May 3, 2009

Paloozas All Around

Justin Katz

I'll admit some jealousy.

Over the course of a year, Matt Allen built a brand new radio gig into the number 1 show in its slot. His previous experience had been limited to production and some periodic shows here and there on the schedule. For his show's one-year anniversary, his company threw him a big "Mattapalooza" party, replete with a cake, an office-produced video, and a parade of people offering much-deserved plaudits.

During an overlapping time period, with plenty of help from other carpenters, architects, engineers, and various subcontractors, I built this addition and renovated two-thirds of the existing house (two-thirds being equivalent to two-and-a-half to three times the size of my working class ranch):

My previous experience had been limited to small jobs and a couple of suburban basement finishes. As the project — and a hellacious year — neared completion, my reward was a series of insults from the boss and a substantial cut in my pay. (The insults, I suspect, were meant to cover the fact that, just a few months earlier, he'd promised quite the opposite change to my remuneration.)

These disparate outcomes were not the result of government regulations. Unionization did not play a role. To some extent, the cultures of the industries did; with the prominence of names and personality, the information and entertainment industry is more sensitive to the competition for proven quantities. Construction is more of a dirt-field bulldog game, with a culture of teeth-gritted tolerance for struggle (which somehow seems always to benefit the honchos financially).

But what it comes down to, it seems to me, is that some employers view talent as something to be nurtured and guarded, justifying periodic costs on an individual basis as investments in a long-term competitive advantage. Other employers view talent as something to be exploited for every immediate penny that it can generate, even if the wringing process drains the last ounces of drive from its vessel.

This comparison came to mind mainly as a starting point for ruminations about ways to make the system better... or worse. Public policy ought to encourage entrepreneurship, to be sure, but not everybody, indeed a likely minority, will have the interest or specialized knack to set out on their own. For those who wish mainly to apply their non-business skills in the workplace — which is to say, those who prefer to leave organizational processes to others — advantage is to be gained to the extent that they are (one) not tied to their current employers and (two) able to go elsewhere.

Regarding the first, it is understandable to lament the loss of those storied lifetime relationships between worker and organization. However, it isn't immediately obvious that employees benefited more from, say, promised pensions, than did employers who, by those promises, had less fear of attrition. The manacles of workplace-based healthcare are a stark example of the detriment: Why should somebody's boss hold in his hands the health of his crew's families?

Regarding the second, incentives for companies to grow ever bigger should be viewed with suspicion. Technology has done much to decrease the advantage of size — for example, by bringing the development and production of marketing materials increasingly within the capability range of neophytes. On the other hand, the new implied government insurance that companies gain by becoming "too big to fail" is certain to have repercussions that are not agreeable to workers. Especially in an environment in which businesses are developing global pools of potential workers, the fewer potential employers, the less leverage the workers will have. How much worse, too, would it be to give ultimate responsibility for the economy to a governing regime of so-called public servants?

The gathering consensus appears to be that we're heading for a time of willing dependency — a European-style socialist democracy that seeks to make guarantees to citizens of a certain standard of well-being. I maintain hope that Americans are not a people who will find the taste of such a life to be to their liking, but ultimately, Americans will have the system that they desire.

Whatever our decision, we should pause to reflect on the subtle, yet profound, significance of relations. Assistance given for family or for charity is a pleasure for the giver. Recognition of an employee, freely offered, is an opportunity. Better to be the recipient of these than to be the obligation of government functionaries or, more directly to the point, the ostensible beneficiary of mandates on one's employer. A person who is a mandated obligation is a burden to be minimized.

Reality is not such that we can each and every one of us expect paloozas in our own names, but our individual freedom and independence correlates with the value that we can place on our time. What we need, for our own fulfillment, is for those who would claim more of that time to realize that talent is more precious than money, even if their market values are the same.

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Impressive project. Were you the project manager? If so, you should definitely take some bows. Even if you were just a sub on the project. Thats how my work crew feels (myself included)when we do something good. Either good for the owner or good in the larger sense of good work that only the workers can fully appreciate. When I step back from a project, be it a high-toned fancy thing or the most basic roof repair I register the same satisfaction. Now the matter of the tangible rewards? Not always what it should be. I continue to work on that part of the business.

Posted by: David at May 3, 2009 8:17 PM

My employer has a method of operation that isn't, let's say, explicit about your responsibilities. One day you're just sort of the first among equals doing demolition; before you know it you're responsible for layout and supervision; and then you come to find out that it's your responsibility to line up and oversee subcontractors and the delivery of supplies. After a few months, on this one, I just started making all the calls, resolving architectural and engineering issues, and doing all the scheduling directly. The upshot was that, by the end, I was fully a project manager... making a midrange carpenter's salary, though.

Be that as it may, tangible rewards weren't meant to be the central focus of this post. I was speaking more to the work environment and employees' sense that their employers actually have a desire to keep them on board --- that effort and achievement above and beyond will actually be acknowledged as such. After a while in a contradictory environment, one retreats into the little pleasures of a tight miter, but the drive to achieve and take real strides in skill begins to evaporate.

Those who wish to have more fulfilling careers benefit from a field of possible employers and an ease of leaving one for the other.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 3, 2009 9:00 PM

In the meantime membership in a union helps to ensure equitable work conditions. They (unions) are far from perfect and have a tendancy to become as corrupt as the organization they were formed to counterbalance. At least working people who do not posess the tools to open their own business and are content to put in their hours producing the goods and services they are capable of are more difficult to exploit.

Posted by: michael at May 4, 2009 9:29 AM


As a Newporter, I had marveled at the progress at the above-pictured house for quite some time, often running and biking past it with a craned neck during my morning excursions.

Kudos on a job well done and well in keeping with the neighborhood.

Posted by: tom at May 4, 2009 3:59 PM
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