Over the last two months we’ve had a nice little flurry of worthwhile thoughts on employment. Before that, though, let’s have a brief look through that same prism at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address.
On jobs in America, there wasn’t a lot. He had two correct general ideas, with “how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?,” followed, nine of the speech’s 72 (!) applause breaks later, by “today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated,” so “workers have less leverage for a raise.” Around them, however, we heard the wrong suggestions – “equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage,” and calls for more education, particularly “hands-on computer science and math classes.” There is nothing off beam with either employers choosing to provide paid leave or the existing laws prohibiting sex discrimination, but further mandates would be misguided. Training, especially with the irritating emphasis on that related to science as if to imply that that is where there are enough jobs for the students, still too often only shifts who gets scarce positions. His free community college proposal is worthy of further study, but best was his plan for a redoubled cancer cure effort, which, if it materializes, could open a new vein of opportunities.
Now to those four ideas. The first was in a December 1st Wall Street Journal piece, “When a Job Offer Comes Without a Job.” Author Lindsay Gellman described how Facebook, Intuit, and other companies are grabbing the most promising recruits first and determining where to assign them second. What she called “program hiring” is new only in name, as it is quite similar to what large organizations actually did from the 1940s into the 1980s, when promotion from within was routine and they started workers at levels lower than now existing to see if they would show up, behave themselves, and so on. My father-in-law was to become an innovative Eli Lilly engineer, but his first work assignment there, despite his science degree, was sweeping out one of the labs. Many others started as office boys and file clerks, and “from the mailroom to the boardroom” became a cliché. This program hiring is exactly what many workers need, as the concept of a career, especially with one company, has taken a beating since the Great Recession. Even though this job-assignment process is, unlike in the past, cooperative between employer and employee, apparently more of the latter are fussier than were those in previous generations about even temporary positions. I recommend millennials adopt one of the best and most underrated qualities of the baby boom generation and put up with unfitting work to get positioned for better opportunities, now that these re-pioneering organizations are setting them up for just that.
The second was also in the Journal, and explained how an even older hiring methodology is being brought back. Rachel Feintzeig’s January 5th “The Boss Doesn’t Want Your Résumé” discussed a few information-technology companies starting the staffing process by having applicants perform sample job tasks, such as project work, and by writing things to show what they know. Since the candidates are unseen by hiring managers and they do not put their names in their work, race and sex discrimination, as well as halo effects from such usually job-irrelevant qualities of charming interview conversation and more well-known previous employers, are cut way back or eliminated completely. The whole thing is much the same as blind auditions in music, in which judges do not see the candidates. It is new to the white-collar and professional world, but was once common in physical jobs, particularly around the turn of the previous century, when prospective bricklayers might be asked to carry stacks of them to show they could do it. Although what Feintzeig described does not replace organizations’ obtaining and using demographic and historical information, it does put job skills at the front of the process, a huge change.
The third was what might be called a right-wing business finding, from of all places the Harvard Business Review. Published on January 4th and from three authors, it had the stunning title “Diversity Policies Don’t Help Women or Minorities, and They Make White Men Feel Threatened.” I am a Caucasian male with a 20-year corporate business career, and have made many related observations: that the problem with “diversity” is that hiring, job assignment, and promotion opportunities are fixed in number making them zero-sum; that that word itself has been distorted to mean preferential treatment for those in certain groups, instead of its still-current dictionary sense of synonymous with “variety”; that it is also often a euphemism for arranging for women and minorities to have special chances for top positions, and has little to do with workplace behavior; that real human differences go way beyond genital type and skin pigmentation; and so on. The article made many of these same points. It also posited two more: that such policies served mostly as legal defense structures, their existence being crucial as talking points to hold off losing lawsuits in cases of true discrimination; and that in some situations they actually held back black women (who have been running degree-earning rings around black men).
In sharp contrast, we had a fine example of what could be done with such efforts at AT&T about twenty years ago – in a meeting we divided into groups (men/women, black/white/other, under and over age 40), and after internal discussion a spokesperson from each talked about what tied them together. I learned some fascinating things that day. Although I grew up in 30% black Hyde Park in Chicago, I did not know that, at least as of about 1995, African-Americans felt free to talk socially with anyone else of their race whether that person was a fashion plate or a street sweeper, that they “don’t go camping,” and tended heavily to spend vacations visiting relatives, or that they still, in something I have never heard a white person express, caught themselves, as most Americans did in centuries past, attributing higher status to blacks with lighter skin. This experience was diversity as it should be practiced, and helped me understand many of my co-workers better.
Fourth was something President Obama said four days after his address. He said that each state should allow a minimum of 26 weeks of unemployment insurance, with suddenly higher state jobless rates triggering an automatic extension to 52. That is the right thing to do. We are 17.5 million jobs short, with 2.1 million not only officially unemployed but that way for 27 weeks or more, and six million not counting as jobless but working part-time in lieu of the full-time opportunity they haven’t found. Unemployment benefits make up about the most reliably circulating money there is, so much of them return to the state governments in taxes. The amounts vary drastically between even similar states – for only one example, Wisconsin has a maximum $370 weekly benefit with neighboring Minnesota at $629 – but cost of living differs more, and even Louisiana’s $221 is immensely valuable to anyone with neither work nor savings, making the length of such benefits, now 18 to 30 weeks (which probably should be 39) more important. Obama will formally propose improvements to Congress in his February 9th budget proposal. I wish him the best with it, as I do for the implementers of the other three ideas above.