There’s an article in the NYT about the differences between a janitor at Kodak in the early 1980s, and a janitor at Apple today. It quite correctly observes the differences, but fails to grasp why:-

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Some years ago, I read a book by Tom Peters called The Brand You 50. To anyone who doesn’t know Tom Peters, his delivery isn’t too different at times to an overcaffeinated televangelist. But, he understood a central and important point about the change that was going on in the late 90s, that people were not their employer, that careers at companies involving joining at the bottom in late teenage years and retiring with a clock 40 years later were over. I thought it one of the most important books I’d ever read because of the insight and the advice it gave.

And this change didn’t just happen because Kodak were nicer people than Apple. Shareholders want a return on investment. Preferably, as much as you can give them. So, why did it happen?

In 1982, an hour-long long-distance phone call in 1980 cost the equivalent of $72 in today’s money. Almost no desks in offices had computers on them. There was no way to easily move data between companies. And with those costs and without the internet, that made outsourcing expensive and introduced delays. Paying people was expensive, frequently using cash.

All of this made everything much more local than it is today. Companies couldn’t outsource so easily because of the extra costs and delays in communications. So, they had lots of internal functions. I worked for a company in the mid-80s that had its own car fleet management and printing section. We printed our own business cards. No-one would do that today., but it was the sensible thing for them.

This also extended to life outside of work. Your relationship with your bank was more personal. You would get credit for a mortgage or get some grace on it if you hit hard times based on a person in a bank knowing you were good for it.

And this all meant less mobility of office workers, whether in terms of geographical locations or who you worked for.

Employers weren’t paternal because of their good nature. Kodak weren’t kind and Apple unkind. It was about the incentives on offer. A company in the early 80s could invest in training someone and raise their level of skill, leading to a rise in salary and progression in life because they had a very good chance of realising their investment because people rarely left.

Once people became more mobile, people started to leave more. They could get trained, get a little experience and leave. Employers started to realise that their investment wasn’t paying off. They were training up people who were then poached by other employers who hadn’t paid the training costs.

A few companies in the early 90s tried to get around this by doing things like locking people into contracts where if they left before 2 years, they’d have to pay back the loans, but courts took a rather dim view of this practice and threw the cases out, so companies stopped doing it, and stopped training so much.

The central point of Peters’s book is that you’re no longer “a company man”. You’re your own man. It’s about self-improvement, not expecting the company to do it for you. The loss of paternalistic companies isn’t down to politicians, or a fad, it’s a change wrought by technological change. You can fight that and lose, or you can accept it and work with it.

So, my advice to Ms Ramos is to find something to learn to improve her skills. And no, not going to college and pouring 3 years into a BA in Medieval History, but finding something that you can do that someone wants you to be doing. Ms Evans might have had an advantage of a leg up by getting some evening classes back in the 1980s, but there are other options today with books and e-learning, some of which is free, but even the paid-for options are less than $25/month.

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Companies Old and New

There’s an article in the NYT about the differences between a janitor at Kodak in the early 1980s, and a janitor at Apple today. It quite correctly observes the differences, but fails to grasp why:-

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Some years ago, I read a book by Tom Peters called The Brand You 50. To anyone who doesn’t know Tom Peters, his delivery isn’t too different at times to an overcaffeinated televangelist. But, he understood a central and important point about the change that was going on in the late 90s, that people were not their employer, that careers at companies involving joining at the bottom in late teenage years and retiring with a clock 40 years later were over. I thought it one of the most important books I’d ever read because of the insight and the advice it gave.

And this change didn’t just happen because Kodak were nicer people than Apple. Shareholders want a return on investment. Preferably, as much as you can give them. So, why did it happen?

In 1982, an hour-long long-distance phone call in 1980 cost the equivalent of $72 in today’s money. Almost no desks in offices had computers on them. There was no way to easily move data between companies. And with those costs and without the internet, that made outsourcing expensive and introduced delays. Paying people was expensive, frequently using cash.

All of this made everything much more local than it is today. Companies couldn’t outsource so easily because of the extra costs and delays in communications. So, they had lots of internal functions. I worked for a company in the mid-80s that had its own car fleet management and printing section. We printed our own business cards. No-one would do that today., but it was the sensible thing for them.

This also extended to life outside of work. Your relationship with your bank was more personal. You would get credit for a mortgage or get some grace on it if you hit hard times based on a person in a bank knowing you were good for it.

And this all meant less mobility of office workers, whether in terms of geographical locations or who you worked for.

Employers weren’t paternal because of their good nature. Kodak weren’t kind and Apple unkind. It was about the incentives on offer. A company in the early 80s could invest in training someone and raise their level of skill, leading to a rise in salary and progression in life because they had a very good chance of realising their investment because people rarely left.

Once people became more mobile, people started to leave more. They could get trained, get a little experience and leave. Employers started to realise that their investment wasn’t paying off. They were training up people who were then poached by other employers who hadn’t paid the training costs.

A few companies in the early 90s tried to get around this by doing things like locking people into contracts where if they left before 2 years, they’d have to pay back the loans, but courts took a rather dim view of this practice and threw the cases out, so companies stopped doing it, and stopped training so much.

The central point of Peters’s book is that you’re no longer “a company man”. You’re your own man. It’s about self-improvement, not expecting the company to do it for you. The loss of paternalistic companies isn’t down to politicians, or a fad, it’s a change wrought by technological change. You can fight that and lose, or you can accept it and work with it.

So, my advice to Ms Ramos is to find something to learn to improve her skills. And no, not going to college and pouring 3 years into a BA in Medieval History, but finding something that you can do that someone wants you to be doing. Ms Evans might have had an advantage of a leg up by getting some evening classes back in the 1980s, but there are other options today with books and e-learning, some of which is free, but even the paid-for options are less than $25/month.

About author

Tim Almond is a software consultant specialising in web applications for the ASP.NET stack.