Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Stepping Stones

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The tech world is one of the last true growth industries in the United States that requires skilled workers, and being part of it for a time I became concerned as to its ability to elevate general wages and in some fashion restore America’s middle class. In my eye, this meant union representation and collective bargaining: Something computer technicians in general are notoriously lacking.

One of the strongest opponents to any form of collective bargaining in my last job, however, were the Quality Assurance technicians. They argued that any industry that unionized or threatened to unionize would soon find itself outsourced, for lack of competitive ability, and that grousing about low pay and insufficient benefits was a straight ticket to mass unemployment.

At the time, before I got fired due to grousing about low pay and insufficient benefits, I found it odd that the QA men – largely first-generation Gujarati immigrants tasked with actually testing and debugging the software – would say this, for they weren’t in a good position themselves. Like everybody else, their job security was largely nonexistent, their wages required a second job or a second earner to make ends meet and, at this company at least, there was no promotion path beyond that job.

I posed this question to them, and while they conceded that the situation may not be ideal, they retorted that I need but look at the textile and auto manufacturing industries to see what happens when unionization takes hold. Indeed, the textile industry moved to Mexico and Honda is showing up Ford at every opportunity. One could not argue with the facts.

But where does that leave the country?

I could understand where these men were coming from, but I think a different model is a more accurate gauge of outsourcing efforts. Walmart and McDonald’s are the two largest private employers in the United States, followed closely by companies like UPS, Target, Yum! Brands (who run KFC, Taco Bell and a host of also-rans in the fast food industry), Kroger and Home Depot. There are indeed some tech companies in the top ten – IBM, GE and HP – but some of the biggest names in the industry, like Dell, Apple or Google, don’t even make the top fifty employers in the country.

Interestingly enough, however, GM and Ford do rank as some of the nation’s largest employers, at numbers 21 and 33, respectively, despite their high unionization. Furthermore, before they moved to Mexico, the textile mills of the Rust Belt found their ways to right-to-work states, where wages were and are on average lower than union states – ironically in both senses of the term – but even that wasn’t enough. The pattern that emerges of jobs that remain seems to be not one of unionization, but simply that of an inability to export certain types of labor. Most of the nation’s largest employers are retail conglomerates or distribution chains, and you can’t outsource stockboys, cashiers and truckers.

The fact that there was no promotion path at our job should have been a clue. Why were the QA men the top technicians in-house? Because the actual programmers were fired several years ago when they asked for higher wages, and were replaced by contractors in Russia. Updates to our proprietary software required late night phone calls overseas and exorbitant shipping rates (and delays) of subcontracted point of sale machines (with parts from Taiwan, assembled in a right-to-work state).

The QA men were on staff largely to provide some sense of cohesion and inform the customer technical support – by far the largest department – of changes. The technical support were on site mainly because our clients didn’t like hearing accents on the phone, but tech support is the bottom rung of the ladder. The QA men couldn’t become programmers because the programmers were contracted out. The technical support couldn’t become QA because just about everybody was fantastically overqualified for their jobs and there was no space up the chain.

When the nouveau riche of the tech boom talk of opportunity, they’re thinking of the incredible difficulty of hiring top software engineers, such to the point that they’re reliant on H1B visas to fill the talent gap. There are too many people with English degrees, they say; not a large enough pool to draw from. In my office, however, there was an endless sea of graduates from computer science programs – not to mention former stockboys and shift managers from supermarket chains and distribution hubs who were working on their second bachelors – with an ever-lengthening set of credentials, yet they simply couldn’t get the work experience necessary to progress their careers.

Branch Rickey, former manager of the St Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers, knew the solution near a century ago. When asked why he had such good players on his teams, he replied that “luck is the residue of design.” In his case, that design was the minor league farm system, which created a local pool of talented baseball players to choose from. Instead of having a limited supply of good players poached by the richest of teams, he in effect created his own.

The reason it’s so difficult to get the sort of talent in the top positions is because the middle positions have been exported and as such largely don’t exist for up-and-coming workers – unless, of course, they are independently wealthy enough to intern for peanuts or strike out in business on their own. It should be that a worker can grow with the company and make himself indispensable by training and getting a greater understanding of the product in-house. That’s simply not the case now. As my former coworkers and myself search for our own opportunities, we have indeed observed a gap in availability between bottom-tier jobs and top-tier jobs: You can either be a cog or a consultant; there is no in-between.

My coworkers made the mistake of interpreting this problem as one prompted by unionization, but it is one of short-sighted corporate policy: We’ve gotten to the point where starting technicians get paid the same as stockboys, and while there is clearly an incentive among my cohort to get past that point, until there is a viable stepping stone to something better the increased competition at the bottom rung is only pulling us all down.

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