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Thursday, May 13, 2010

OK, wingnuts, just what are these people supposed to do.
Posted by Jill | 5:33 AM
I've been lucky.

For years I did secretarial and administrative work. I managed to get a job as an entry level programmer because I'd shown that I know my way around a Mac and wasn't intimidated by computers. I'd already taken a couple of grad school courses, and he gave me a break. Without that, I would have been stuck in secretarial work in perpetuity, like most other sociology majors.

I have a master's degree in Management Information Systems, obtained almost entirely on the dollar of employers. It took me five years to do it, one class at a time, but it didn't break the bank for me to get it. That one of said employers nearly drove me to consider suicide and the other ended up not having anything to do is not the point. The point is that when recruiters were telling me that I was "light on the tech", the degree gave me a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to later potential employers.

At the end of August, 2008, I was laid off after eight years in the same job. For the first five years, the work I was doing gave me some passing familiarity with the area in which I work now. After that, it was mostly make-work web and marketing projects until the grant funding dried up. I had six weeks notice of when my last day would be, and I'd been hoarding vacation time (when your job is at a nonprofit associated with a state agency, you can do that). So all told, by the time I walked out the door for the last time, I'd had six weeks to find a job, I had six weeks of full pay coming, and then another six months of unemployment. I was at least hopeful I'd find something.

I was 53 years old.

This is not an age where you want to be laid off, not when your skills are primarily web development using tools that are not what most of the industry wants. But I was intrepid. I knew the kinds of things I could do, what I wanted to do, and I tailored resumes for each. I think I sent out over a hundred resumes in the first two weeks after I got the word. I got lucky, in that a co-worker contacted a friend who checked her employer's job postings and found one in one of the areas at which I was looking. I applied for the job, got a response that the job had been filled, but that there was another one in the group. That was the one I got.

It wasn't that I was so wonderful. I recall answering many questions on the interview as "No, haven't done that....No, we had a guy who did that....No, I wasn't involved in that." But apparently what I do is this screwy little niche in which there aren't many people. There were a number of openings, and I got one of them. I think some of it was that I interview well and I have a pulse.

The learning curve has been unbelievable. I've spent a year and a half cramming information into my head as fast as I can; medical terminology and practices, preposterous deadlines, dragging international teams kicking and screaming through the development process. It's been 80-hour weeks, bouts of frustration that make me want to jump out a window.

But at least I have a job and I was lucky enough to get laid off literally right before the U.S. economy and job market went completely into the toilet.

I was lucky. I could have ended up like this:
The tough environment has been especially disorienting for older and more experienced workers like Cynthia Norton, 52, an unemployed administrative assistant in Jacksonville.

“I know I’m good at this,” says Ms. Norton. “So how the hell did I end up here?”

Administrative work has always been Ms. Norton’s “calling,” she says, ever since she started work as an assistant for her aunt at 16, back when the uniform was a light blue polyester suit and a neckerchief. In the ensuing decades she has filed, typed and answered phones for just about every breed of business, from a law firm to a strip club. As a secretary at the RAND Corporation, she once even had the honor of escorting Henry Kissinger around the building.

But since she was laid off from an insurance company two years ago, no one seems to need her well-honed office know-how.


Ms. Norton has sent out hundreds of résumés without luck. Twice, the openings she interviewed for were eliminated by employers who decided, upon further reflection, that redistributing administrative tasks among existing employees made more sense than replacing the outgoing secretary.

One employer decided this shortly after Ms. Norton had already started showing up for work.

Ms. Norton is reluctant to believe that her three decades of experience and her typing talents, up to 120 words a minute, are now obsolete. So she looks for other explanations.

Employers, she thinks, fear she will be disloyal and jump ship for a higher-paying job as soon as one comes along.

Sometimes she blames the bad economy in Jacksonville. Sometimes she sees age discrimination. Sometimes she thinks the problem is that she has not been able to afford a haircut in a while. Or perhaps the paper her résumé is printed on is not nice enough.

The problem cannot be that the occupation she has devoted her life to has been largely computerized, she says.

“You can’t replace the human thought process,” she says. “I can anticipate people’s needs. Usually, I give them what they want before they even know they need it. There will never be a machine that can do that.”


Ms. Norton has spent most of the last two years working part time at Wal-Mart as a cashier, bringing home about a third of what she had earned as an administrative assistant. Besides the hit to her pocketbook, she grew frustrated that the work has not tapped her full potential.

“A monkey could do what I do,” she says of her work as a cashier. “Actually, a monkey would get bored.”

Ms. Norton says she cannot find any government programs to help her strengthen the “thin bootstraps” she intends to pull herself up by. Because of the Wal-Mart job, she has been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she says she made too much money to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid last year.

“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help and any hope of finding work out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”


Ms. Norton, for her part, may be reluctant to acknowledge that many of her traditional administrative assistant skills are obsolete, but she has tried to retrain — or as she puts it, adapt her existing skills — to a new career in the expanding health care industry.

Even that has proved difficult.

She attended an eight-month course last year, on a $17,000 student loan, to obtain certification as a medical assistant. She was trained to do front-office work, like billing, as well as back-office work, like giving injections and drawing blood.

The school that trained her, though, neglected to inform her that local employers require at least a year’s worth of experience — generally done through volunteering at a clinic — before hiring someone for a paid job in the field.

She says she cannot afford to spend a year volunteering, especially with her student loan coming due soon. She has one prospect for part-time administrative work in Los Angeles — where she once had her own administrative support and secretarial services business, SilverKeys — but she does not have the money to relocate.

“If I had $3,000 in my pocket right now, I would pack up my S.U.V., grab my dog and go straight back,” she says. “That’s my only answer.”

With so few local job prospects and most of her possessions of value already liquidated she has considered selling her blood to help pay for the move. But she says she cannot find a market for that, either; blood collection agencies, she said, told her they do not buy her blood type.

“Sometimes I think I’d be better off in jail,” she says, only half joking. “I’d have three meals a day and structure in my life. I’d be able to go to school. I’d have more opportunities if I were an inmate than I do here trying to be a contributing member of society.”

The author of this article is a condescending asshole who equates the many tasks an administrative assistant does with "filing." Where I work now, our administrative assistants plan meetings (many of them out of town, requiring elaborate international travel arrangements). They take care of food service for meetings, they make sure the supply cabinet is full and the printers have toner. When the e-mail menu item is missing from the copier/scanner and you think you're going crazy, she assures you that you're not. They coordinate office moves, something of which there's been a lot lately. When you need something, they always have the answer. I know what these women do because I've been one of them. But because they're always still thought of as "file clerks", they're regarded as expendable.

The woman profiled in the article may not want to admit that some of her skills are obsolete, but administrative work isn't just about typing and filing and answering phones. And she isn't just sitting and whining about her job category no longer existing. She's tried to get "retrained" only to find that having a certificate from a tech school doesn't get you in the door. It's the old "You can't get a job without experience and you can't get expeience without a job Catch-22. Add the fact that she's over fifty to the equation, and she is pretty much up a creek without a paddle.

What are people like this supposed to do? What happens when you do everything right and your job is outsourced or eliminated and you go into hock getting "retrained" and STILL can't find anything because you don't have practical experience, or you're not pretty anymore, or they think you're going to cost too much in health care? Are we as a society going to just throw all of this life and work experience in the garbage? And it isn't just older workers, it's young workers too who find that their conventional education is worthless.

When are we going to wake up and instead of blaming immigrants and black people and screaming about Obama and socialism, realize that for the last thirty years there has been a systematic effort, now largely successful, by corporate interests, to eliminate the middle class and push those who used to be in it down into poverty?

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Blogger SeDress said...
A very good post on something I've been thinking quite a bit about. I'm 60. Have worked the past 24 years in the boat business: not actually selling boats, but doing all the behind the scenes paperwork to support those sales. I didn't wake up one morning and decide to do this. I took an available job, worked my way up from title clerk to office manager, and worked hard to know everything I could about everything that needed to be done in a small office, where the office manager is sometimes the only one in the office (during slow season or slack times) and has to be the HR person, office machine support, resident Word & Excel expert, and finder of lost things. The title I came up with for myself is Chief Nag & Master of Preventative Worrying. The boat business has taken quite a hit the last few years; my first thought most mornings is "Is this the day the bosses will decide to pull the plug, to stop losing money, and put the place up for sale as another condo development (because the rich can still afford their second and third homes, don't ya know), and I have to go out and try to find another job at my age?" I know I can work rings around most young people (though it is getting a little harder to keep up the pace). And when I put my mind to it, I can learn to do anything that needs to be done, if I don't already know it. But I'm old, gray, plain on a good day, ugly on a bad one, and have a 'prickly' personality. At least the car and house are paid for. If I have to sell the house (to one of those rich SOB tourists) I can live in my car for awhile.

Blogger Jayhawk said...
Many years ago I was down in Mexico with a friend of mine who was a contractor. We were watching a construction project and noticed that there was no heavy equipment. Guys were carrying concrete up ladders 50 pounds at a time for instance. Tom started talking about coming down and bidding on jobs, because with his equipment he could do the jobs faster and make a bunch of money.

The guide told him that, no, he would not be allowed to bid using his equipment. No heavy equipment was allowed on these jobs; the government prohibits it.

What? exclaimed Tom. How can that be. How can contractors make any money without using their equipment?

"Senor," our guide responded, "the government is not concerned about the contractor making money. The government is concerned about these men being able to feed their families."

Blogger Androcass said...
"Are we as a society going to just throw all of this life and work experience in the garbage?"

Why, yes, Jill, indeed we are.

We've heard a lot from the pundit class lately about the "output gap." Quite appropriately, they mention the work that unemployed people could be doing. For those acquainted with the U-6 measure, they may also mention the people who are working fewer hours than they'd like.

But we never hear about the most frightening output gap, that between the skills and education that people possess and their actual job prospects. We're perfectly happy to throw whole job categories out (or overseas) with no regard for what the people in those categories might do with their lives (note we still call it "job loss," rather than the more accurate "career loss").

We cling to the notion, promoted by everyone from the President on down, that college is the answer, no matter the mismatch between what is learned and what is needed. We listen dutifully when yet another tech CEO appears on a talk show and tells young people to get those STEM degrees, ignoring the unpleasant reality that he isn't actually pledging to hire any of those degree holders (not when he can get them cheaper in China or India).

So, indeed we are willing to throw people on the dung heap, discount their training and abilities, and sit back as ever-increasing numbers of us fall into faux obsolescence, even as the professional natterers parrot the idea that "we just can't find people who have needed skills, so we'll have to hire people from foreign lands, and it's just our good fortune that they work for 10 to 20 cents on the dollar."

Blogger Androcass said...
Oh, and to clarify my last sentence, the executives don't really portray the wage differentials as good fortune; rather, it is due to their rare skill, skill for which they merit 7 or 8-figure compensation.

Anonymous mandt said...
"you're going to cost too much in health care?" You nailed it. Only, they say, "You are overqualified."

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm hearing worse. I'm over 60. I draw disability. I get emails each week from people much younger that are not making it.

Got an email from a guy and his wife that had screwed me over about 10 years ago. Nothing major, just one of those, I don't want to have contact with these people.

Both working fast food, double jobs, but no benefits, no future.
Living in a one bedroom apartment with two other people in NY City.

Got an email. $100 or we are on the street. The food stamps and the stolen food from work are feeding us. Electricity is at 60 degrees. Sent $200 and suggested moving back to California and living with the inlaws.

Got an email from a contractor, telling me he and his wife were selling everything and moving back in with his mother in law. Nothing left for retirement or to start over. Too old.

It is getting bad.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm torn!
I was just -- like 6 months ago -- hired as an engineer by a government contractor. Security clearance and the whole shebang!

Of the 20-some members of my work group, fewer than 1/2 are US born. Because of the security clearance, all are US citizens [most naturalized in the last 10 years]. Of the non-US born most are Indian with a smattering of Chinese [Taiwanese, Honk Kong] and the odd Irish, British, and Norwegian.

I'm the last -- and only recent -- US born employee [I'm over 60!]. My manager is quite frank that he can't find US born engineers -- for whatever reason.

I know US born engineers who are unemployed. I've passed along the company data to them. None have yet applied. "I don't do that" [avionics and computer system design and development] is the most common reason I get...
The pay is good and the work appears to be long-term.

I don't know what's wrong! I just know that I'm about to start a Master course in Electrical Engineering conducted on company premises and fully paid by them. "Don't do that" indeed!