Sunday, July 30, 2006

Disposable People: Readying for the Endgame

Since 1984, more than 30 million Americans holding full-time jobs have been laid off – permanently separated from their jobs. Millions fell victim to “foreign competition,” a euphemism for sending jobs to countries where wages are measured in cents, not dollars.

In the mid-1990’s when “offshoring” began in earnest, manufacturing employees who once held jobs providing middle class lifestyles found themselves working in low paid service jobs. Those sporting white collars felt insulated, but their confidence was misplaced. Soon, college graduates who worked in human resources, payroll, accounting, purchasing, materials management, and other disciplines began falling to the sword of outsourcing mania.

Now, 10 years after it all began, some wonder why so many have fallen so silently, and others have quietly accepted wage stagnation, elimination of retirement plans, and diminished health care coverage with nary a peep. The answer is fear. Anxiety is the prevailing emotion in the American workplace, and for good reason.

As Louis Uchitele observes in his recent book, “The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences,” most full-time employees who are laid off have to take jobs that pay far less, and it is pure mythology that the answer for displaced workers is found in new skills -- implying that there are jobs for everyone if they only had the right education. Even today there are not enough jobs for the college-educated employees seeking employment. This is why so many are working jobs for which they are overqualified and millions have disappeared from the unemployment rolls if only because they have been unemployed too long.

It is also why the unemployment statistics foisted upon us by government have been shot through the whiskey prism and do not reflect the reality of an educated, skilled workforce performing jobs far below their capabilities and often paid below a living wage, yet too afraid to speak out for fear they will join the 30 million who have left before them. These employees are whistling past the graveyard, hoping against hope that it won’t happen to them. It is why millions keep their resumes on and with headhunters 24/7/365 and will leave their current employers if they feel even slightly compromised or can make another few cents an hour. Why not? They know they are disposable. Why shouldn’t their employer likewise be tossed out with the trash when opportunity arises?

To date, the American employer has benefited if only because fear is a powerful motivator. Unfortunately, it is a motivator of short duration. The endgame remains to be played. The successful employers will be those who do not sacrifice their employees on the altar of quarterly results, who don't take the easy way out and balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it, but take a longer term view, err on the side of keeping their best performers rather than pretending they are replaceable “assets.” The employees of the post-modern employer, in turn, will come to work not because they are afraid but because they feel valued and understand the quid pro quo for quality, creativity, and longevity is the credible connection of security.

These are the companies that will stand the test of time.


Anonymous Brandon Robinson said...


I tend to regularly agree with your views of our workplace, no matter how bleak they be, but on this one I have to disagree to a level.
The battle lines were drawn long before 1984, that was just our “coming to Jesus” point. Clearly you remember the pushes that started in 1981 on the “Made in the USA” tags that helped attempt to keep the blue collars working, and the fat cat unions happy. These were the beginning of the demise you discussed, but the focus needs to be pointed more toward the individual workers rather than at the employers.
As with all typical American views, the pendulum swings full force both ways, and I for one believe this is the downswing of a 60 year venture. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the strong concepts of employees receiving funds for life after employment gained strong approval. Over the years, benefit after benefit was laid on top of the more increasingly higher paid, less trained employee that worked in a non specialized position. This inherently caused an influx of spending to help bloat business bottom lines, and allow them to continue to dump money on the less than satisfactory employee who was doing nothing but counting the days to his prepaid retirement.
The vicious cycle was stopped dead in its tracks when the same money hungry workers looked to China and Taiwan for “reduced price” crap. Now, unknowingly slitting their own throats by not replenishing the debt they caused to the companies, therefore forcing the outsourcing, less than adequate products, and eventual layoffs.
Rather then learning from the mistakes we made, we trained to “white collar” status, the solution the politicians pushed towards us as the end all, and started the entire process from the ground. The accelerated decline of the white collar jobs that has occurred is solely for the reason of education in the management aspect. Before the company began losing funds, they started the cycle early for greed, once again causing the influx of unemployment in 2000.
So what have we learned? Very little. Americans still spend at outrageous rates beyond their means, and sit glassy eyed thinking their 401k and social security will carry them through their remaining days, while still ducking their heads under the desk when the infamous “consultants” walk through the office. Point fingers where you might, but it all lays on the shoulders of the average Joe, wanting something for nothing, and expecting it to fall in his lap. When it does not, it is the government, those evil Indian bastards, or their parents not caring enough to chock back enough cash for both their BMW and the college tuition.
Answers lie in each and every one of us to get off our ass and do a REAL job. 40 hours is the standard rule of thumb. I dare one of those pansies out there to tell me that is all that their great grandparents worked just to keep alive. To get ahead, try to strive. Mundane employment is of the past. Contrary to your beliefs, you are not too good for “that job.” Waste Management hires drivers at $17/hr starting wage, yet ask one technical person that has been laid off for 5 months collecting their 315/week unemployment if they would do that job, and expect a tongue lashing like no other.

4:43 PM  

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