This story is from the 2017 Access Magazine: Our Connected Future. Explore more from this issue
Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO, FedEx Corp.

How to Avoid Digging With Spoons

Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO, FedEx Corp., shares his perspectives on new technologies and innovating for good.

Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO, FedEx Corp.

Legend has it that well-known 20th-century economist Milton Friedman once visited a canal-building site in China where thousands of people were digging with shovels to complete the project. Friedman asked the foreman why they didn’t bring in heavy equipment to get the job done better and faster. The foreman told him that would put a lot of people out of work. “In that case, why not have them dig with spoons?” Friedman said.

The Cycle of Innovation

Despite the many benefits of new technologies, people worry that new inventions and innovation in general will take away more jobs than they create. The fact is that technology is making many existing jobs more efficient and adding jobs to the economy, even as other ones go away. That’s the cycle of innovation, and it’s been going on for centuries.

One of our biggest challenges is that many people today want jobs but only know how to dig with spoons. They’re desperate for training in a variety of fields. And such training can’t come too soon. According to the World Economic Forum, over a third of the core skill sets in most jobs will be replaced with new ones by 2020.

Unfortunately, in the United States at least, our K–12 educational system is not preparing young people for some 5.6 million jobs going unfilled today … some of which may not warrant a college degree but require specific training nonetheless.

As human beings we are never more productive than when we connect.

Frederick W. Smith
Chairman and CEO, FedEx Corp.

As a result, companies, universities, community colleges and government organizations are taking it upon themselves to create training for the jobs they need to fill. Some have developed quite innovative approaches:

  • IBM’s Skills Gateway program offers the general public specific learning tracks for technology jobs in areas such as security, the cloud and mobile app development. This approach is just one example of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement.
  • By providing free training and support to socially disadvantaged, aspiring agricultural entrepreneurs, FARMroots (a branch of New York City’s sustainability network) is diversifying the farming industry. More than 300 aspiring and experienced farmers have moved through the program and now see farming as a revitalized economic opportunity.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a global program that helps regions around the world accelerate economic growth and promote social progress through innovation-driven entrepreneurship. The partner regions join MIT faculty and associated teams to develop a customized regional strategy to build business success.

Innovating for Good

Besides delivering the innovative technology we’ve become known for, FedEx, like these organizations, is intent on innovating for good. We believe we’re responsible for creating not only business value for our stakeholders but societal value for our world. That’s why we concentrate on innovations that will do the most good and give the most back. To cultivate a more innovative workforce, we’ve developed training opportunities of our own.

Our Employment Pathways program, for example, creates avenues to meaningful employment for underserved populations. For some young people, that path could be training for in-demand jobs, especially in technology and logistics. We support a program at a nearby community college that provides aircraft mechanic training because we and other airlines have a need for those technicians.

Others may have the training but don’t know how to find the opportunities. That’s why we offer programs that connect both veterans and young people to employers seeking talent.

I’m also proud to say that the state of Tennessee, the FedEx home base, was the first to provide tuition-free community college education to high school graduates so that people who want good non-degreed jobs can get the training they need. Other states are beginning to follow suit.

A Connected Future

As human beings we are never more productive than when we connect.

Whether we’re linking to people, products, or ideas, a spark ignites that lights the way to greater creativity. Simply put, connection spurs innovation, and innovation delivers big dividends to humankind.

Long-time business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter espouses an innovation concept she calls “kaleidoscope thinking.” She described it as shaking up your thinking to find different patterns from the same bits of reality — much as you do when you twist a kaleidoscope to see new patterns.

To encourage kaleidoscope thinking in all realms, FedEx now formally recognizes it through our 2017 FedEx Young Innovators List. On it are not only people but also cities, countries, and big concepts such as space travel and trade. It even includes a car. We hope such recognition inspires everyone to look near and far for new ideas or combinations of existing ones to create a more connected future — one in which our work is more fulfilling, our lives more satisfying, and the possibilities are endless.


  1. Why didn't you run for president of USA?

    I'm all about Kalidiscope Thinking! I've always connected and either help to promote their own success or help to improve my own. As I help myself, I am able to help others.

    Imelda June 28, 2017
    1. Mr. Smith…RUN FOR PRESIDENT…GO TO WASHINGTON. Please!!!!!

      Delandro Walker July 18, 2017
  2. It is fascinating to see the progress technology is making! I appreciate that FedEx takes such an important part in training, developing and simply embracing the changes our world faces. It is exciting, but at the same time, it can be intimidating. Working at a company that is exploring and sharing the world as it changes is much appreciated. Our world is starting to look much like the Jetsons! What foresight the creator of that favorite TV show of the 60's had!

    Michele Martin June 29, 2017
  3. From the smartest businessman I have known.

    Mike Babineaux June 29, 2017
  4. On Sept.15,1987 I started a life as a family member of FEDEX EXPRESS and this Sept. will be 30 years as a team player. I have seed many changes take place, and the possibilities are still endless. Thanks for the many opportunities to grow with this great company.

    Charlie Mac
    May God Bless The Both of us.

    Charles Harris EE# 70613 June 29, 2017
  5. Love our president's views on new technologies and innovations.

    Specifically agreed to use the mode of vocational training to avoid digging with spoons (Ha-ha) to adapt to the rapid development of AI, IOT, Clouds … so on.

    2017 Federal Express Young Innovator List is great!
    I would like to find more tips on FedEx innovation from the ideas of these young innovators!

    Shili Xiao July 3, 2017
  6. Very interesting and useful information

    S m moulana July 5, 2017
  7. Excellent article! A connected future is indeed the only way to save our plant and continue the human evolution! Knowledge is one of the few things that grows with sharing. FedEx is a global company and there is no other way to grow than to be well connected to all the corners of the global!
    Thank you for the insight Mr. Chairman.

    VB Joshi July 12, 2017
  8. is there a program through fedex that offers free training? or a consolidated list outside of fedex

    josh brendlinger July 12, 2017
  9. Inspirational!

    Kenneth Wilcox July 13, 2017
  10. Inspiring !!!

    It is in our hands to build a better future !!!

    Many thanks for encouraging positive thinking, continuous learning and constructive acting.

    To follow 🙂

    Aurora Martínez July 13, 2017
  11. I am happy to see the progress being made in this area. I started at FedEx 6 years ago for my skills in Quality Assurance Testing. At one point my Manager tried to hire more people with my similar skill sets, but had to reduce the qualifications just to find people to apply.
    I am still getting calls from my 6 year old resume for Quality Assurance & Performance Testing jobs up to this week, so there is still a need for Technical Skills in the job market. This skillset is not taught is many colleges.

    I am also willing to expand my skillset and assist at FedEx if needed.


    hugh harris July 13, 2017
  12. I would like to contact someone within Fed Ex who looks at innovative technologies for delivery of products. 8 Rivers Capital and THOR specifically is a entrepeneur company
    in Durham NC that is developing a space launch system that is cheap accurate and can deliver a package anywhere in the word in 45 minutes. It is an electric tube system to launch payloads in space or terrestially. This is our second game changing technology.
    8 Rivers has developed Net Power, in Laporte TX that produces clean energy and CO2 from Natural Gas. We do big world changing projects and I want to know who in Fed Ex to talk or send an email to. Thanks in advance !

    Lawrence P. Graviss July 15, 2017
  13. FedEx itself has proven to me that they do go beyond, they're constantly training employees across the globe and for that I thank you Mr Frederick Smith for letting me be part of the family. I look forward to many years of FedEx technology

    Shaun Brownlee July 19, 2017
  14. Great perspective!

    Edith Pérez July 31, 2017
  15. When are you going to concentrate on your core business and deliver my package?

    Nigel Marshall August 15, 2017

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