The Indispensable Worker

Business Week recently presented a somewhat gloomy outlook for the US worker entitled “The Disposable Worker”. Citing numerous statistics, the article lays out in excruciating detail the challenges facing the “permanent temporary workforce”.

- Bonuses tied to managing costs and maximizing short term profits creates incentives for managers to minimize full time staff.

- The increased accessibility of talented onshore and offshore resources allows corporations to find “just in time” resources lowers the risk of delays, lower quality work or increased costs historically associated with contract labor.

- The use of temporary or contract resources spans across the entire workforce, from “sneaker footed admins” to executives.

- “A lack of job security and health-care benefits, as well as social ties to the rest of the workforce, increase stress levels for temps and contractors.”

- The decades long pattern of the American worker accepting lower pay is likely to continue.

- Pulling few punches, the authors even go so far as to point out that “temporary or contract workers face a higher risk of developing mental health problems like depression”.

From my perspective, there is no question the US worker faces unique challenges in the face of these driving corporate changes, and I think the attention brought to the issue by Business Week is critical. However, it seems hard to fathom that the changes afoot are being driven exclusively by corporate America. Job satisfaction has seen a steady decline since 1987, dropping steadily from 61.1% to the 2009 response of 45.3%. Playing into these job satisfaction numbers is the impact corporate America is having on the quality of life of its employees. Looking at the same time period, from 1987 to 2009, non-farm workers have been squeezed for a combined 57.2% increase in output/hour, with a 26.6% rise in total hours worked. That makes a huge difference in the amount of time spent working for your employer and the stress levels during those working hours. It’s no wonder you hear people talking about the “rat race”, working around the clock, and never being able to leave the job behind even on vacation. In this environment, the US worker is understandably going to be considering all alternatives exclusive of corporate initiatives.

While I hesitate to say record unemployment is a positive thing for a workforce, I do think Business Week and many other recent publications are under estimating the potential opportunity this economic shift presents to the US workforce, and the resiliency and ingenuity that workforce will show in its response to the opportunity. As long as businesses of every size and shape continue to believe that they are only as good as their people, the individual will have a hand to play. The key is to learn to play that hand from outside the four walls of the business.

A key next step is to build technologies, services and resources that will help smooth the transition for this workforce:

- Independent workers need to have reasonable access to health-care and other benefits.

- The contract workforce has to have greater control of its incoming business opportunities, establishing tight knit referral networks so they are not dependent on corporations finding them.

- Individuals need to develop specialized skills that allow them to sell value as opposed to hours, marketing their skills across multiple employers so they are not dependent on any one income stream or client.

- Advisors and Educators need to apprise new independent workers to the challenges and opportunities presented by variable income streams, including retirement planning and tax implications.

- Technologies need to be developed to improve efficiencies in the business relationship between businesses and their contracted workforce, efficiencies that can lead to improved margins for both sides.

The US worker isn’t going anywhere without a fight and there will be plenty of companies and organizations like Mavenlink (Mavenlink, Freelancer’s Union) that will rise up and stand squarely in their corner.