Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here

Started from the bottom now we’re here–a phrase made famous by a song. But where is “here”? The answer is quite different depending who you ask. For some “here” is the peak of a career. Finally reaping the rewards of decades of hard work and dedication. For others it’s the comfort of a stable job and/or family. Yet increasingly “here” means starting from the bottom…again. For the first time in my life I know not one, but several people who have been laid off from a job.

It’s true that economic hardships are somewhat new to my generation. We’re products of the late 70’s and 80’s. We grew up in a cold war with the Soviet Union. Military spending was at an all-time high. Education budgets were at an all-time low. Advances in shipping and the proliferation of global trade impacted markets typically monopolized by American companies. The automotive industry, under pressure form Japanese auto makers, had completed some of the largest labor reductions the nation had witnessed since The Great Depression. Manufacturing jobs were moving to Asia thanks to cheaper labor costs. Entire industries moved abroad. Lots of people were out of work. LOTS. Entire cities had been decimated by the evolving economic climate. Yet the unemployment rate was “normal” to my generation. The resulting tension–so thick it could be cut with a knife–was all we knew. Cold wars, real wars, lay-offs, education cuts, fuel shortages, record crime rates. We were too young to understand what was happening. And then, in just a short few years, things started to look up. The Gulf War was over. Oil production had stabilized. New jobs were being created every day. A new economy fueled by the tech boom was afoot. Jobs appeared out of thin air. Skilled, unskilled, and everything in between. Companies grew. Computers evolved. Computers became an integral part of every government office and business in the world. Then came the internet (world wide web) as we know it. By 1998 the internet was creating a global economy of it’s own. Niche businesses–the kind of shops that couldn’t make it anywhere but New York–had a voice in this new virtual landscape. The internet helped both virtual (internet based) and brick-and-mortar business succeed in ways never before imagined. Salaries increased. Unemployment dropped. Crime rates reached historic lows. This unprecedented economic growth and success continued through the mid 2000’s. From our earliest childhood memories through adulthood everything had always improved. Life was good.

All good things must come to an end. Right around the time I was hitting the job market with a degree in Information Technology from RIT it became apparent that the economic climate was changing. Unlike previous classes we didn’t have recruiters knocking down our doors. Still, my generation had little difficulty starting careers and we’ve enjoyed relative stability for the last decade or so. Until the last year or so that is. When the ecomony took a turn for the worst the “traditional” cuts were made. Older employees were pushed into early retirement. Hiring freezes were put in place. Department spending was dramatically reduced. Unfortunately it appears as though those cuts were not enough. Suddenly it’s the 30 somethings being targeted for lay-offs. The highly skilled. What I’ve found most interesting is not that we’ve become the target of lay-offs but the individuals companies select for downsizing. It’s rarely the “new guy”. It’s rarely the easily replaceable. Companies seem to be targeting mission-critical “irreplaceable” types. Those who bear the greatest responsibility. The ones who keep watch over the precious vial of unicorn tears. Perhaps it’s poor management. Perhaps it’s to set an example. Perhaps it’s “just business”–eliminating the largest salaries. Whatever the reason–the company faithful, the most loyal, seem to be getting the axe more frequently. This fact really hit home this week when a close friend of mine lost their job of more than a decade. They quite literally started at the bottom as the company’s very first employee. Coworkers describe him as the glue that holds everything together. Their “here” is unemployment in less than three weeks.

Is this new trend just a phase? Is there any loyalty in business? Does any long-term planning go into these decisions? The one thing most companies have in common concerns long-term planning. This may come as a surprise but few managers consider the consequences of losing mission-critical team members. The notion that it would take months or even years to “pick up the pieces” from a single employee’s departure is crazy to them. To make matters worse, there’s often a disconnect between those making staffing decisions and those responsible for operations. Staffing decisions are usually based on financial review and not by what assets they possess. This is often a contributing factor to the “downward spiral” companies commonly enter when trying to reduce costs. Short-term, cuts make sense and reduce spending. Long-term, cuts result in a loss of vital talent and strike a blow to employee moral. Long-term, the product suffers and profits decline. Then more staffing cuts are made…and so the cycle continues. At a certain point “started from the bottom now we’re here” becomes true for the company as well. Whether “here” is positive or negative is directly related to how these very situations are handled.

As for this post, the opposite is true. Started from the top now we’re here. But where is “here”? I offer no answers–just food for thought. What kind of company do you want to work for? What type of manager are you?

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