Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Unskilled Labor

I work at Fangamer, and until fairly recently the entire company was paid the same wage. From the CEO to the mailroom worker, we were all equally scrapping by, surviving by the good grace of Tucson's low cost of living.

A while back things changed a bit after we took on some fairly lucrative jobs. We're not wealthy, but we're much better off than we used to be. And as our wages rose, we finally stopped with the equal pay deal. We were to be paid according to several factors: seniority, education, teamwork, efficiency, and so on. In short, some people were to be paid more than others.

There was a concept that entered the conversation at that point. Well, that's not quite true; the concept was introduced long before, though the rule of equal pay stood fast against the idea. But when a difference in pay was introduced, the question would finally be considered:

Should we pay unskilled laborers less than skilled workers?

To some degree, it may seem that I already answered this question. As I said: education played a factor in our new wages, and education implies some level of skill. However, that's not what I mean. Obviously, just because you have a college education doesn't mean you're working in a job that uses that education. As a college graduate who was still working at a Gamestop for a while, I can attest to this.

No, what I'm referring to is the work itself: does the work require some inherent talent or learned skill to perform? Or, can the necessary skills to perform the job be learned in less than a day? A week? If the job can be done with relatively little training, it's unskilled labor.

We have a lot of unskilled labor to be done at Fangamer. I mean, sure, you can do these things better with experience and talent, but many of these jobs can be done more or less equally well by anyone. Things like folding shirts, packing buttons, filling out packing slips, gathering orders, and shipping stuff are all pretty easy to grasp with fairly little practice, and what once might have made some of these tasks complex has since been simplified as we established more efficient and user-friendly systems.

Given that, should the people who perform these jobs be paid less than the managers, programmers, and artists of the company? If so, how much less?

I'm not privy to the salaries of my co-workers, but I suspect that most of them get paid nearly as much as I do, with the difference stemming primarily from my seniority. If that is the case, good. Although my job is highly specialized and managerial, I don't really feel comfortable with the idea of being paid more than the people who, in a very real sense, keep the company running every bit as much as and, occasionally, even more than I do.

The justification for paying unskilled laborers less is that, in theory, these people are easily replaced. Given that, the free market should kick in, and we should be hiring whoever can do the job the cheapest. That's capitalism, baby.

However, these people aren't easily replaced, and I'm doubly skeptical that they add less value to the company than I do just because I do more specialized work than they do. Even if it were true that mailroom workers at Fangamer could be easily replaced by any bum off of the street, that doesn't change the fact that the work they are doing is vital to the function of the company. There are no unimportant cogs in the machine that is Fangamer, and I'm inclined to value my fellow cogs highly.

Moreover, though, it's simply not true that these workers are easily replaced. Every employee at Fangamer adds to the atmosphere of the company, and the fact that it's filled with good, intelligent, caring people keeps me driven to make sure the company keeps running, and prevents me from getting disheartened, even when the work gets rough. You can't replace that easily. Plus, the people we have are dedicated, hard-working, and trustworthy, none of which are qualities easily found in a replacement.

Which makes me wonder about other businesses, especially big ones that rely on unskilled labor; companies with so many employees that at some point every employee does start to look replaceable. Every day good, hard-working employees quit their jobs because their company doesn't appreciate the work they do, the qualities they bring to the company that makes them irreplaceable. Every day companies lose stellar employees that can no longer handle the insufficient pay, the poor working conditions, the inefficient bureaucracy, or the systematic lack of faith the company shows in its employees.

You could always tell, though, when you've found a pocket of good management. You know it when you step into a "good" Wal-Mart, a "good" McDonalds, or a "good" Gamestop, where the place is clean, the employees are happy and helpful, and the food is just somehow better than that other McDonalds down the block.

In fact, I think there are some companies who have realized the importance of recognizing that their "unskilled" employees are not, in fact, easily replaced. There seems to be even some really big companies that have restructured their approach to their employees, offering better pay, good working conditions, and respect. Basically, incentives beyond the simple paycheck to make the job more than just a job. A reason to take pride in their work.

The skeptic in me understands that it's probably still about the bottom line for those companies; that these improved working conditions and such simply make their employees more productive and that if it wasn't working then this illusion of respect would likely be stripped away. However, it does seem to be working, or at least companies like Five Guys (whose employees always at least appear merry to me) seem to be flourishing.

Anyway, my point is that there seems to be a practical reason to treat "unskilled" workers well, which conveniently supports my personal preference to show respect and appreciation for the people whose labors keep my company afloat.

It seems Fangamer reflects my personal preference as well. Our employee turnover remains zero.

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