Monday, December 12, 2011

The new office

Last week (the week before?) I was listening to either an American Public Media or a National Public Radio phone-in show & the guest that people were phoning in to speak with was a woman who recently wrote a book, an egghead book not a mainstream book, about how many of the jobs that have not returned as the economy turned around are just plain not coming back.  Her theory was that technology had changed so much in the preceding ten years that the way business is conducted had also changed, specifically no one needs the kind of office support staff that was the norm.  While these jobs had been slowly falling away as people changed jobs or retired & the chairs went empty, the massive belt tightening meant a lot of them went all at once.

First let me say "duh".  Earlier this year we had our septic system pumped.  We used the same company we have used since we bought this house & it had been less than 4 years since the last time we did this.  The experience was night&day.  Last time I called on a ?Monday? & got the office manager/administrator/secretary/whoever & an appointment for the following week (it wasn't an emergency & that was fine).  The owner, an older man, arrived, dug out the two tank openings (we have two unconnected tanks, weird & yet very useful), pumped the tanks, hand-wrote a bill which I paid by check.  He was here maybe 3 hours total.  At the beginning of the following month, I got a typed statement in the mail which reflected a balance of $0. 

This time I called, got the office manager/administrator/secretary/whoever & she said they could be there later the same day.  Both she & the owner (a younger man who had worked with the other guy for years; he had been out on previous jobs in previous years) arrived.  They had a laptop with the layout of our property & where the tanks were (I could have told them but they tell me this is not the norm).  While he dug one, she dug the other.  While he pumped, she went back to the truck & made & received phone calls & printed my bill from the printer in the truck.  The bill had ALL my previous calls on it & a notice of when they were likely to be needed back for a routine job (3-5 years).  She offered to make the appointment for five years out with the understanding it might change.  They were here exactly 1 1/2 hours.

I realize it sounds like there are just as many people in both stories working just as many man hours, but there aren't.  In the previous visit, there is another guy in another truck also working alone & checking in with the office.  Now there is one guy doing all the driving himself, but becasue he has a n extra pair of hands when he needs them he is covering just as many places as two used to. 

All of this hinges on the reality that in the second story there is no office.  The office works all gets done on the road except for once a month, once a quarter, once a year stuff which they handle at home.  That is one less full-time job than there was five years ago with no loss in service.  & it doesn't stop there.

This elimination of offices generally has eliminated quite a few jobs:  no office means no once a week cleaning staff to come in & clean that office, driving the office around means no more delivery guy with office supplies coming out to the office every month or so.  That is another three jobs poof & gone.

I have a friend who cleans offices for a living, or rather she used to.  She used to clean seven offices a week & a public area on weekends.  Now she has two cleaning jobs during the week & the public area every other weekend (that one irks her actually because it is the same amount of work & now she gets calls on the off-week that the garbage cans are overflowing & when is she going to deal with them).  The offices she doesn't clean anymore are still there, empty & at least one of the businesses still exists.  Ironically they are the cleaning company she still works for except now the manager handles scheduling etc. in her car between cleaning jobs.

Last Monday I had my sewing machines cleaned & serviced by the same guy who has taken care of them since I bought them (trust me, it has been years).  I used to bring them to his shop & wait a week.  & I can still bring the machine to him & wait a week if I want, but mostly he just comes to the house.  His shop is now a room in his own house & he has maybe 2 or 3 machines there at a time, most afternoons he is on the road & although his travel expenses are higher, they are more than offset by the reduction in overhead.

Last night I accidentally tuned into a presidential candidates speech (I flipped the tv on & then went into the other room where I can still watch it but forgot the remote).  The gist of the speech was how when he is president he will bring these jobs back & the crowd went wild.  I wonder if they will be as pleased when they realize that bringing these jobs back will mean commuting longer to get to work (the average commute is a fraction of what it was ten years ago, by the way & generally it is longer commutes to lower paying jobs) & taking on all that expense (deductible if you are the CEO & the company send a car  but not for the average worker), as well as giving up their cell phones & a slew of other conveniences we really do take for granted.  Maybe it's time to consider we just don't live in that world anymore.  & unemployed or not, most of us don't really want to go back.

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