The State of Geek: Part 1 — Temp Job, No Health

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

This week a rising tide of optimism is beginning to fuel hopes that that the the United States is finally on the rebound economically. The GDP was at a staggering 7.2% and for the first time in 18 months, jobs were added in September rather than lost.

Yet the only people popping champagne corks were among the senior White House staff, declaring a victory for President Bush’s policy of tax cuts. The rest of us see these statistics and we think, and hope, that times are better; but then the majority of us know at least one person who is unemployed and we ask ourselves, “How can bad times be over when (Sally|Mark|Joanne|Tom) is still unemployed?”

Jobs are returning, as the figures show in September; but they’re not the jobs we used to have. If you’ve lost your job because your plant was closed, you’re a technology worker and your company has downsized, or you were part of a call center that’s no longer in operation, chances are you can kiss that job good-bye permanently. According to the folks who know these things, the number of jobs in these industries in this country will never recover to pre-recession levels. As reported in the Daily Gazette in Massachusetts, a state that’s a major center for both tech and manufacturing jobs:

The state’s job market has just started to stabilize and should begin some job growth by the end of this year, said Michael Goodman, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Massachusetts.

Still, even by the end of 2005, the state is likely to recover less than two-thirds of the 150,000 jobs lost during the recession, he said. Many of those new jobs will be in sectors other than high-tech and manufacturing, those hardest hit during the recession.

But this doom and gloom doesn’t take into account how inflated the economy was before the recession; how tough it was to find workers to fill jobs created by bloated expectations –particularly in the high-tech fields, when companies used to give BWM cars to tech workers signing on. In addition, states like Massachusetts and California and Oregon that had a higher than average percentage of high-tech jobs are going to feel the tech downturn more acutely than other states with a more balanced job market. Based on this, adding up all the factors, if the job market for high-tech recovers to even 90% of its pre-recession boom-time across the country, then we should still be looking at a relatively stable employment situation. Shouldn’t we?

We should. But the dot-com explosion fueled a lot of changes that are going to continue to negatively impact on technology jobs in this country, and the rest of the world, for years to come. This impact is going to be significant enough that if people were to ask geeks like me whether we would recommend that their little Bobby or Susan study computer science in college, we would have to honestly say, “No”; an answer that has serious consequences to the state of geek.*

Temp Job, no Health

Recently the grocery workers at the one of the three major chains went on strike, and workers for the other two were locked out because the same union covered the employees of all three stores. There were over 10,000 workers out of the job and on the picket lines, a scenario repeated in other parts of the country including California, Utah, and on the East Coast.

I expected the stores to severely limit their hours and services, and was consequently amazed at how quickly the stores returned to something approximating their state before the strike occurred. In less than a week, nine thousand workers had been hired, trained, and put into service at the stores in St. Louis alone. This may not seem like much in a city of 370,000 people — nine thousand is barely 3 percent of the populace — but that’s nine thousand people willing and able to cross picket lines, to be labeled scab labor, an epitaph abhorred in this country even with the loss of union power over the years.

I have no doubt that if the companies continued hiring after the first week or two, the number of applications for the jobs would have doubled. Perhaps even tripled.

A vote ending the strike was taken yesterday and the workers will be returning to their jobs — an awkward time as the regular employees come on and the ’scab’ labor gets pushed out the door. The irony of the situation is that the contract the workers voted on yesterday is virtually no different than the one they rejected four weeks ago. According to the St. Louis Today:

In the end, union workers voted on two contracts that were identical in cost, supermarket executives said.

But several workers said they wanted to strike to make a point with their employers.

Shenika Bishop, a bagger at Schnucks in Cool Valley, said the strike taught her that workers should “stand up for what they need and deserve.”

Yes, but they didn’t.

Union officials say this strike, as with so many others among the grocery workers in the rest of the country, was about one thing — the lack of a National Health Care system. According to weblogger Joe Kenehan:

A semi-national strike by grocery store workers in California, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia in defense of health benefits is pushing a broader American anxiety over the cost and accessibility of health care for regular people into the open.

It would seem that restaurant workers in New York may strike for the same reasons — just in time for the holidays. However, as with the grocery workers, I don’t think there will be much delay in bringing in ’scab’ labor.

What does this have to do with the state of geek, you ask? Because these strikes are a sign of the times: two few jobs, too many workers willing to work temp jobs with no security, and a growing national obsession with health insurance.

If there’s one label I could attach to the jobs I’m seeing out on the market for tech workers now, it would be “Temp Job, no Health”: temporary or contract job, no health insurance or other benefits provided. I’m not sure the state of the rest of the country but the job market in St. Louis consists primarily of contracting jobs; many of them for far less money then the good old days, and none of them with health insurance. Where before we could hope for a car, now we hope for a temp job that will last at least a couple of months and give us enough money so we can buy our own health insurance and still pay rent.

Economists say …

(Wait a sec. Who are these ‘economists’? Have you ever met an economist? Do economists really exist, or are they figures that publications invent so that they can provide their own predictions without having to back up their statements? “The economy is improving by a 15%”, the report says. We look around and don’t see an improvement and ask, who says the economy is improving by 15% and the report answes back, “The economists say so”, and well go, oh, well, if the economists say so. But I digress…)

Economists say that contract work is the harbinger of an upswing in permanent jobs as companies expand their labor pool cautiously in advance of better times. Where contracts go, permanent jobs are soon to follow. According to an WebTalkGuys Radio Show interview with president, Paul Cronin, increased numbers of contract jobs are a Good Thing:

The tech worker should see this as a great opportunity. One of the best ways of finding permanent work is through networking. When you’re out there talking to people and building relationships, it just seems to me that if someone offers you a project that is going to last 30-60-90 days and it’s a project that you’re qualified for and may even challenge you, it would make a lot of sense to take that project. The opportunity of staying with that company is increased by the fact that you worked with them already.

A few years back I wouldn’t have contemplated a permanent job, preferring the adventure and change that contract jobs provided. In most cases, my gigs would start out at the traditional 3 months, but in actuality they were usually extended indefinitely. I never worried about finding work because I received calls constantly from headhunters, always on the look out for new talent. I have to admit, I wasn’t always good about calling them back.

However, people who used to like contracting in good times are now looking for permanent work because the freedom of contracting is countered by the increased level of anxiety in jumping from short-term gig to short-term gig in an economy where reports are regularly published about the number of jobs permanently lost in high-tech. Today’s contract market is tighter, with more competition for jobs; today’s buyer, the employer, can offer less money and still get the same level of talent.

If you’re not a tech worker, you’re probably going, so what? The tech workers are a small job market compared to other jobs. We’re hit, but the rest of the country is doing okay. Right?

Wrong. If tech workers had money, we also spent money, especially on high ticket items that eventually ended up fueling entire industries. Once the first domino fell — the death of the dot-coms — other dominos fell in a display of cause and effect to bring down the house. This isn’t guesswork, you can see the impact in the record record number of bankruptcies filed this year. According to the Contra Costa Times:

Many Americans are struggling to pay their bills, and those out of work find job opportunities bleak. Research by the Federal Reserve indicates that household debt has risen to a record 14 percent of disposable income. Personal bankruptcies are on track this year to surpass last year’s all-time high of 1.5 million, says the American Bankruptcy Institute.

This country has pushed people to buy, buy, buy, and they bought, bought, bought. Now that times are tough, they’re no longer buying, which is impacting on both service and manufacturing communities and leading to yet more loss of jobs. Pity the poor American geek who can no longer shop at Disney and Warner Brothers, you think. But you don’t pity us because, as you see it, our own greed has caught up with us.

So the mighty have fallen and we log on to and and we send resumes out and network, and we network; hungry flocks of birds all looking for the last worm. We’ll be thankful for what we get.

In the Sacramento Bee an article (featuring among others, weblogger Ross Mayfield) talks about the downturn in the Silicon Valley, and people being happy to get work:

At the Calvary Church in Los Gatos the other night, the weekly Need a Job Support Group drew its regular crowd of more than 60 unemployed tech workers.

They mingled over cookies and coffee, many wearing name tags spelling out their technical field: Hardware. Software. Marketing. It was mostly a male crowd, middle aged, casually dressed, folks like Kent Conrad.

A 41-year-old engineer from San Jose, he has started a handyman business after six months of unemployment.

“There’s more than one way to pay the rent,” Conrad said. “That whole dot-com bust, boom and bust, has damaged the whole industry. Companies are real cautious about hiring people.”

On this night, technical writer Milt Brewster was a star of sorts: He just got a job after 32 months of unemployment.

The job will last only six months and represents a 30 percent pay cut, but he wasn’t griping: “I consider that a stroke of luck — it’s only 30 percent.”

Times are getting better, we tell ourselves. And when the headhunters call us, we pretend we don’t hear the satisfaction in their voices when they tell us thanks for the resume, they’ll add it to the pile.

Perhaps we need a Union.

*And as I was writing this part of the essay, Meg wrote a comment to my previous post:

Globalization is here and I change my mind a few times a day about what we should be doing about it, especially in the IT industry. For the most part I think it is not wise to enter the IT field in the US right now, while others think that women should be encouraged more to enter into this ever-changing industry.

“Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be IT workers..”

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