Friday, June 06, 2014

So Who Cleans The Sewers?

I like reading articles on LinkedIn's 'Pulse', but sometimes I wonder whether the authors have really thought through their message. For example, a lot of authors tell people some version of 'do what you love'. Cynical folks, like myself, remind them that a lot of what we like to do does not pay well, if at all. Or to paraphrase my dad's advice, 'they pay you to work because you would not do it for free'. I understand the message, of course. It's great when someone can get paid a good salary to do something they really enjoy or feel is important. But there are a lot of things that need to be done, that are never going to be on anyone's wish list. And yet, those jobs have to be done.
One summer while I was going to college, I worked at Safeway as a 'Courtesy Clerk'. These are employees who carry groceries to your car, stock shelves, clean up messes, and generally go where they are needed to keep things going. The courtesy clerks also had to clean out the dumpster and truck pit behind the store. Safeway, like other grocery store chains, gets product delivered by 18-wheelers which back up to the loading dock. There's a small gap of a few inches from the back of the truck to the back of the loading dock, and usually a ramp between the truck and dock to carry stuff into the warehouse section. Things do get dropped or spilled, however, and they fall into the pit where the inclined ramp ends at the dock. After a while, time and heat cause the stuff to rot, and someone has to go pick it up and throw it away. The smell and feel of rotting vegetables, eggs, milk, and 'no idea what it is' is something nobody wants to encounter, but it's part of the job. Put on a rubber apron and some gloves to go to work. I hated cleaning out the truck pit but never complained; it was just part of the job.
A couple summers before that, I worked in a pet store. Sounds cool, right? Well, as the new guy my job was to clean up all the puppy and kitty poop. I also had to clean the snakes, something I never even thought about when I applied for the job. Again, not the cool experience but it was part of the job.
After college, I became a manager at a cinema. There are nice things about that kind of job, but there was an obscene amount of paperwork, I worked hundred-hour weeks in the summer, and customers sometimes became violently angry over some of the strangest things (I started looking for Rod Serling when a customer threatened to go get his gun if his popcorn wasn't fresh enough the next time he came to the show). But again, all of this was part of the job, and if it wasn't as if I could just ignore the parts that weren't fun.
In my experience, most jobs are like that. They have things that make them worth doing, but there's almost always some parts that are things you just endure or get done. There are also jobs which have essentially nothing to make them enjoyable, but they still have to be done. Someone has to make sure things keep working, stay clean, are safe, and are inspected. No matter how technology advances, no matter what is exalted as Job Satisfaction, as long as there are humans there will be unpleasant tasks and jobs to do, and we owe it to the next generations to be honest that honest work includes the parts we don't do for fun or glory. Some of the most important work you will do won't ever get even a single bullet point on your CV or resume, and some of the work that makes you a person of integrity will be low-paying, difficult and unpleasant. It's also important to respect those whose titles are humble, whose work attire is purely functional, and whose successes are usually ignored by everyone else.
If no one cleaned the sewers, everything else would fail.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Moral Wage

I try to be a reasonable person.   So when I read all these articles and hear about protests demanding a 'Living Wage', I really do try to be open to their argument.  The problem, of course, is that ever argument I have seen up to now tries to argue two ridiculous contentions; that the minimum wage needs to go up to a certain amount, and two, that people should be paid according to what they want and expect to receive, rather than what their work is worth.  So when considering wages, the question is how to determine a fair value for the work done.

The first point has to be that money must be created to exist.  Work therefore has to produce value for it to be worth paying.  That's the blunder in the concept of minimum wage laws and 'living wage' or 'fair pay' arguments.  The counter to that, in my mind at least, would be that if my employer hires me to show up and do 'x', they must pay me for that work regardless of it's actual value in the market.  This brings me to the subject of contracts.

Contracts, my second point, are an agreement between two or more parties.  If you want money from someone, to get it legally and morally you have to reach an agreement with him or her.   In employment terms that means you negotiate your pay and work duties.  You do what you promised and the employer pays what they promised.   If you don't like what they offer, go find someone willing to pay what you think is reasonable.  If you can't find someone willing to pay what you think is reasonable, then you need to go back and reconsider your definition of 'reasonable'.  

I'm not being snide there.  People don't agree on all details, but there is a general sense of reasonable value.  The problem for us working folks, is that we have a much better idea of how hard we work than how much our work creates in real value. My work, for example, does not appear to create revenue, which seems to make it not very valuable.  What I do, however, prevents loss that would otherwise happen, and I can figure out how much I am saving my company by simply looking at how the previous manager did and how much the average company loses to fraud, default, bankruptcy, and general delinquency.  I also use sites like to see what the market pays people in the same or similar roles.  I will be blunt here - there are some jobs that have a lot less work than mine but pay better, but there are also jobs that have more work and pay less.  The working conditions are also important to deciding where you work, and for what pay.  All in all, I have enough information to make an informed decision on not only what I consider reasonable, but also what options I have should I wish to change my position. 

By now, it should be obvious that you have to do your homework to know what you can expect to get paid.  I have to warn you, there is no shortage of potential employers who will pay you as little as possible, so you not only have to know what you believe you should get paid for a job, you need to know what skills and experience drive a good wage.

The title of this article, though, is 'The Moral Wage', not 'How to Get a Good Wage'.  There are two reasons why I gave it that title.  First off, if you want to make good money you better be worth it, which means you have to know what is needed for your company to succeed and for you to impress in meaningful ways.  Second, you should be able to see how your boss and employer chooses to set your wage.  In matters of pay, morality and competence have more than a passing acquaintance.  So if your employer is paying you less than scale, or if you examine the market and conclude you can make significantly more than your present wage, you have a choice to make - if you stay where you are, you are accepting the wage you have as reasonable.  If you ask for a raise, you should explain to your employer what you think is reasonable, and why you should be paid the higher rate.  If that fails, you should then explore your options and opportunity.  Note, please, that the moral responsibility is yours, not the employer.