During the 2017 Academy Awards, a reputedly meticulous mistake-proof process was disrupted by a distracted envelope giver. Not just a messenger, the envelope giver was a partner at the prestigious accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Most likely distracted by a tweeted photo of Emma Stone he had just sent, he gave Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope. As a result, for several minutes, we all thought that La La Land was the Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight.
The Academy Awards envelope giver is a highly skilled worker that we rarely notice…until something goes wrong.
Highly Skilled Invisible Labor
Last year for our Labor Day stories of highly skilled invisible workers, we looked at sound engineers, fact checkers, and (my favorite) wayfinders. This year, we have two more that “get no outward recognition from the end user.” But still, according to journalist David Zweig, they are meticulous, enjoy responsibility, and care little about being known.
Few of us have heard of Apple designer Jim Reekes. And yet, he was the person responsible for the most memorable Apple tritone. Believing that the startup sound framed our entire experience, below, he describes the need for a “fat C-major chord”:
Sticking with sound, we can think of the piano tuner. Having observed the technique of a master tuner at my home, I can only recognize the ubiquitous role of these anonymous artisans. At home and at concerts, we notice when they lapse. But always, when tuners do their job, we applaud the performer.
To conclude, I wanted to return to the wayfinder. As the people that enable us to find our way at airports, in corporate compounds, and indeed, in all public places, we need to add some behavioral economics.
How we respond can depend on the direction of an arrow. On signs that tell us where to go, an upward pointing arrows keeps us moving. However, when arrows point downward, whether walking or driving, we tend to slow down.
In addition, even the restroom sign sends a message. Shown on the right, the Geneva airport wayfinders were asked to make a more realistic female shape:
Our Bottom Line: Highly Skilled Anonymous Labor
David Zweig tells us that perfection equals invisibility. As a result, everywhere, unknowingly, we encounter highly skilled anonymous laborers. Ranging from election ballots to product fragrances and wayfinders to sound designers, highly skilled labor is with us every day.
As economists, we can cite labor as a primary factor of production because it exists naturally. However, I like to think of labor as human capital. Similar to the tools and equipment that populate our factories, our education and training add to the human capital that fuels our economy.
Then, becoming more precise with his definition, journalist David Zweig identifies the highly skilled anonymous workers. And yes, so many skilled and unskilled workers are similarly anonymous, However, today’s goal was to spotlight the unrecognized individuals with considerable human capital.
My sources and more: Thinking about Labor Day, I returned to David Zweig’s Invisibles, to his Atlantic article, and to past econlife posts for examples of unnoticed highly skilled workers. Then, to confirm my Academy Award story, WSJ had the facts.