Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unpaid Work in the Service Industries (Yours) [5 Oct. 2014]

            Under the headline "Job picture confounds analysts," my local newspaper ran an Associated Press column by Christopher S. Rugaber that raised the question "Why aren't companies filling more of their openings," and the probably related question, "Why can many people find only part-time work?" (Ventura County Star 3 Oct. 2014: 8A).
            The article gives some plausible suggestions, and I recommend Googling Mr. Rugaber and reading his insightful analyses; I will offer here, however, a snarky point that more profound and respectable writers may miss.
            Manufacturing in the US is recovering — that must be true; I heard it on NPR — but we are still largely a service economy, and companies may not be filling job openings for the sound reason that they don't have to.
            In part this most excellent development for (non)employers stems from the same cause as decreasing numbers of good manufacturing jobs: automation. Now automation isn't such a bad thing for workers, as well as companies: anything that can be done by machines probably should be done by machines (picking cotton, for example, printing newspapers). But in the great thought experiment in Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano (1952), readers work through the implications of a series of Industrial Revolutions that replaced first brute muscle power (pile drivers, locomotives) and then skilled repetitive labor (weavers, machinists) and were moving on to replace jobs based in abilities with smaller, more fine-tuned muscles — like those for playing a piano — and then routine intellectual jobs, and finally …. Well, and finally even the Engineers and Managers would cleverly invent and innovate themselves out of jobs.
            But really sophisticated automation often requires high initial capital investment, and US firms soon learned it was cheaper to stick with simple machines with human machine-tenders but just get the humans for less. And this led to the well-known race to the bottom as US firms moved out of unionized Northern States to the "Right-to-Work" (for little) States of the Old Confederacy and then to more remote labor markets with even hungrier workers.
            Less harped on, though, are the ploys of getting workers for free with internships replacing paid apprentices, and that absolute ideal of getting service workers not just for free but often willing to pay for the privilege.
            My favorite example here is telephone menus: "Your call is important to us" — but not so important that the company will pay someone to answer it and direct you to a human being who might be able to help you. No, you will very inefficiently, in terms of your time, work through the menus, but you will do it for free. Companies discovered that you will also pump your own gasoline — Oregon in the last place in the US where I could return to my old job of pump jockey — stand in line to place food orders, and, coming soon, pay not just for having someone else schlep your bags onto an airplane, but also pay extra for the privilege of schlepping your own bag onto an airplane.
            A minor reason that American jobs aren't coming back is because we Americans live increasingly in a service economy with less and less service.
            And, as with automating jobs this isn't entirely a bad thing. Even as a job that can be done by a machine very well should be done by a machine, even so if we're healthy enough to pump our own gas, bag our own groceries, serve our own food, bus our own tables, and haul our bags onto airplanes —if we're healthy enough to do it, maybe we should.
            But we shouldn't have to get our labor expropriated to suffer the inefficiencies of telephone menus, nor should we be forced to pay upper-crust prices for the minor luxury of having a restaurant waiter take our orders and deliver our food and remove the used dishes. (Or have to put up with post-high-school cafeteria lines to stand in to buy junk food.)
            Why aren't companies filling more job openings? Because they don't have to, that's why — in part; and they don't have to because even American who can afford to do otherwise will put up with a whole lot of living in a service economy in which we are not getting served. 

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