The Bumper

The Bumper

Years ago when I started working I got ripped off. I was given a job that I wasn’t trained for. I was driving a 5-ton truck, navigating narrow alleyways getting $60/day for what was listed on the time card as an 8-hour day – $7.5/hour. The reality was never less than a 12-hour day ($5/hr) and just about every other day we did 18-hours ($3.33/hr) with at best an 8-hour turnaround. This was back in the early-90s. Today there’s some recognition that kids entering the workforce are getting shafted by crappy opportunities, low wages and inconsistent work hours. I’d argue it’s hardly unique to the millennial generation. The current Great American Shafting started years before, no doubt even before my time. And it’s gotten, I think worse, since my particular experience with it.

I had been on the job for about a week. I didn’t know anyone except the guy who recommended me for the job who I’d worked with for several days on my first job after college. I was so new I didn’t even know who my boss was yet. One day, driving that 5-ton through the narrow alleyway behind the warehouse we were working out of – brick & mortar to my left, parked cars to my right – I was driving under a mile an hour, checking the mirrors every few seconds. But it turned out the right view mirror didn’t capture stair step jutting out a few extra inches just behind the cab. That stair step managed to grab a reflector strip running horizontally across the bumper of one of one of the parked cars and peeled it off which in turn yanked the entire bumper partway off the front of the car. It made a terrible sound. The damage was technically minimal, but it looked awful. Curiously, it turned out to be my boss’s car. Her supervisor came screaming out of his office: “Your fired!” he repeated over and over again as a small crowd gathered to see the damage. He had a variety of incredulous phrases and curse words to embellish those lyrics, but basically that’s all he said. After some time the volume of his voice was quiet enough, the pauses between “you’re fired” were long enough, that I finally had enough time to respond. “I know,” I said.

As it turned out, I didn’t get fired. My rate got lowered to $50/day, and my boss took a day’s salary on top of collecting insurance to fix the car. (That’s the abbreviated telling. The truth is that my boss was thrilled I’d damaged her car. She was excited about the insurance money. Furthermore it wasn’t like I agreed to forego a day’s salary – a coveted $60 – I just simply didn’t get paid for a day’s work. It took several weeks before I found out it was not an oversight but part of her settlement agreement that was worked out unbeknownst to me.)

In those days I’d jot as many notes down as possible at work and compiled them at home and during down time. I wanted to be good at my job. Without that extra effort there was no on-the-job training. It couldn’t withstand on-the-job jealousy. The work environment was such that newbies were a threat to those with status, title and pay. The management-by-hollering approach at that and many subsequent jobs had little to do with a tough-love approach to getting the best out of staff. It wasn’t about discipline, skill-building, or building a powerful group dynamic. It was a mode of management to keep new kids bowed down with their salaries around their ankles while at the same time giving them enough leeway that they seem an up-and-coming threat to established hires.

Years later I see the same process repeated to new hires. Kids anxious to prove themselves professional are given low-pay high-responsibility jobs for which they aren’t trained. When they screw up they get threatened with being fired and are only too happy to take some kind of hit in order to survive hopefully long enough to acquire that skill and get that pay raise.

And now I see it from the other side: my bosses’ bosses see great opportunities in hiring today’s youth. They cost a fraction of those with talent, they have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and they “know all these new technologies”.

It turns out they know nothing, just as I did. They could use my help. I offer it when I can. For whatever the dynamic, they typically don’t accept it. The savings their low rates offer pale in comparison to the toll of their mistakes. Budgets double, triple, and not infrequently quintuple. Crisis mode is the rule not the exception. Newbies get berated, blamed and fired to save management ass. There is frequently a moment where someone says something about doing a “post mortem” before “we do this again next time”, but the post-mortems never come, and the process repeats itself.

This is what counts as business as usual: under-experienced new hires are positioned above their abilities, threatening sometimes actually replacing more experienced and better paid superiors. Effectively everyone is always on the chopping block. The justifications are numerous: we have to make do with the limited resources and schedule we’re dealt with, so we have to just push through this so the next gig will see an improvement, but reality is stubborn: the budget suffers, the schedule suffers, the quality of work suffers. The corporate workplace is a cauldron of pathology. It works for almost no one.

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