Quit Yer Bitchin’

June 2, 2012

Yesterday we heard that unemployment ticked up slightly from 8.1% to 8.2%. With this news the posturing, primping, hand wringing and (worst of all) finger pointing began. Congress, pass this bill! Mr. President, you suck! Oh yea, well you suck! Well you’re a feckless booger head! Well you’re a girly petunia schmeghead! Well you were born in a van by the river! Well you read Twilight…and liked it!!! WOULD YOU ALL SHUT THE HELL UP!!!!

Damn, am I the only one who thinks it’s like listening to elementary school girls arguing on the playground! The only thing worse than the figure heads bickering is the sound of their supporters, surrogates, and brainless followers playing a collective game of, “Oh yea, well yer mama!” When I was a kid my parents were friends with a couple that used to fight constantly. I was the same age as one of their sons so I used to hang out with him a lot. I can remember his mom and dad getting liquored up at night and fighting. They’d get mean; yelling, screaming, calling each other names, threatening to walk out. Stuff no kid should hear their parents say to each other but because they were on a booze-fueled roll, it came out at full volume. I can remember looking at my friend and he’d be sitting there in his room coloring or playing with a car acting like he didn’t hear it but I can only imagine how it made him feel inside. I was too young to get it, but now I reflect and realize what a lousy situation those two selfish parents put their kids through.

Now I’m watching our elected leaders, the people who want to be our elected leaders, and their collective hangers-on, behaving in the same selfish way. Throwing around words like “feckless” and “vulture” and “weak” and a “load of you-know-what” they talk about each other in a way that makes their rabid followers feel better but does nothing to actually solve anything and makes those of us who would like to see the situation improve feel like they are more focused on Michael Jackson’s man in the mirror than anyone else in the room. Again, it’s all finger pointing and name calling. Let’s put this situation into focus…

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are currently 12.5 million unemployed workers in the US. Additionally, there are 3.7 million unfilled job openings. As previously mentioned, the unemployment rate is 8.2%. Gotcha. Also according to the BLS, that unfilled req number is trending up, meaning companies are slowing their hiring activity and letting unfilled jobs stay vacant. So what if we held a giant job fair and filled all those jobs? Seriously.

Recruiting and Staffing professionals are generally held to a metric called “time to fill.” In other words, they are measured by how quickly they fill a job opening. If your time to fill is too long, you get fired. If your time to fill is fast, you do well. In this case, without any government program, intervention, stimulus, or tax, we could drop the unemployment rate to 6% by just filling the job openings that are currently on the books. Really. Companies can make a decision to act on their own. I know this is a concept that is becoming more and more foreign in a capitalist economy. Seems like we’d rather complain about the barriers to open and free commerce than actually engage in it.

Ok, so in theory my idea sounds good but realistically I know that will NEVER happen. Why? Couple of reasons. First off, companies can be like that guy you knew who kept waiting for the perfect woman to come along. You remember him. Everyone was either too this or too that. Weird laugh. Blue eye shadow. Loved her cat. Creepy oil painting of her last boyfriend surrounded by candelabra… Whatever. Basically he never made a choice because he’d set too high of a standard. A standard that didn’t exist. He just kept seeing what was out there. Eventually he became your old, bald confirmed bachelor friend who your kids called “Uncle.” Point is, like your friend, these companies may be retaining a nice wad of cash in their pockets and keeping their options open for the next best thing, but in the end they’ll be alone and largely unproductive. They’ll leave open job reqs that you know will not be filled. Seeking entry level accountant with CPA and five years experience, $10 per hour. Really?

Second, on the other hand, some jobs really are that hard to fill. They require skills and qualifications that aren’t in great supply. Remember the Star Trek movie where they went back in time to get a couple of humpback whales to save the Earth. I think it was called “Star Trek: We Saved Spock, Now What the Hell Do You Want Us to Do?” Anyway, in that movie Scotty had to invent transparent aluminum for some company so they could build a tank to hold the whales. Why? Because to do their job, they needed a commodity that didn’t exist. So what can a company do? Well, back in the olden days when I was a young HR whipper-snapper we had this thing called Training and Development. It was a novel idea where companies would actually invest in real and useful lessons that built employee skills. What happened to mess this up? Two things, since training people involved identifying skill deficiencies and then developing tailored programs to address those deficiencies it’s kinda hard. It’s a lot easier to just do “leadership training.” So we invested in management while leaving our worker bees to figure it out on their own. As punch presses became CNC milling machines we just laid off the button pushers and went looking for programmers. Second, everyone realized that training, good training, was expensive. When faced with cutting costs, training unfortunately is a commodity that gets cut early on.

This is not to say that it’s all industry’s fault that reqs can’t get filled. Job seekers can be fickle as well. Check out a couple of my earlier blogs and you’ll see that I skewer them as well for being unrealistic about the jobs they’ll take. Instead of truly considering an “entry level” opportunity as a chance to get a foot in and grow with an organization, they instead hold out for some glamorous yet illusive, Nietzsche-esque uber-job. Problem is pop culture jobs just don’t exist in the real world. On TV people have the exotic assignments in fabulous locales surrounded by beautiful and interesting people. In the real world people go to work. Seriously, that’s it. Go to work, eat dinner, try to raise your kids not to be assholes, repeat for the next 50 years. It really is just that simple. In between you try to do good things and maybe make a positive impact on the world, but in the end, Mad Men is a bunch of bullshit.

There are plenty more reasons why my idea won’t take hold. Demographics, the locations of job openings vs locations of available workers, etc, etc. But instead of firing off a comment and reminding me of some obscure reason that I failed to list, think about this. Maybe we just don’t want to fix this problem for the same reason my parent’s friends stayed together. What would we bitch about?

Whence cometh loyalty? For some reason this topic has come up a few times for me in the last week. Initially it was a conversation with a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel who was doing a story on whether or not young workers lack “professionalism.” Since then I’ve seen stories in the media about what new grads will need to do to maximize their success in a slowly improving job market (be professional, communicate, network, etc.) and had a conversation with an employer about how he only wants “hungry” students willing to prove themselves (in an unpaid internship). Then about a week ago I was sitting in a focus group for a colleague and the conversation turned to skills needed by young workers. Most of the employers at the table were adamant that Gen Y lacks the professionalism and drive needed to be successful, and that colleges of business should be teaching classes to address this. It was the same, tired argument about a lack of enthusiasm, drive, ambition, and enterprise that generally emanates from well-seasoned groups like this. During the conversation, the talk turned to employee longevity and the loyalty that goes with that. The older employers at the table said that younger workers job hop too much and they wouldn’t interview anyone whose resume didn’t show longevity.

I couldn’t keep it in any longer… In 15 years of HR experience I have been part of the elimination of almost 3000 jobs. Some were through reductions in force, some were location closings. But all had the impact of eliminating jobs and putting people out of work through no fault of their own. All were economic decisions driven by company leadership as either part of a strategy for cost reduction or in response to reduced demand for products and services. Now before you start calling me some kind of pinko commie one-percenter, let me say that I totally get the need to reduce staffing when you don’t have anything for them to do. I’m not saying keep unneeded resources the way my nutty neighbor hoards old newspapers and empty prescription bottles. That’s just dumb, in BOTH cases!

Funny that I feel the need to head off that kind of argument before I’ve even made my point. Must be watching too much cable news….

Anyway, I told the collected employers that my experience in the people business has shown that most companies operate in order to make a profit for their shareholders and that means that, if necessary, they will eliminate jobs and shed the associated costs. It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is. People are a resource that cost money and depending on the company’s philosophy, sometimes you have to eliminate jobs to cut costs.

However, I entered the people business at the beginning of the late-80s recession and since then have been in it in one form or another. In that time, most of today’s young workers were born and grew up (gad, it pained me to say that!) So, if I’m busy laying their parents off and shutting down where they work and sending them home sometimes with no prior warning, how does that impact their views of “company loyalty”?

One of the employers said that his company provided outplacement services to laid off employees. That’s great, I responded. But that’s not always the case. Out of all the layoffs I participated in, we only did that once with a small pool of upper-level employees. In most other cases we laid people off that day with no warning whatsoever. We also brought in security and did other things to protect company property from the ravages of a rioting hoarde…a hoarde that never rose up. But didn’t it look comforting to have the Pinkertons at the ready just in case some ne’re-do-well decided to get out of line. Looked really good on the Channel 9 news.

How did it really look to the people impacted? On one of those occasions I ended my job by laying myself off. In that case I knew it was coming. In another case my boss let me go with no warning after I had let half of my team go. I got to go home and tell my kid that the good news is we’d have more time to hang together. The bad news is that was about all we’d be able to afford to do! In another case, I saw my Dad retire after more than 30 years with his employer. This, you’ll want to say was the pinnacle of traditional employer/employee loyalty, right? A young man joins a company at its lowest ranks and rises to become a senior executive before retiring. Great story. Except for one fact. My Dad accepted an early retirement package. That’s a nice way of laying off old people who have been there a while. Was he ready to retire? Probably, my mom was sick and he wanted to spend time with her. But was retiring his choice? Was his time as productive worker at an end? Probably not. Then again, some older workers haven’t had the option to “retire.” In many cases I just told them that what they were going to do was up to them, they just couldn’t do it here anymore.

Not to get off track, but come to think of it, what do these folks retire on? It’s certainly not a company paid pension in most cases. Those are as rare as an Edward Cullen steak. No, they have to retire on a 401K that they contributed to and hopefully managed well. Over the past 10 years many companies (again, in the spirit of cost savings) have cut their contributions to this benefit, or stopped contributing all together.

What has the collective impact of all this been on young people just entering the workforce? Well, I haven’t studied all the empirical evidence, but I have a hunch based on conversations and observations of this group. Their experience is that companies, in general, are not loyal to the employees who work for them. We have created an environment where, instead, employees look out for their own best interest. If that action benefits the company (and many times it does) then cool, but if not, so be it. And if it be, then I’ll take my ball (knowledge, skills, connections, program, Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, etc.) and go play elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that layoffs and plant closings are the only factors contributing to a demise in perceived loyalty. It’s more the product of an increasingly self-absorbed society. Heck, if you want to be a sociologist about it, what impact has free agency in professional sports, musical frontmen “going solo,” and the inability of anyone who wins The Bachelor to get married and have a normal boring life had on society’s views of loyalty. Private equity firms rape and pillage the countryside! Sports teams pack up and leave town under the cover of darkness! Sammy Hagar replaces David Lee Roth only to have the Van Halens kick him out and bring Diamond Dave back! I’d say it’s anarchy, but it has become such the norm that it can’t be anarchistic.

Josiah Royce writes, “There is only one way to be an ethical individual. That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady, — in the spirit of all the loyal.” To him, loyalty was the product of serving one’s cause, sometimes forgoing individual needs, and continuously honing in on one’s core mission until you surrounded yourself with people and resources that support that core mission. When you’ve reached a level of full commitment to the cause, you are loyal. Loyalty, then, is something directed to “things” more than it is to people. In today’s terms, young people are committed to causes more than they are to people. To them, people come and go, but the cause can remain constant. Through this we see a rise in social activism, possibly fueled by equal doses of naivety and enthusiasm, but the level of dedication is greater than seen in previous generations. We also see a rise in entrepreneurship, a desire to be in more control of one’s own destiny and less subject to the whims of leaders and strategies they don’t control.

So what happens when that cause is ill-defined? Take the rise in corporate gobbledygook known as “Mission Statements.” These useless code phrases dot the landscape like so many vacuous billboards. “We change people’s lives.” “Driven to be the best.” Give me a freaking break. In both cases the core mission of both enterprises was to deliver maximum return to shareholders. Period. Again, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. But because we muddy the water by believing our own bullshit and insisting that these half-baked catch phrases are really what we do, we cloud the true mission of the firm and, in Royce’s view, fail to clarify our cause. No cause = no loyalty.

What was interesting to me in that focus group was the reaction of one of the employers to my hypothesis. An older gentleman responded politely saying he heard what I was saying, but still wasn’t going to hire anyone who jumped around. That’s fine, I thought, most of the best ones are doing their own thing and won’t want to work for you anyway!