Most Jobs Are Worse When The Markets Suck
Supply and Demand on Labor
When I first landed my job as a software support monkey, it was a great time to be an employee. There were more jobs available than people available to fill them. Employers were on their heels; they had to do their best to attract and retain talent.
In a poor market, the opposite is true. Employers become aware that there is a scarcity of jobs, putting them firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to dictating terms and conditions of the job.
The software company I worked for knew they had the upper hand, and began to press their advantage.
Not good, people. Not good.
More with Less
Most companies managing to navigate through the dot-com explosion enacted hiring freezes. Mine was no different. Even though the volume of work justified taking on more people, they refused to pick up additional bodies to process tasks.
There were a couple of oft-repeated phrases to justify this policy. The one that stuck out most clearly in my mind was “For the sake of our shareholders, we must learn to do more with less.” A close second was along the lines of “In these trying economic times, every employee must do more than they are asked.”
The place I worked, SoftwareCompany, was still making money hand-over fist. They had over a billion dollars in cash. We were quite profitable.
It made no difference. Market conditions became a convenient excuse to squeeze every last drop out of their employees.
A Good Salary, For an Indian
There was an increasing focus on hiring H-1B visa sponsored workers. Or laying people off who were not tied to a work visa.
The official reason given for this practice was a shortage of talented labor to fill roles.
But this wasn’t the case. There were plenty of skilled workers of many nationalities in the area.
I believe that employers preferred visa-sponsored labor because of increased control and lowered costs. My Indian and Asian co-workers were absolutely terrified of being let go, much more so than their American counterparts, because they’d either have to find a new sponsor within two weeks (difficult, given current market conditions) or have to return home.
This fear drove many of them to work insane hours in order to feel secure in their jobs.
It happened again in the crash of 2008. But, we’ll get there later in this storyline.
Don’t believe my opinion? If you’re interested in getting into it, follow a few of these links and make up your own mind.
This subject came up one night when I was out to dinner with some co-workers. At the table with me was a manager of the patching team. Their job was to take a “real” issue — a problem already validated and filed by our support group — and in turn, produce a fix on our line of software.
They had a position open, despite the hiring freeze, because of an immense backlog of bugs that simply had to be addressed in order to satisfy customers. So this patching team manager had too much to drink and started to get into the details of the hiring process. He said that a) he had more applications than he knew what to do with, b) the foreign workers never asked questions about work life balance or benefits in the interviews and c) a few of the workers asked if they could have six or seven weekends a year off.
Read that last comment again. These folks were bargaining from the position of assuming they would be asked to work 52 out of 52 weekends a year.
Have you figured out which applicants our patching manager was in favor of hiring? Can there be any doubt?
Do you want to compete with that?
Look, I don’t begrudge any qualified worker for finding a job in America. Not in the slightest. My Indian co-workers in particular were, as a rule, incredibly smart and motivated, and friendly as hell to boot. I have many fond memories of tea-time in the kitchen, which was ten minutes every morning devoted to having a hot beverage, complaining about customers, and offering tips to one another on how to get unstuck on tricky issues.
Further, if I were born in another country and found an opportunity in America that I believed would improve my lot in life, I would take it without any hesitation. I get it. I also immensely value my experience working with people from other countries and cultures. If you are a curious, friendly person, it’s an incredible job perk to be surrounded by this diverse array of personalities, perspectives and talent. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
But the fact remains that they were generally also willing to put up with lower salaries and more challenging work environments than their American counterparts. I was witness to this shift and it’s no myth. Foreign workers tended to be hungrier. They would do whatever it takes, as long as it takes.
The ultra-competitive nature of employment meant that the weekly number of hours everyone was expected to put in slowly crept upward. Every new height became a new normal, expected to be shortly exceeded. The bar is always rising.
I must admit, there were times when I wondered if we, the workers, were raising it all on our own.
The practice of handing out yearly raises came to a screeching halt.
Because hey, why give someone more money to work for you, when they’re so happy to simply have a job?
You wouldn’t. So practically nobody did.
- Worker Wage Suppression Trends
- Another Oracle Suit, regarding overwork of software testers, analysts, and project managers
- Yet another
- And another
I could do this all day.
Note: For the record, I didn’t work for Oracle. I’m just linking to articles which show industry practices. If a software juggernaut like Oracle is adhering to certain guidelines and policies, you can safely assume that it’s standard behavior for the sector. My experience at my own employer during the same timeframe reflects this perfectly.
Every cost-cutting activity, from outsourcing to hiring freezes to being denied PC upgrades, as well as other employer-friendly changes such as increasingly holding meetings spanning employee lunch hours and asking folks to “check in on work when they’re home at night” was justified by the company stock price.
When the stock is rising and the job markets are good, if you treat employees this way, they’ll leave.
But in the alternate environment, when folks don’t know where else to turn for work and everyone is scared of losing their job, we’ll put up with virtually anything.