Anxiety and Ignorance Offer as Poor Foundation for Engagement

 Managers of current workforces concern themselves daily with how their groups might score on an engagement survey. There are legitimate reasons for this concern, many in our workforce are both anxious and unconscious , neither emotionally or psychologically ready for the challenges of NOW much less those of the future! What are we, managers, doing to address the underlying issues?

On September 16 Edward Gordon wrote a compelling piece, ‘Filling Job Vacancies Today and Tomorrow’ for his posting to the Britannica Blog. Among the many solid comments he offered that day, he said the following:

“The American education-to-employment system is largely failing to prepare people with the required skills to compete in this new labor market era. Laid-off workers often lack the skills to move into jobs in growing sectors of the economy. Job training programs are largely inconsistent, short-term, and too generic.”

But what we need now is jobs…right? I say no, we need honesty and the recognition that doing more of what we have always done expecting things to get “better” is simply a form of collective insanity.

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when that state could have been said to be the heart of the US economy. Today, with 13.1% unemployment, Michigan leads the nation in terms of dire economic circumstances…and I worry for the future. It could get worse!

Last Saturday night I had an opportunity to gather with about 50 of my high school classmates for our 45th reunion. For the most part it was a great experience but some of my conversations left me deeply concerned. Many of my former classmates are of course retired, beneficiaries of a economic conditions that will never be repeated. The ones who have any knowledge of me and my circumstances know that I am still working and several asked my opinion on the current state of the economy and prospects for a return to “normal”, the conditions that prevailed during their working careers.

I could tell they were authentically concerned that the future for their children might not be as rewarding materially as their own working careers had been. Each of them seemed to be rooting for or hopeful about the prospects of returning to a set of circumstance both familiar and favorable. Me? I am more concerned that they think “recovery” is even a possibility.

As I sat with one classmate and his wife, who had raised a large family, all of whom will be working for many years, I raised the issue of Michigan’s legacy from the heyday of the automobile industry. I could see from my travels around the state that the members of available workforce are fundamentally undereducated and not aware of how ill prepared they are. When I posed this issue to my classmate, the response was that the workforce had plenty of skills and what was needed were jobs! This perspective was offered without a moment’s hesitation and without a hint of recognition that the inference was that the creation of jobs was someone else’s responsibility and most likely government’s.

Another conversation directly concerned the topic of “recovery” and the soon-to-be-voted-on question of whether to extend the Bush era tax levels. My classmate was retired from a non-entrepreneurial, large company background. She expressed a concern that if the tax levels returned to pre-Bush levels it would have a stifling effect on small business owners, historically the most reliable source of job creation. As a small business owner myself for the past 23 years, I offered my perspective:

  • Most small businesses will always be small, that’s the way the owners want them.
  • Growth is less a concern for small business owners than what they are doing and being profitable while they are doing it.
  • Owners of small businesses do not make their decisions about hiring or laying off on a short term basis. They rely heavily on their employees and don’t relish the idea of letting them go and then trying to rehire them when things get better.
  • Tax rates are only one aspect of the economic circumstances small business owners deal with; they are more likely concerned with overall demand for their offerings.
  • If small business owners were going to be creating jobs they would very likely be doing it now, and for the most part they are not. I am not sure what difference the tax rates might make if extended without a change in overall demand.

As I concluded my response to her stated concern she frowned and offered that she was concerned that if the tax levels returned to the pre-Bush levels small business owners might be deterred from creating new jobs! This was in case I had not heard her the first time, I suppose.

Michigan’s problems are really no different than those of the rest of the nation save for the fact that at one time there was such a high concentration of manufacturing jobs within its borders. What has occurred in America has also taken place in previously industrialized nations everywhere. We can name the change China or India just as we named it Japan, Mexico or Korea before now and the “naming” would have been equally inaccurate. The change that has occurred is structural in nature and inherent in a capitalistic economic system. There is no “recovery” coming. There is future similar to our very recent past into which we will continue living, if we are fortunate. Whether currently employed or not, an entirely new future is here now. No return to the past is possible.

Consider the following declarations:

  • Whether you are an employee or a manager we have arrived at a point where new ethical imperatives have presented themselves. Sending children to private schools because we can rather than address the issues of our educational system is not an answer; it is an avoidance of responsibility. Our children may end up well educated, but they will pay a price for the choice we have made.
  • If we are managers and we see that those reporting to us are resting on their current skills, we have an ethical responsibility to confront them on their prospects for the future. They are not going to be surprised by what you say, unless they have their heads in the sand, in which case the discomfort they experience will outweigh the consequences of the ignorance they will shed.

Are either of these statements true? It really should not matter. Both open the possibility for futures other than the one that is predictable today, whether it be Michigan or elsewhere in the world. New opportunity (jobs) is far less our challenge today than is a new way of seeing the world around us.

  • How can you help your children or those reporting to you to see the future clearly?
  • What actions should you, your children or those reporting to you be taking immediately to improve their readiness for the challenges of NOW?



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