Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts on the new "disposable" workforce

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says that the economy is on the mend, but it sure doesn't feel that way to most of us. No wonder: A recent report by The Conference Board found that only 45 percent of US employees say they're satisfied with their jobs, down from 61.1 percent in 1987 (when they first started conducting the survey). The dissatisfaction stretched across all ages and income brackets surveyed, the report says.

Right now, honestly, I'm not thinking about job satisfaction as much as I'm just grateful to still have one. But there are plenty of days when I marvel at how the work I do seems to be essential and insignificant at the same time. Over at The 36-Hour Day, we're talking about what may be the newest workplace trend, according to BusinessWeek: many companies cutting costs by keeping a permanently temporary workforce.

According to the article, pay rates for production and nonsupervisory workers (which make up 80 percent of the private workforce) is 9 percent lower than it was in 1973. And companies that used the recession as a reason to slash salaries and reduce benefits aren't likely to start spending again once the economy really improves, David H. Autor, a labor economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out.

They have no reason to. We've entered the era of the pay-as-little-as-you-can business model, with stores like Wal-Mart leading the way. Just as consumers prefer to pay only rock-bottom prices for goods (and are willing to replace those inferior products over and over again when they wear out quickly) more and more companies are keeping their overhead low by investing as little as possible in their employees.

It seems obvious to those on our side of the fence: A happy employee is a better employee, so those small investments -- coffee during meetings, the occasional pizza, a little scheduling flexibility -- can pay off big in terms of loyalty and productivity. But take a moment to look at it through a more-corporate lense. Cutting benefits (or replacing permanent jobs with freelance or temporary ones outright) is the easiest way for many companies to get rid of their fixed costs. It's the same reason we rent certain tools instead of buying them: If you rent the massive steam cleaner, you can use it when you need to but you don't have maintain it ore store it. If companies treat all of their employees as temporary ones, they can offload responsibility for maintenance (health insurance, vacation days, sick time) and storage (upgrading facilities, ergonomic work stations, supplies).

The long-term cost of all this short-term saving is huge, though, and the employees are paying the price in increased levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. And things aren't expected to change anytime soon. According to BusinessWeek, "The forecast for the next five to 10 years: more of the same, with paltry pay gains, worsening working conditions, and little job security."

So, people, dig out your 2 cents and throw it into the comments section: Why do you think the job satisfaction levels are so low? Do you feel disposable or indispensable at the office?


fibrowitch said...

My friends hate it when I say this, looking at the workplace today I am grateful to be fully disabled.

Not that I like not working, I like the not having to work, dealing with the stress of having a fatal illness is preferable to dealing with the stress of being in the job market.

Alan Haft said...

It is a big difference between having a job of any kind and the satisfaction of doing what you know and what you enjoy doing. In our present, probably the most common comment you'll hear is: I'm grateful to have a job today.