge workers and other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be knowledge workers who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training – they are a minority.

You need a degree, mostly

As a rule, knowledge workers have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger knowledge workers. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The key here is knowledge workers each individually posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, knowledge workers are well paid – some are extremely well paid. There are unionised knowledge workers, but they don’t tend to be organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation: few knowledge workers get paid overtime yet most are expected to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Knowledge workers are mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand

This is particularly applicable in New Zealand, which operates a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

To understand this, compare the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers and you’ll notice they are substantially higher than in many competing nations.

Australia looks particularly attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes of knowledge worker. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.