Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Our Jobs - Part 1

A few days ago we received notice of the passing of a good friend from the Capital District of New York. We knew him from the Watervliet Elks Club, where my everlovin' was an active member for many years. Our friend was 93 and had enjoyed a long career with ConRail, a freight railroad. We don't exactly what his job was, but we know that it has not existed for many years.

Our thoughts turned to reminiscing about other friends from that era. One was Manager of Union Relations at Allegheny-Ludlum steel, a company which was bought out by employees and became Al-Tech Specialty Steel. Now there is no more steel mill.

The deceased's wife was a career customer service employee of the phone company. At that time, the phone company was very selective in their hiring. Besides passing the employment tests, they seemed to consider such non-job-related factors as your parents' standing in the community, e.g., if a relative worked for the power company, or was a bank officer, or a parent had some other significant position in the community, your chances of a job offer were much enhanced. If you came from a single-parent family on the fringes of society, not so much. Those who tested well were placed in customer service. Those who didn’t test so well ended up as telephone operators. After hire, if you "played the game," terminations were rare. Break times and days off were carefully monitored. A single day off from work was highly suspect. More than a few days required a doctor's excuse. In return, the pay was adequate, there was no chance of a layoff, and free phone service was provided so long as the employee didn't “abuse” the benefit -- meaning that if there were too many toll calls, you could expect to be summoned to provide an explanation. As those jobs disappeared, self-service became the custom. Now you don't even receive a directory unless you request it.

My everlovin's former wife was Personal Administrator at a local hospital. That hospital has merged with several others in the Capital District of New York, all of which have central administrative functions, so her old job no longer exists.

Other friends worked in a variety of administrative and labor jobs in the garment, textile, and paper industries. My grandmother was a sewing machine operator at Cluett Peabody, manufacturer of Arrow Shirts. Now Arrow Shirts are made in India. Not so many shirts are needed as not so many men wear dress shirts to work every day.

The paper industry was huge in Upstate New York, thanks to the abundant forests of the Adirondacks. There were also other capital goods manufacturers who produced textiles and parts needed by paper manufacturers. Many of the paper companies are now closed or operating at a fraction of their former capacity. We don't need paper for email or .pdf documents, and if less paper is being manufactured, there is reduced demand for papermakers' felts. Bye, bye F. C. Huyck. Hope you’re feeling better, Albany Felt.

We had a baseball factory and a billiard ball factory. Both are now closed. Their products are made abroad.

We used to receive mail delivery twice a day. Remember that? I can't remember that the same person did the route both times, so there must have been twice as many letter carriers.

Sealtest delivered milk, cream, cheeses, and other dairy products alternate days. When it was time to pay, a sales slip was left in your milk box. You put the money in an envelope and the milkman took it. So simple. That job is gone.

Freihofer delivered baked goods (actually by horse-drawn wagons until 1962 in Schenectady). On weekends and school vacations the driver often had a young boy as a helper. At the end of the work day, someone had to feed and groom those horses. The retail driver job, the youthful helper job, and the horse caretaker jobs are all gone.

We knew people who worked in gas stations, pumping gas and cleaning windshields. Do you know anyone who does that anymore? We also knew travel agents. When was the last time you called one?

My first “real” job was in Classified Ads at the Schenectady Gazette. To qualify, you were required to be a reasonably good speller and have a good handwriting so that the compositors could read the ads that you carefully wrote down as they were called in. It was an excellent part-time job except that absolutely NO time off was permitted for any reason. We worked seven days a week, 5-8 PM Monday through Friday, Saturday morning from 8-12, and Sunday evening from 6-8. A sick day, especially around prom time, was suspect. You could count on being summoned to the Classified Ad Manager’s office for discussion. I worked there for nearly six years and learned a lot about real-world work from that job. It’s too bad that it doesn’t exist anymore.

Every college student's nightmare summer job was being a toll collector on the NYS Thruway. While students found it boring, there were many career toll collectors who had passed a civil service test to qualify. Every Thruway toll gate and every bridge gate was staffed. Then they started collecting double tolls for traffic going in only one direction, so they could reduce the staffing by half. Now there are only a few gates staffed at any given exit or entry point, so there are fewer jobs. You take your own ticket and throw your own coins in the bin.

The racing and wagering industry was responsible for a tremendous number of jobs, Before computers, odds were calculated manually at incredible speed by folks with awesome math talents. It was necessary to pass a civil service exam to be hired and it was extremely difficult to find qualified candidates. Not only were superior math skills required, but there was also a background check, and many of those who could pass the exam had convictions for bookmaking. Computers have replaced pari-mutuel examiners. Gambling is done online, so even the bookies' jobs are gone.

Schenectady General Electric always employed at least 20,000 people and at one point reached 26,000. In recent years, plant employment was at 1,500. Latest figures that I could find show current employment to be about 4,000. This was where all non-college bound students aspired to work, and where many college graduates hoped to start their career. I wonder where they go now.

Young, unskilled boys often started their General Electric careers as Mail & Supply Helpers. As they matured and acquired seniority, they bid on promotions. If GE was hiring for plant employment right now, it would not be for mail and supply helpers. There are no more of them. Helpers are not needed to deliver email and .pdf documents.

Nearby Amsterdam, NY was a hub of textiles and smaller manufacturing. Remember the Cabbage Patch dolls...the Adam computer...Easy-Bake Ovens? The toy factory closed in 1998. Now the toys are made in China. Mohawk and other carpet manufacturers that once thrived in Amsterdam moved to Georgia and other southern states. Then they moved to Mexico.

My grandson is studying Mechanical Engineering Technology, which is essentially manufacturing processes. I wonder if he will ever be able to use his degree in United States.

Our Jobs - Part 2

If we're not longer a manufacturing economy, are we now a service economy?

If so, we should at least enjoy it and make the concept enhance our lives. Husband and I are fortunate to live in an area where supermarkets still pack our groceries for us. Publix even carries them out to the car. In many places this is no longer the custom. Does anyone really like packing their own groceries? If your total grocery bill was another dollar or two to cover the cost of packer’s employment, would it bother you when you understood that your money was supporting someone's job?

How about those telephone trees. "Listen carefully, as our options have changed." Yeah, right. Is there anyone who doesn’t hate them? If there is an abundance of people willing to answer the phone and direct calls for a modest salary, why is there no company gutsy enough to say “enough is enough” and hire someone able and willing to help a caller?

Would you pay a few cents more per gallon at a gas station if there was someone available to pump your gas and wipe your windshield, especially if he/she checked the air in your tires too?

Here in Athens, Georgia, at many restaurants you walk in, grab a menu, stand at the door and read it, go to a register, place your order, find yourself a table, help yourself to a soft drink or ice tea, then wait for a server to bring your meal. These are not buffet restaurants nor fast food establishments. For the most part, they are nice dining establishments that simply do not offer full service. What’s the point of going out to dinner if you are not going to be served? And there are people who need and want these jobs!

Why are we tolerating all these reductions in service if none of us like it? A proposal to raise taxes captures our attention immediately as we often feel that we get nothing additional for the increase. But for a miniscule increase in prices or perhaps even just a tip expense, we could have the services back that we miss. More of us would be working and maybe there wouldn’t have to be a tax increase. Maybe visitors to the United States would be so impressed that tourism might increase.

A few days ago I received yet another of the type of email that I consider "hate mail." Like most of these pieces, the statistics presented in the email differ from the actual facts, but the gist of this one was that America needed to embark on a massive program to deport all illegal aliens in order to get American citizens working again. I’m thinking that of all of the jobs that everlovin' and I were recalling, and all of the ones that I thought of when I started to write this piece, I can't think of any where the jobs were “taken over” by illegal aliens. I can, however, remember that back in the 1960s and 1970s some people saying that they could not get hired because too many minorities were being hired. Those minorities were American citizens, so it shouldn't have made a statistical difference. It's just that we shared unemployment a little more equally. Thinking back, I suspect that even then we were just not yet aware of how rapidly jobs were disappearing.

Illegal aliens haven't taken the jobs or the entire career paths to which we once aspired. The jobs have evaporated! We let them slip away without capping the escape. Like an opiate, we got high on the enabling technology, the substantial cost savings, the speed at which things could be done. Now we’re coming off the high. The jobs are gone and our high is now a downer.

So what do we do now? I have no clue. But I ramble on and contemplate some ideas in Part 3.

Our Jobs - Part 3

If we can’t create enough jobs, we’ve got to reduce the number of people in the labor market at any given time!

How might we do this? To start with, we could redefine “full time employment.” Maybe a typical work week should be reduced from 37-1/2 or 40 hours per week to 20 or 25 so that two people shared a single position. The big negative is that compensation would have to be reduced as well. But instead of some of us working full time and partially supporting those unemployed or in receipt of public assistance, more of us would be employed so there would be reduced costs of unemployment insurance and public dependency. Another possible negative would be the trickle-down effects. With reduced compensation, we would live in smaller, more affordable houses. But as newer neighborhoods were built, instead of super-size homes where 10-20% of them were vacant or in foreclosure, most would be occupied by folks who could afford to buy and maintain them. Would you rather live in a neighborhood with supersize homes but declining values due to distress sales or one with smaller but well-kept owner-occupied homes? Your choice. We might drive more affordable cars, or keep the ones we owned even longer. We might try to get by with one family car and share rides, none of which are bad choices. We might spend more time cooking nutritious meals at home instead of eating fast food, which is also not a bad idea. We might even engage in more quality time with family.

Alternatively, we could mandate one-year sabbaticals after each four years of employment. This would reduce the number of workers in the labor force by 20% at any given time. How one would live during the year off is up to conjecture. If you're a conservative, maybe the answer is that everyone would have to save enough during the working years to be able to survive the year off. If you're a liberal, maybe unemployment insurance would be available during the year off with salaries reduced during the working years to cover the cost of salary and medical benefits paid during the non-working year. During the year off, people could either work on home projects, pursue additional education or travel, as they chose. This could result in a better prepared and more focused workforce. Young people would be able to travel while they were still young enough to enjoy it and make a difference in the world instead of having to wait until they had money, by which time they were too old to enjoy the experience. It would give a much-needed boost to our travel and recreation industry and possibly improve our relationships with other countries and cultures.

A recent television news feature described in-depth personality pre-employment tests that have recently come back into vogue. I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 book, "Player Piano," which today would probably be named “Technology Gone Wild.” All workers underwent a battery of tests and the government maintained a database of workers’ credentials. If your ID card didn’t carry the proper credential you could not be hired, and there were penalties for gaming the system. Special arrangements were in place for people who did not qualify for any job. Employers like to think that they always hire the best person for a position but that is simply not true. Instead, if they are lucky, they hire the best person available at the time that the opening needs to be filled. When we have so many well-qualified, highly skilled, experienced workers available right now, what is the point of subjecting these individuals to such a test? What if the test shows that they would have been better suited to an entirely different career? Do we ignore decades of successful experience in the occupation for which the individual is now applying? Why should anyone care if an accountant's responses parallel those of a poet rather than the accountant that he is? Maybe instead of expending the effort to set in place hurdles that potential workers must surmount, we should put more effort into figuring out how to best utilize whatever employment resources that we still have before those resources are gone too.

Our career options and life expectations have changed and will continue to change. We need to figure out how to improve the quality of life for all of us, given these changes.

Monday, September 5, 2011

How to Sleep With a Snorer ... Worth a Try

My everlovin' and I have been together for 34 years, and in all that time I have never been kept awake by his snoring. For most couples, this would not be remarkable, but in the case of my guy, anyone who has ever had the experience of trying to sleep near him will attest to his extreme snoring. This would include a former spouse, adult children, military buddies, former neighbors, and patients on the same hospital floor.

I have normal hearing and am considered to be a light sleeper. If one of our dogs makes the slightest movement or sound, I am immediately aware of it. I am always dimly aware of the sounds of the refrigerator's ice maker, the wine cooler, or changes in weather, but I never hear a snore. Others are not so lucky. I can remember the two of us sharing a hotel room with daughter. During the night my daughter sat up in bed. My immediate response was to ask her what was wrong. She replied that she could not sleep because of "the noise." "What noise?" I asked, to which she responded, "Bob's snoring." Although he was right next to me, I did not hear him. Why is it that I do not hear extreme snoring that affected people as far away as neighbors and patients on the same hospital floor?

I suspect that I am blessed with an innate ability to categorize sounds as "OK" or "Not OK." Theorizing further, for those who are troubled by another's snoring, or by any other sound that interferes with a life experience, shouldn't it be possible to use self-hypnosis to teach oneself to categorize sounds into "OK" or "Not OK" categories?"

This mind-over-matter technique is waaaay less expensive and definitely more pleasant than surgery on the snorOR, earplugs for the snorEE, or the use of any of the contrivances shown here. And, who might even work for weight loss and wealth acquisition! A Google search provides some starting points. Here's one: Self-Hypnosis Techniques.

Good luck!

PS. My everlovin' insists that I also snore, but I know that cannot be true!