Saturday, September 17, 2016

May we please work on a new social contract?

In the old, old days, I would wander in the library and read whatever interested me.  The key word is "interested"--because there were plenty of occasions when I was interested in what I read but had no idea what the author was writing about.  It is like watching an avant garde movie, La Sapienza for instance, and then later reading up to understand the subtext.

These days, I don't aimlessly walk around in libraries.  I browse from home.  Saves me a whole lot of walking, but my fingers ache! ;)

It is through browsing that I came across this interview in the Harvard Business Review.  I got excited because it features everything that I talk and write about: Globalization, labor, robots, footloose corporations, welfare safety net, gig economy, college education, ... Aren't you, too, impressed with what the interview covers?

HBR's editor interviews some guy who was the head of some firm that I had never heard about.  Let's be honest here; I can't know it all! ;)  The guy is Jeffrey Joerres who apparently " led ManpowerGroup for 15 years before stepping down in 2015."  I had to check with Wikipedia (more achy fingers) to find out how big a firm that is.

I want to focus on a couple of observations that Joerres offers in that interview:
Companies are doing more “micro footprinting,” and that takes a nomadic mentality: You’re ready to pick up and move when required. Large footprinting, on the other hand, means you’re committed to a community for better or worse. More and more, companies will need to take a dual approach, establishing large locations and more-temporary, smaller operations at the same time.
Did you also catch that sentence? "Large footprinting, on the other hand, means you’re committed to a community for better or worse."  In the old days, companies were committed to the communities that were their home.  GM in Flint, Michigan, was that classic model.  But, those days ended almost all of a sudden.  Gone.  Which means that local governments and people can/should never, never, never, assume that a corporation will come to stay for the long haul.

Elsewhere, Joerres says:
In many ways, what we have now in the U.S. is similar to the early 19th century, when the Luddites first worried that machines were going to steal their jobs. We must deal with the reality that when full-scale robotics and AI arrive in a broad-based, affordable, easily justifiable way, we’ll see enormous waves of workers put out of work and ill prepared to take on very different jobs. This is going to create challenges that our institutions are not ready for.
It is one thing for a semi-baked nutcase like me to keep saying that.  As my old grad school professor made sure we understood, it is not what you say but who you are when you say that.  In this case, plenty will/should listen to what Joerres says.

We are not ready for the changes that are coming.  Not only are we far from ready, the existing system is terribly broken:
Our institutions are inadequate. Look at unemployment compensation, welfare, Social Security—these were all put in place in the middle of the past century. And they were based on certain assumptions: that when you lost your job, you would go through a process and on the other side find a job that you’d then have for a long time. Today that’s not going to happen. Look at the gig economy, look at parsed work—all these models just allow us to move faster. My dad had a second job. He went to a gas station after he got home from his first job, and he ate his dinner in between. Well, second jobs look different now. Uber is a second job. So what do you do when someone is collecting unemployment and takes a job with Uber to moonlight while he’s in training for a new full-time job? Should he lose food stamps or health care because he’s earning a little extra money to get by? Our systems look broken because they’re trying to fit things into the way the labor markets worked in the past.
Ahem, how long have I been saying this by yelling all the time about the need for an updated social contract?

Ok, are universities the panacea?
The same goes for broad-access universities. They’re built on the old labor models. They’re not turning out graduates with the skills companies need. So we have to refashion these institutions that are so important to our society.
In case you are wondering what a "broad-access university" is, well, those are the overwhelming majority that are not the elite research universities and liberal arts colleges.  The "broad-access university" description includes the university where I teach.  Again, in how many different op-eds and blog-posts have I been complaining about the old-fashioned higher education structure?

I love a solution that Joerres offers:
I think we need an iterative model. Why does it have to be all in or all out? Why can’t someone be on partial welfare? Or on partial unemployment compensation? If a worker loses her job that paid $50,000 a year but can only find a new job for $40,000, her unemployment compensation goes away, but she has lost $10,000. Why don’t we make up the difference for her for another six months because she had what it took to go out and find a job? Some people might see that as a giveaway. It’s not. It’s a small price to pay to encourage that worker to get back into the market. I’d rather pay someone to be in the market than out of the market.
Exactly!  If only we could talk about such important issues, instead of the wasted time and energy on crap!

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