Are Tech Workers Essential?

Should tech workers be considered essential during coronavirus shutdowns?

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Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly changed economies worldwide. Amid pandemic-related shutdowns, many countries and regions have divided workers into “essential” and “non-essential” categories.

It’s clear that some kinds of workers fall into the former category. Hardly anyone would argue that doctors and nurses are non-essential. Even formerly invisible categories of workers — like the Doordash and Postmates delivery drivers previously lumped into the nebulous category of “gig workers” — are often cited today as among front-line heroes keeping the essential machinery of society operating.

What about those who work in tech, though? Are tech workers essential?

At first, it seems like the answer should be a clear “no.” When thousands are falling sick from a global pandemic every day, it feels like snappy, optimized websites and nicely-designed Pinterest boards should fall by the wayside. But as with most things in tech, if you dig just a bit deeper, the picture gets murkier fast.

Tech underlies a variety of consumer products and services. But it also increasingly provides the backbone for scores of other industries — logistics, supply chain management, power generation and distribution, and manufacturing, just to name a few. And in many cases, the same companies that provide services which feel less significant during pandemic times also provide the technologies that allow essential infrastructure to run.

Microsoft, for example, is responsible for the wildly-successful XBox gaming platform. But it also provides the server operating systems and other software required to run such essential infrastructure as AI and electronic medical records for health systems. Amazon will deliver you a spatula in 2 days, but it also provides the cloud computing power for a large number of major companies.

Likewise, Facebook updates you on the pandemic bread your friends have recently baked, but is also a popular place to organize protests against police violence. And companies like Google and Apple provide high-end consumer devices and phones, but they’re also behind major efforts to automate Covid-19 contact tracing.

It’s all very confusing. And according to a new survey by business intelligence company Blind, even tech workers themselves are unsure of their status. Of 2,000+ respondents, 32% felt they were essential workers. 27% said they were not essential, but were still working.

As one would expect, different companies’ workers felt differently about their jobs. Only 30% of Amazon tech workers felt they were essential, versus 50% at Intel. That makes sense, as Intel provides the computer chips that underlie thousands of devices, including much of America’s critical cellular infrastructure. Intel also occupies a crucial place in America’s supply chain for tech products, making its output both an important aspect of the tech economy and increasingly an element of national security.

Some workers felt that they were not essential, but that their work was still meaningful. 40% of respondents from Microsoft felt this way, likely reflecting the company’s position at the crossroads of consumer and enterprise tech. Performing essential (or at least important) work led to a perception of strong job security for most tech workers. Nearly half of workers at Google are “not at all worried” about job security, while more than half of Microsoft workers are only occasionally worried about job security.

This security doesn’t extend to all workers in the tech sector, though. According to Blind, almost a third of Uber workers were “constantly worried” about job security, reflecting challenging conditions in the ridesharing world, which has seen ridership drop 70%+ in some cities during Covid-19. While many tech companies are coming out of the pandemic intact (or even stronger than before), sectors that rely on transportation and in-person interaction (as well as tourism and hospitality) have been hit just as hard as non-tech sectors.

This underscores the point that tech is no longer one homogeneous sector. Tech companies address logistics (Amazon), transportation (Uber, Lyft, Bird, Lime, Tesla), infrastructure/operations (Microsoft, large companies like Oracle and SAP), medicine (23andMe, Forward), and myriad other parts of the economy.

In determining if tech workers are essential, it’s not enough to simply say that they “work in tech.” We have to go deeper, and ask what their company does, and specifically what they do within that company. A game designer for Microsoft’s XBox division might not be essential (though some gamers would argue otherwise, especially after months of lockdowns), but a coder who develops patches for Microsoft’s server OS (used in all kinds of critical applications) might be essential.

Tech has pervaded all aspects of modern society. Some may not be essential. But some almost certainly are.

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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