I have become increasingly taken with the question of what constitutes a good job. Various parts of operations in many industries have become automated over time and that trend will continue. But firms will still need people. Some production steps will be sufficiently nuanced or require too much dexterity that using a robot is (at least for now) impossible. Other setting like retail will favor resources who can move more or less seamlessly between restocking shelves to checking out customers. So what do these jobs look like? Unfortunately, the answer can be fairly grim.
The Atlantic has an article written by an ex-Politico reporter who lost his job and ended up (mostly out of desperation) working at sporting goods store (My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor, Mar 11) and found the experience rather dehumanizing.
Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.
“If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter’s coming—if you’re wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we’ll just have to pat you down. It’s pretty simple.”
When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious. …
I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I’m just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don’t think I stole anything?
Stretch shrugged, unconcerned. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.
“Yeah, it’s pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave.”
To be fair, retailers have legitimate reasons to be concerned with employee theft but it is not clear that worry has to translate into treating everyone as a thief. Further, repeated searches was only part of the indignities of the job.
Does retail have to be this way? At one level a national chain (like the sporting goods store in question) has reasons to favor common standards and fixed processes across locations and may find it easiest to design them to the lowest common denominator. The next thing you know you have store managers obsessed with loss prevention and systems that treat employees as widgets.
But there are other ways of doing things. As we have written about before, some retailers take a very different approach. These firms build systems that allow workers to be successful while allowing them some control over their work. Unfortunately, that is not an easy transition to make since it requires changes at multiple levels in both what a firm sells as well as in how it recruits and trains employees.
It is worth noting that grinding, dehumanizing work is not just the purview of retailing. The Washington Post had an article discussing working at a non-union, Southern auto plant — specifically at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee, facility (This is what a job in the U.S.’s new manufacturing industry looks like, Mar 9).
Young doesn’t actually work for Nissan — he works for Yates Services, an in-house contractor that’s hired thousands of people over the past few years to ramp up production as people started buying vehicles again. It’s a big difference.
Yates is like a company within a company, with separate bulletin boards and rules and procedures. The bona fide Nissan employees are easily recognizable through their logoed shirts, which Yates workers don’t receive. And the disparity isn’t just symbolic. Yates pays between $10 and $18 an hour, which is about half what Nissan employees make. Plus, the gap in benefits is wide. Back at home, Young pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper from the company that lays out the differences and pokes at the two columns with his finger.
“I build the same Infiniti SUV that Bob does,” says Young, referring to a hypothetical Nissan worker. “Bob is able to lease a vehicle, I cannot. Long term disability? Bob gets that, I do not. I can provide this much for my family when I die. Bob can double his base. But Bob and I are on the same line, busting our butts.”
More than anything, working for Yates means that Young can’t live an adult life: Can’t get a mortgage, can’t say no to overtime, can’t save for retirement, can’t take a sick day, can’t be confident he’ll have a job next week or next month.
So like crummy retail jobs, being a temp employee at Nissan means a life of instability even if the absolute pay is higher. And this is not for a small slice of their workforce. The article reports that Nissan won’t say exactly what part of its workforce are temporary workers but some reports peg it at over half.
The interesting part here is how this affects the success of the firm over the long haul. That is, what stake do temp workers have in working to improve the process over time? The article quotes a local politician who use to work for Nissan.
To learn why, talk to Republican state representative Mike Sparks. He grew up in town, worked in the Whirlpool and Coca Cola plants nearby, and was thrilled to land a job on the Nissan assembly line, where he stayed for eight years before starting his own used car sales business. He identifies with the working man — “I don’t feel a calling to speak up for the person with the country club membership,” he likes to say, in a stream of banter studded with biblical references — and thinks using temp labor is a betrayal of Nissan’s Kaizen management philosophy of “continuous improvement.”
“If you’ve got somebody and they’re not part of the family, part of the team, how do you get things equally yoked?” Sparks asks, after pulling out a book on Kaizen, which Nissan drilled into employees while he worked there. “If you’ve got two oxen pulling in one direction, you know what’s gonna happen, there’s a old term my dad used to use, it’s called cattywompus. Cattywompus is like crooked, which will adversely affect quality.”
This loops back to thinking about the retail setting. A retail environment that supports good jobs requires stability and dedication from its workforce. A manufacturing environment is not any different. If improvement is going to come from the people executing the work, that requires people to be vested in the process.