On Working

Holy shit, I haven’t written an article here in a long time.  A large part of that is because I started working a full time day job again and so with those two things in mind, I will attempt to force through a half-baked idea I’ve had for a long time.

Jobs.  Let’s talk about jobs, about work, about the concept of doing things for money.  Discounting summer and part time work, I’ve had four what you would call real adult jobs.  The forty hour a week, 9 to 5 type.  I’m 27.  And while two of those jobs were different roles within the same company, that’s not good.  I’ve also spent roughly two years without work in that span, most of it on unemployment.

Most of my friends have been unemployed for a significant stretch in the past few years, and those people run all the way down the spectrum, from those who never went to college to those with degrees in engineering and IT, fields that are considered to be “extremely marketable.”

So yeah, I’ve got opinions on jobs.

Anyone that’s had to look for work knows what a goddamn clusterfuck it is.  You have companies that mis-characterize their positions, like the Skechers Manager job that’s listed under Technical Writing on Monster.com, you have places like Tetra Tech (engineering), that constantly post the same positions, but never seem to hire anyone.  You have “entry-level” positions requiring 2-3 years of experience, and you have insurance companies and call centers attempting to recruit anyone with a college degree.

I don’t have exact figures on how many resumes I sent out while unemployed, but it was pretty close to 400 total.  I proceeded to the interview phase seven or eight times, and was offered two positions, the current and past with the company I work for now.  (My first escape from unemployment came when I was recruited by that company.)

I wish I could remember what my impressions were when I first left college, what I expected, what my preconceived notions were.  At that point I had spent a summer interning as an engineer so I knew, more or less, what the day to day job was like.  That experience came with a company that had hired two interns for what was about .75 interns worth of work so I think mostly I was just hoping to be more useful.

I do know that I, somewhat naively, thought that working more than forty hours a week for no extra pay, except in special cases on high profile, high importance projects, was bullshit.  I also, again, naively, thought that companies accurately billed the work that they expected to perform for a client.  I didn’t think they cut hours unreasonably to win jobs, passing that burden on to their overworked engineers.  “You’re working roughly 42 hours a week for 40 hours pay…that’s not enough!”

Quite obviously I was wrong on all accounts.  That is the nature of American employment.  Someone is getting taken advantage of somewhere.  And I have no problem with working hard.  I was with that company for two years, which would have given me a max of 240 hours of vacation time accrued.  I left with 180 hours.  I had never taken a full sick day, I had worked a handful of weekends, and I had pulled a few all nighters.  This was for a 9 to 5 office job.

My father always told me about work; “If you can’t get your work done in forty hours, either you’re fucking up or they are.”  Okay, that’s not an exact quote, but it gets the gist of it.  And I won’t absolve myself was guilt; I was new and I learned some things much more slowly than I would have liked, but I put forth a solid effort to try and use my unique skills to advance myself and better the company.

That’s the other downside to American employment…most companies don’t have much use for unique skills.  I suspect that company had been trying to oust me for some time, but the quality of my work in many areas, and my rapport with clients were so good, they had trouble justifying it.  (I actually received a performance related bonus a month before I was laid off.)

Engineering, at least that type of engineering, is all about finding the most recent and most similar project you can, copying all the work, and then changing the details that matter.  It doesn’t give you many opportunities to be smart, and it gives you a lot of opportunities to be stupid.  My favorite job, and the one I received a bonus for, was one in which I had almost full control.  One of those, “there’s a problem, we have no idea what the fuck is causing it, or what the scope is, you have this many hours and this equipment and we can probably get more…go” type deals.  You know, real engineering.

There are two areas where I really excel, those that involve a large amount of innovation and creativity, and those that require me to process an enormous amount of data.  Unsurprisingly I write fiction and statistical analyses.

My second “adult job,” the one I was recruited out of a year and a half of unemployment for, encompassed the latter.  It was billed as engineering, but it was more specification reading and writing and technical writing and documentation.  Which is fine, like I said, large volumes of data.  I oversaw 92 jobs while I was there that were mine, some that involved 1 piece of equipment (pumps), some that involved 50+ with other equipment to go with it.  I started in October 2011 as a temp.  By December I was a permanent Junior Engineer.  By February the “Junior” was gone, an advancement process that should have taken between 2 and 4 years.  That is, if you have a degree or work experience in mechanical engineering, which I didn’t.

So, 92 projects, all of which that followed roughly the same process.  The specs came in, I reviewed them, I passed them along to the buyers.  If it was a stock order, the parts came off the shelves and then they were assembled, tested, and shipped.  If it wasn’t, then I had to process the necessary paperwork to ensure that it was built to specs.  This generally involved writing and submitting material sheets and testing protocols to the manufacturing floor and ordering anything that the company couldn’t build itself (usually monitoring systems, stuff like that).  If it was really complicated, the client would want a data sheet detailing the specific build and performance of the model.

I called it Paperwork Engineering, because the crux of it was documentation.  So…nine months, times 4.3 weeks a month, times five days a week.  By the end of my tenure, I had completed around 1,400 documents which averages out to seven documents a day.  Not pages, documents.  If I went to pages, it was probably around thirty.

There were eight teams, each consisting of an engineer, a buyer, a document specialist, and a customer service rep.  I was almost always one of the top two engineers in terms of documentation (lack of outstanding docs), partially because I was new and had some of the easier projects, and partially because I was just really good at documentation.

Also partially because I was the engineer for two separate teams at once.  Did I mention the company continually understaffed?  While I was there, the company had an order-load for twelve full teams, actually staffed eight teams, and actually had engineers on six of those teams.  And it wasn’t for lack of qualified applicants, I sent HR two resumes, and remember, I was hired on no experience anyway.

If you’ve read this far and you know me well, then it probably won’t come as a surprise that the company asked all of its workers to work 10 extra hours a week indefinitely for no extra pay.  (Ah the great scam of salaried employment.)  I said fuck that.  I said, “well…there’s no way in hell you can fire me since you’re already fucked and I’m doing the work of two people.”

I was never reprimanded.  And I was still almost always one of the first people in and one of the last people out so I don’t think anyone else worked much extra either.  Call me crazy, but I believe that problems caused by upper management should be solved by upper management, not passed down to become the problems of the office drones.

As stupidly as that company operated (which it could do because that business is pretty much an oligopoly at that level), that job was actually decent.  The people were great, and more importantly, my manager was incredibly aware of where the real problems were, and also incredibly willing to eat the blame so the rest of us didn’t have to suffer more than we already did.

So…I work on an hourly wage now, and I can’t envision a scenario in which I’d trust a company enough to deviate from that unless I owned it.  Salaried employment is billed as some great worker victory when it’s all a big scam.  “You get paid regardless, so when you have a lot of work, you work extra, and when you don’t, you go home early!” (LOL doesn’t happen.)  You can get vacation that’s probably less than in any other developed country and maternity leave…maybe!  You can take vacation…if your boss lets you!  Salaried employment is just a fancy way of saying your company will coerce you to work for free.

Know what, pay me when I work an hour, and don’t pay me when I don’t.

I love my current company.  The stability of contract work leaves a little bit to be desired, and I make less now than I did as an intern, but the lack of a state income tax and a short commute help mitigate that and the flexibility in hours erases the rest of the difference.  Plus I actually get paid for working overtime, which automatically makes this the most fair paying job I’ve ever had.

Moreover, I don’t feel like anyone is getting screwed here.  Even the guy that left the last contract I worked on with no notice to pursue another opportunity was welcomed back later on.  Fairness and empathy, that’s what American businesses lack, and this one has both.

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About Alex

I am awesome.

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