TIME JUMP

Posted in Rants on September 26th, 2017 by Ed

This is (gasp) almost four weeks old, but it's important and it kept getting pushed back.

Around Labor Day the New York Times ran a terrific piece comparing the difference across time in the same basic, stereotypically Lowly job – being a janitor – for a large company in 1980 and today. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the salaries are almost identical; I tend to assume, obviously wrongly, that jobs characterized as menial tend to pay less now than in the past. Marta cleans Apple headquarters for $16.60/hr (before you flip out, remember that salaries are inflated in Cupertino) and Gail earned only slightly less inflation-adjusted to clean Eastman Kodak's offices 35 years ago. But the difference, which I'm sure you know from painful experience, is…

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.

This sort of "domestic outsourcing" receives far less attention than the kind involving the more conveniently targetable foreigners, and it is completely out of control. I see ads daily on public transit for "local outsourcing" of IT, which is a slick marketing term for firing all your IT employees and paying piecemeal, an hour here or there, for IT help. The hourly rate is probably crap, but that's not the point. The point is that the hourly rate your company pays Local Outsource Bro Startup (LOBS) is your soup-to-nuts cost; that's it. No payroll tax – that's LOBS's problem. And no benefits, sick time, paid vacation, and so on. Not because LOBS is responsible. Because there are none.

Academics recognize this as the trend toward hiring adjuncts, who work on one semester contracts without benefits, to replace tenured faculty who are owed annoying things like health insurance and can only be forced to teach the number of classes for which they are contracted. Professionals like accountants recognize this in the myriad apps and online services that centralize, piece out, and otherwise package their services in tiny bits for consumers. Even doctors are now being harnessed into "seeing" patients via webcam or replacing specializations like radiology with off-site services that require only an internet connection.

But let's not kid ourselves. It affects us all, but it is hitting hardest among people with the least economic power and with the most replaceable skills. Your massive companies of today are no longer hiring their own security guards, drivers, janitors, warehouse grunts, and the like. Add in tasks that have been effectively eliminated by technology (the typing pool springs to mind) and you have a workforce in which the Gig Economy reigns.

There is a tendency in the professions where this is not the case to shrug and wonder why one should care. The answer is simple: because this economic model will come for you too, someday. Yesterday the janitors, today the payroll department, tomorrow the "Creative Talent" or whoever near the top happens to think of themselves as somehow unique or irreplaceable. If you're lucky, your specific field can hold out until you reach retirement age or the sweet release of death. In time, though, it's inevitable. I've spent almost two decades repeating the same thing on here and any of us who live long enough will eventually discover that it is true: the forces unleashed in the 1980s will not, and probably cannot, rest until every last one of us is paid hourly with no benefits. If you think a postgraduate degree or a Management Position immunizes you, just wait.