First, a little diversion. A few minutes ago my daughter Zari and I were walking across a parking lot when she said, “Look, Daddy! I see two stars!” Most parents would say something along the lines of “That’s nice, dear,” and continue on their way. That’s not the way I roll. I said, “I don’t think you see any stars, because I think those are planets.” I was pretty sure that the lower “star” was Venus, so I pulled out my Android phone and ran the Google Sky Map app. Sure enough, the lower one was Venus, while the upper one was Jupiter. I showed this to Zari on my phone, and she was happy to see it. Of course, her next question was, “Where’s Betelgeuse tonight?” Fortunately, even with the bright moon tonight, I was able to point to her favorite star–this time without resorting to the app. One problem with our schools today is the lack of parental involvement in children’s education, and I think a large part of this is that many parents aren’t trained to turn a child’s question into a teaching moment. I have a few ideas on how to make this type of experience happen more often.
Last month I discussed four of the six Republican Presidential candidates in the race at the time. Since then, Huntsman and Perry have dropped out, but the two I had missed, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, are still in the race.
I think Mitt Romney is best equipped to persuade independent voters that he’s not a far-right conservative candidate. Unfortunately, he’s had to undermine much of that to put himself in the lead for the Republican nomination. He governed Massachusetts as a moderate Republican, but he has distanced himself from many of his successes because they run contrary to Republican dogma. Having said that, unlike Gingrich, I think his word is good, even if I consider some of his beliefs to be flawed. One article today focused on his views on abortion, religious freedom, and gay marriage. I disagree with his gay marriage position, but his abortion position is better than that of his Republican opponents, since he would at least allow emergency contraception for rape victims. I can see both sides of the religious freedom argument, but I think the bottom line is that if a religious organization is willing to accept government funding, it has to expect to have to follow some governmental regulations. Romney currently sides with the religious groups, and I wish I knew whether this was a real change or an attempt to gain votes.
Rick Santorum is the poster child for misguided good intentions. His social conservative credentials are spotless, which makes me very uneasy. I don’t think there is any question that he means well. The Bono quote about Santorum really summarizes my feelings about him, “(He) has a kind of Tourette’s disease. He will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable.” Of all the Republican candidates, he seems to best understand the importance of development assistance, both for its own sake and to counter China’s growing influence. I wouldn’t be upset with him in an ambassadorial position, and I could potentially see him being an adequate Secretary of State, but on social issues, he terrifies me. Of the three non-Romney candidates, I think Santorum is the most likely to get a VP nod to shore up Romney’s conservatism, but I think such a mood would seal Obama’s reelection.
The Corporate Pendulum
I consider myself fortunate to have mostly worked for small businesses. I like being on a first-name basis with my ultimate boss, the CEO, President, or owner of my employer (yes, amazingly enough, even this job, but that’s a story for another day). In my current job, our smallness makes us nimble, and we have been able to adjust and benefit from changing market conditions while seeing our competition wither and, unfortunately, sometimes go out of business. I do have many friends working in Corporate America, and I see one recurring theme: They rarely get promoted without changing employers. I have a two theories as to why this happens, one of which is discussed far too often–the emphasis on immediate short-term profits–but the other is that too many corporate managers do not understand the importance of institutional memory.
I do not have an MBA–my business school experience is limited to helping a girlfriend through her business classes at USC–but I’m guessing that from the willingness to trade expensive experienced employees for cheap inexperienced recent college graduates, this isn’t something that’s taught. This problem is also present in government: the U.S. often has trade representatives with limited experience doing battle with negotiators from other countries with decades in their jobs. Recently, I’ve heard corporate horror stories from two friends:
The Big Box Store
One friend of mine is an expert in payment processing systems. He wrote the code or managed the writing of the code for most of their systems, which process millions of dollars of transactions daily. The problem for my friend is that his employer doesn’t recognize his value, or, more specifically, his institutional memory, so he is stuck in a cycle of corporate consulting followed by unemployment. He will work on a system upgrade on a contract running anywhere from six to eighteen months, at which time he’ll be unemployed for six months to a year, waiting for the next upgrade cycle. It isn’t quite that simple though: When the next upgrade cycle arrives, the Big Box Store doesn’t call him, it hires headhunters to find someone with the necessary qualifications. There is only one person on the planet with the necessary qualifications, so they always find him and present him with a low, insulting offer. After some negotiations, he returns to the job with a 20% increase, only to find that in the time he was gone, almost all of the team for the last upgrade has left for greener pastures, replaced by H-1B visa imported workers. My friend should be a lifetime employee, and he should have coworkers who have worked with him for a decade or longer.
The Call Center
When my other friend began her employment with the call center, the company had the highest customer satisfaction rating in the industry by a significant margin. Management was not satisfied with this, because the company was lagging in market share, so about two years ago, the company shifted the call center focus from helping customers to upselling them. Revenues and profits have not improved as a result, and the company has gone from first to worst–again, by a significant margin. Management blames the call center employees for the decline. Management’s failure to realize that the problem is the result of their philosophy shift, combined with the loss of their top customer service employees because they were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do a job that they were not hired to do. These employees knew how to provide great customer service, and because of the change they are likely lost forever. Regaining customer trust takes far longer than losing it, but the emphasis on profit makes me think that the likely long-term management solution is to outsource these jobs.
So, Topher, How Do You Fix It?
Employers argue that there is a shortage of qualified workers in many fields, so they must employ foreign-born and -trained workers. That these workers usually happen to be less expensive than their American counterparts is a bonus. I would address the problem on two fronts:
- Base student loan interest rates on the course of study. If there’s a high demand for computer engineers, offer a low interest rate for computer engineering students. If there’s a low demand for marketers, then the interest rate should be significantly higher–if the government guarantees the loan at all. If someone really wants to be a marketer, he can still get a degree, but he can’t expect the government to invest in his career choice. This should drive students toward majors that provide good career opportunities. Obviously, as the business climate changes, these interest rates should be adjusted accordingly.
- Make companies pay a premium salary to H-1B visa recipients. If companies can pay entry-level wages to H-1B employees, then they will gleefully replace seasoned American workers with the cheaper foreign labor. If there really is a shortage, act like it, and pay the workers accordingly. I think setting the minimum salary at the median for an American worker with five years of experience might be a good starting point. If the shortage is artificial, it will disappear soon enough.
Thanks for your time, and please let me know what you think, good or bad.