Storm Clouds on the Horizon
While some may fear a disaster coming in 2012, employers may want to worry less about the world ending and more about a new world emerging.
When the pendulum swings one direction it will always swing back the other direction. In 2009-10, employment has swung to one extreme (labor surplus) and it’s not difficult to foresee it will eventually swing back the other direction. The question for employers is what factors will influence the return because that will determine if we are moving toward equilibrium between labor and jobs or if we are moving into a new labor shortage. Unfortunately for employers needing quality workers, a perfect storm seems to be brewing that may bring about the worst labor shortage since World War II.
A Symbiotic Relationship
The engine that drives employment is a symbiotic relationship between the employee and the employer. In this relationship the employer provides; 1) wages and/or benefits, 2) job security, and 3) a source of pride and well-being from gainful employment. In return the employee basically submits themselves to abide by the demands put upon them by the employer.
A One-Way Street
Unfortunately for the employee, employers have often exploited their workers by not providing one or more of the unwritten agreements of that symbiotic relationship. Companies have been able to do this because a person’s need to survive has been largely dependent on gainful employment and though self-employment has been an option, it has been an option only if you wish to sacrifice your sense of security. For a period of time labor unions helped the worker by leveling the employment playing field; however, with most unions devolving to some level of corruption, the employee sometimes is dealing with the lesser of two evils.
A New World
For decades we have observed that job security has been on the decline; however, the current recession has crushed the last vestiges of job security in the workplace. Government and university employees were among the sectors of employment that still retained some job security, but this economic crisis has undercut the government revenue bases of property, sales, income, and many business taxes, leaving city, county, and state governments drastically cutting jobs. No longer can an employee be deluded with the myth of job security and that removes the corner stone of the symbiotic relationship that employers have used to maintain some control on the labor market. It is understood that for an experienced, educated worker there is no more risk in being self-employed than being under the thumb of a corporate manager.
The new reality is bad news for an employer that needs an experienced and/or educated workforce. These workers are now seeking to earn their living outside of a corporate environment and organizations can no longer expect any leverage of a better opportunity within the corporate structure. In fact, many people will discover greater opportunities and more control in the entrepreneurial world than behind the company desk.
The length of this recession is also contributing to dispelling the mystic of needing a job for a sense of well being. With so many unemployed it no longer is a mantle of shame to be one of millions out of work. Many unemployed workers are going back to school, re-imagining1 their careers, starting their own companies, working for volunteer organizations, or a combination of all the above. Like a snow drift in Spring, the current labor surplus is gradually melting away and when employers return to the labor market they may find the labor surplus is a suddenly a shortage.
Damn Tom Peters!
In 2003, Tom Peters published his latest treatise on the future of business. His book titled, Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, described the demise of the corporate employee. His description of self-branded people who floated from project to project foretold an entrepreneurial environment where individuals reigned supreme and corporations fought for the best talent. Whether Peters has a crystal ball or just exceptional perception, the impact of the current recession has made his predictions of the new workplace become our reality.
What to Do?
For the employer, the days of employment as usual are over. Some human resource professionals may be smirking at the current power balance based on today’s labor surplus, but that smile will soon be wiped off his or her face. The best strategy for an organization is to reevaluate the workplace and address any issues of people management that devalues the employee. The guiding principal of treating the employee as an equal will help an employer to meet the new reality, but most organizations cannot fathom what that means. Eliminating job standards, employee evaluations, and all other human resource and management tools designed to send the clear message that “we own you” will have to be sacrificed. That is contrary to everything companies have been told in the past sixty years, but that is the only part of the extreme workplace makeover that will be necessary to revamp an organization for what is coming in the next storm front. Many organizations that survive the new economy will emerge only to be swept away by the new workplace.
1Tom Peters term of rethinking the future of business.