Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Better Way (Mad as Hell Part II)

In I’m Mad as Hell, I examined our current reality and our reactions to that reality. Because our current reality does not conform to our expectations it causes us confusion and disappointment. Humans, my self very much included, tend to respond with frustration and anger when our desires are met with disappointment.

There is a better way.

In I’m Mad as Hell, I sated that many of our conversations concerning the economy are the wrong conversation. Let me give an example. One of the angry debates I have witnessed lately concerns the minimum wage. Some say the minimum wage is not only far below a living wage, but it is at a historic low level given inflation. This is certainly true. Some say that the minimum wage should be low. Raising the minimum wage would eliminate many marginal jobs. This is certainly true.

However, whether our representatives choose to raise the Federal minimum wage or leave it at its current level really doesn’t address our central economic problem. There simply aren’t enough quality jobs for average men and women. By definition minimum wage jobs are not quality jobs.

Personally, I would be inclined to vote for raising the minimum wage if the proponents could convincingly demonstrate that such an increase would not adversely affect the economy. I feel a great deal of compassion for adults who are making the effort to work at such a low wage rather than living on the public dole.

But the question just doesn’t matter. Some states have a higher minimum wage than required by Federal law. San Francisco’s minimum wage is $10.55 per hour! In some states where the minimum wage is the federally mandated $7.25 per hour, employers can not find workers at that wage. In the town where I spent the previous 25 years, the local McDonalds had problems finding entry level part time employees at $9.00 per hour.

More importantly, the minimum wage is not a destination. For most, especially teenagers, the minimum wage is just the first step on the lifetime long climb towards something better.

I ended I’m Mad as Hell with a challenge, “Take responsibility for your own life. Do it today. As you begin to move forward, you will get stronger. You can make yourself a more valuable human being both in the marketplace and in areas of life that are more important than money.”

Start a search for a better job in the mind of your employer. As an employee, you are viewed as a liability. If an employer can replace you with contractor or machine that can perform your job better or for less money, you’re job is already gone.

The key in the marketplace is value. Not your time. Not your humanity. Nobody but your grandfather is going to hire you because you need a job. You will be hired because your employer needs you. If your value exceeds your cost by more than his expected Return on Investment (R.O.I), your job is pretty secure.

Blaming forces beyond your control for your situation doesn’t help. Dwelling on excuses to explain your failures doesn’t help. As the football players are fond of saying, “It is what it is.” Because the key in the marketplace is value, increasing your value to your employer will help. If you wish to increase your value, you will need to work as hard on yourself as you work on your job.

I graduated with a nearly worthless degree in history just in time for a nasty little recession. I wanted to stay near my girlfriend. The only job I could find was at a nearby textile mill, packing large rolls of cloth into burlap sacks. I don’t remember my exact salary but it was only pennies above the minimum wage. At least such jobs came with health insurance back in those days. I was a reliable cooperative employee. I showed up to work on time. My supervisor knew I would work overtime whenever he needed me, rather than just when I wanted some extra money. In entry level jobs, just showing up is really 90% of life. Add punctuality and a reasonably decent attitude there is nearly a 100% certainty you will get raises and a promotion.

After a couple of months I was promoted to a cloth inspector, a semiskilled job that paid something closer to a living wage. Two such jobs could support a family of four back in 1973. I continued to be a “good” employee. I worked on difficult cloth that contained a lot of flaws with fewer complaints than most of the employees. I continued to work overtime as required, once in another department where a second shift supervisor was caught shorthanded one night. In this kind of job a little more is expected. The quality and quantity of your work really matters both to your supervisor and to the ultimate customer. These jobs don’t require much more than average intelligence, but the employee really needs to care about their work.

I didn’t know it, but people in offices who wear ties were watching me. After about six months on the factory floor, I was moved into the plant’s industrial engineering office. My direct supervisor worked in another factory. Once a week he would spend most of a day teaching me the basics of industrial engineering. Then he expected me to both apply what I had learned and learn on my own. They did send me to a week long course on the basics of performing time and motion studies, but generally I was on my own. One day my boss showed up with a computer. I was told, “Learn how to program this thing.” He certainly didn’t know much of anything about that box. I took a course at the local community college and I learned how to program the thing. I automated the weekly production report, payroll time and error slips, and some other office functions. I also learned that when I was programming the computer, the plant manager would pass by my office mumbling, “Hmm. Him do big magic.” Then he would find someone else to go upstairs to track down problems with incoming shipments in the hot smelly bleach house, a valuable insight.

When I left that job after five years, I was the plant industrial engineering supervisor. Basically, I was a self trained industrial engineer. The reason I had the job without a degree is that I could do the job and I was willing to do the job at about half the going rate. At the time I thought my job wasn’t secure because I didn’t have a degree. Now I know my position was very secure. My value to my employer greatly exceeded my cost.

I think any definition of intelligence would include the ability to survive in an environment containing constantly shifting stimuli and problems. We call that reality the marketplace. We call that reality life.

If an ice age comes to your neighborhood, the grass in your yard will just die. The deer in the field just beyond your development will migrate south towards a more temperate environment.

Since you are a human, you can cut off a tree branch and tie a sharp stone to it, perhaps using vines or strips of wood. Throw the thing at the deer. After eating the deer, dry out its hide and use it to cover your wife, protecting her from the wretched arctic climate.

In this little story, the deer have shown intelligence by moving South. You have shown intelligence by killing a deer with something besides your car. Finally, your wife has shown intelligence by whining until she got a new fur coat.

Cursing the cold doesn’t help. Developing a plan, learning new skills, and taking action doesn’t necessarily change the environment. However it will change you and that changes everything.

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