Brian’s Column: New World of Work

Recessionary recruiter-call suggests end of an era
by Brian Wright

As a result of a rare contact from a job recruiting company the other day, I came to realize the Old World of Work[1], for moi, is done like a dinner. The Current World of Work is, for one thing, well, focused on younger persons. More important, the nature of the jobs available has become 90% political: if you can provide technical help with satisfying government health care reporting requirements (e.g. HIPPA of 1996) or government corporate-accounting requirements (Sarbanes-Oxley of 2002) or Homeland Security edicts, etc.—or working any of the millions of $multibillion-makework professional jobs the government has created to stifle real productivity—and you have the right mix of silicon snake oil on your resume, they’ll pay you plenty.[2] They may even court you.

Seriously, if you check the electronic or newspaper want ads, only 10% of the listings, if that, pertain to any occupation or position building anything real, lasting, or genuinely conducive to the creation of human wealth. A recent example: I sent this three-fold brochure for my writing services to business addresses picked from drive-bys of local industrial parks. Sent 80, received one telephone response. The man on the phone tells me his company makes high-tech video monitors for police departments, and it would be nice to write up a little user’s guide. Rather than saying, “Sure, I can do that,” I ask him if these are the Big Brother monitors I see on TV that hook up to a monster data base, that pick up the license number and spit out that the car owner is a convicted libertarian marijuana smoker who hates pigs… i.e. lets morons with badges go fishing on our information.

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Poor guy, he’s friendly to start with, but I sour his mood immediately. No deal. Next time I take the job, and if the cops are playing “One Nation Under Surveillance,” I get the details and send any inside info to leaders of the Resistance. Should have learned to bite my tongue 40 years ago.

Motor City Murk

Back to the latest inquiry, it turns out the job is semi-genuine, writing software manuals, system description documents, operations procedures for a SE Michigan company that makes bar code software—you know, the technology that tells you that the toothpaste is $5 today when it was $2 yesterday. Also, I know a manager from a company I worked for in the early 1990s who moved to this bar code company and who may still work there—in fact he may be making the hiring decisions. But senior moments rob me of the exact name of the person or the bar code company. The voice on the other end of the phone, belonging to recruiter Susan, is polite, initially.

We get started by verifying some skill sets.

Years ago, it mattered that you were a warm body and had documented skills and references. It also seemed important that you could actually perform complex conceptual work in a business context. Today you trade barrages of a sophisticated yet largely meaningless code of buzzwords that few recruiters have the slightest context for understanding. But they have developed an ear for whether the prospect strings his acronyms and words together confidently, and will be politically compliant. So it’s all hoops they have you jump through, and frankly, I could never get it right.

Rarely in the previous 10 years have I been able to ‘talk superficial human-relations trash,’ invariably going into a (far too long) description of the conceptual nature of the kind of work I do—usually complex system technical descriptions and descendant documents. The fact is, IMHO, outside of a few medical and legal-field specialties, any intelligent person with initiative can learn any technical skillset—from systems analysis to programming to network engineering—in a relatively short time. What makes a candidate stand out is whether he/she brings independent judgment and drive to the position. Those are the main qualifications for doing complex productive tasks, and precisely what Current World of Work discourages.

“How would you like to work: W2, 1099, or business to business?” she asks.

“Business to business,” I reply.

Susan then asks, curtly, if I’m registered with the Michigan department of commerce and have one million dollars worth of liability insurance.

Do I detect a faint tone of condescension? What DBA[3] tech writer has a $1 million liability insurance policy? Liability for what? Too many subject-verb disagreements? “No,” I confess, “I don’t have anything like that.”

“Well, we can do 1099 then, but we can’t pay you until we receive payment from the company, and we bill monthly.” She wanted to get that out up front. A recent prospect had reached the offer stage then bailed out because he couldn’t wait two months to get paid.

Susan is definitely leading me to her company’s preference of direct employment and the ol’ gotcha-by-the-balls, taxes-off-the-top W2.

Naturally, I want to work the cleanest way possible, ideally with no reporting of earnings—which being nonprivileged are not taxable.[4] I’ll make a compromise with 1099s.

There’s some back and forth on what the client will pay: Susan wants to know what my rate is, I tell her that I at least like to know the range the client is good with. She tells me she doesn’t want to waste the client’s time. [Waste the client’s time, what about my time?] Instead I ask, “Look, Susan, what happened to the days when every job on the sites came with an indicated hourly rate or salary range? Is it different now because there aren’t any jobs?”

Susan is no longer talking with me. She won’t deal with any deep philosophical questions like these. I keep probing for a rate range, finally getting an indirect verbal suggestion from her that $30/hour W2 is what we’re looking at, sunny day—her company will probably skim $10 for each of those hours.

Nah. Just like so many of the others, this is all about raping the conscientious knowledge worker (me) for the benefit of an incestuous cadre of gluttonous corporate pussies (them). “Sorry, Susan, I can’t take the two-month vow of poverty. Good luck.”

Yes, it has seemed I’ve been speaking a different language from the many still wedded to the Old Paradigm. It’s like the era toward the end of the Church of Rome’s domination in the late 15th century; kind of an educated slave revolt. Those of us moving on no longer feel proud to be part of the slave system. How do we communicate with those who do?

[1] The “Old World of Work” is a personal concept applying to American middle-class, early Baby Boomers like me: it conveys a time (approx. 1980-2000) when jobs were plentiful—both blue collar and white collar—and, if you had any sort of technical specialty (I acquired a BS of mechanical engineering in 1975), companies would court you.

[2] I don’t know if it’s still true, but SAP—a super-mega-does-everything proprietary enterprise software company used by many of the Fortune 100 corporations—paid its consultants 100s of dollars per hour.

[3] doing business as

[4] 20 to 30 years ago, the system wasn’t so tied down with needing a tax ID for every transaction from opening a bank account to going to the bathroom. Most companies would pay straight off an invoice, especially if you were a bona fide corporation, which you could form for $100 mail order.

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