Punchinello’s Chronicles

November 7, 2008

Skills Aren’t Worth Anything

There’s a strange wind blowing across the country, in the world of unemployment. Productivity numbers are coming out, that employers are cutting workers’ hours in an effort to boost those numbers. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers are aging, many in the over-50 age bracket, many already retiring. And many are out of work.

Productivity, meaning “production,” refers to what someone actually makes and does. Productivity isn’t about how many memos can you type in one hour. It isn’t about how quickly can you copy ten reports. Productivity isn’t about how many phone calls can you answer in how many minutes.

What real thing do you do each day? What real service do you provide, where someone really wants to pay money for that service? That’s productivity.

Corporations all are founded on a product of some sort. Within that corporation, each person does some part of a complex process, all of which is designed to sell the product, get the money, and keep track of that money. Accountants work out the percentage of selling a product for each person’s work, and that goes into a general sense of “productivity.”

But the bottom line is that a coal mine produces coal. An oil well produces oil. A Web development company produces Web sites. An advertising company produces advertisements. Something real transfers between someone who produces it, and someone who buys it.

Meanwhile, it takes knowledge and skills to make something. It takes more than a university diploma to be a doctor. It takes experience to learn the difference between what ought to happen, and what actually happens. It takes experience to know that in a particular year, for a particular model, there was this weird glitch that caused those cars to stall when the temperature was 33 degrees and the weather was damp.

It takes experience and time to build a network of specialists, contacts, and “go-to” people. When there’s an emergency, a rush, or a problem of some sort, there always are certain people who can get things done. They’re the people you “go to” in order to fix a problem or get around an obstacle.

More and more, as I get older (as a Baby Boomer), I’m encountering people older than 45 who’ve lost their jobs. They’ve been replaced by younger people because it’s cheaper. But much more worrisome is that there aren’t any new jobs being created.

We have a massive amount of skills, knowledge, experience, and these “social networks” everyone seems to think are valuable. We know people, know those weird glitches, and remember how certain things got to be the way they are. Older people grew up with DOS, watching and learning the evolution through Windows, and remember how to solve technical problems that track all the way back to DOS.

None of that’s apparently worth anything at all to modern corporations.

More and more competent older people, with a work ethic that came into being decades ago, are out of work. They can’t find jobs, aren’t considered valuable, and aren’t as inexpensive as new, young graduates. So what happens? What do these people do when they’re up against the wall of bills, mortgages, and financial obligations?

One thing is to start a business. In many cases, it’s a 1-person business, or family-run business. That means no jobs for anyone else. With computer skills, financial skills, marketing skills, writing skills, communication skills, and sales skills, 1 person can run a global business from home.

Corporations are choosing to get rid of all that competence, all those skills, and go instead for cheap. So what if it takes 10 hours to fix a computer problem that a more experienced IT professional would fix in five minutes? Who cares is a Web site is so filled with typographical errors that the company credibility spirals downward?

Nobody in Big Box Retail seems to concern themselves that cashiers and checkout employees can’t add, subtract, or even read. It doesn’t matter that customer service reps can’t speak English. it’s irrelevant that nobody on the sales floor can answer any questions about anything. None of this apparently matters.

We’re about to see another major tipping point. The massive corporate model, filled with paper-shuffling make-work is about to fall over. Very few of these organizations have in place any sort of skills-training, knowledge transfer system, or accumulated experience bank. At the same time, older workers are retiring, or quitting in the face of nearly absolute stupidity in upper management.

What happens when the people who know how to do things are removed from the process of getting things done? Won’t THAT be interesting!


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