The Reality of Today's Workforce and the Lessons

I recruit for a company now: This is a job I never sought out or thought I'd have any interest in. I see three types of people: The young job seeker who has plenty of time to turn his or her life around; the older worker whose back is against the wall and is choking down his or her pride; and then there's the older worker who has been in dead-end employment all his or her life and doesn't do anything to get out of the trap. There are probably hundreds of stories behind their respective journeys to this job, stories I wonder about frequently.

I've seen more illiteracy than I ever knew existed in our country. If it looks depressing as a statistic, it's far harder to see in the form of a 58-year-old man whose expression has gelled into a permanent state of despondency. I've seen people who don't know where to start when they see a computer. I've seen people literally scraping for spare change, going hungry, living a hand-to-mouth existence. The irony is they're working for one of the richest companies in the world.

I don't blame the company's founder: He was the brilliant one who took a risk that worked for him. There's a quote that 99% of the population is working for the 1% of the population that had the courage to pursue a dream. Most of us don't risk because we're scared, so we go the route we think is safe. My own situation is a reflection of that choice we all have deep inside us but let go undisturbed. So we live a "safe" life of a steady paycheck, but it costs us something deeper: Our souls.

The way out of struggle isn't another job. Maybe there was a time when it was, but it isn't anymore. I read Inc. magazine, which recently dedicated an entire issue to people who got into financial hot water and pulled themselves out. The common theme was they figured out a way to make money themselves: They didn't rely on a raise, promotion, or a winning scratch ticket.

When the financial collapse of 2008 occurred, it was a huge lesson that your employer won't save you. I saw so many people who gave more than 20 years of their lives to a company, only to be tossed out once times got tough. What caused the collapse is inexcusable and impacted millions of people who had nothing to do with predatory lending.

When you're recruiting, you learn to spot situations that don't make sense: I saw an older man in a training session whipping through the computer application process, then helping others who were computer illiterate. I spotted him a few weeks later on the warehouse floor. Maybe we both sensed we didn't seem to belong there. He came up to me and asked what I was doing there. I asked him his story. He was a financial executive for many years, making $200,000/year. When the economy crashed, he got laid off and has been unable to find another job. At 58, he knows his age is working against him in the job search. Even though age discrimination is illegal, it goes on all the time. He's been given the “you're overqualified” speech many times. Now his back is against the wall, and he's working for $12/hour in a warehouse. His wife told him to get a job – anything he could get – to help pay the gas bill and their real estate taxes. His mortgage is tied up in litigation for being a predatory loan.

When a company tries to lure employees in, they use the carrot-and-stick approach: You can grow here (maybe, but usually that will be if the right person likes you and the politics work in your favor); you can win a flatscreen TV or an Xbox if you dutifully come to work (feed poverty with more liabilities). What would be the better approach? You can LEARN here. You can learn a skill that will empower you to someday embark on your own journey. The smart ones will cull something valuable from the experience and move on to a greater journey. I wish I could tell them all this advice, but I can't. I have to read off a corporate presentation and stay silent about the truth. One job applicant, who didn't have a filter but did have a brain, blurted out during the presentation: "That is some serious brainwashing!"

Ultimately, each of us, dealing with varying levels of struggle, need to learn we're our own answer to our own problems. For me, I stopped almost all discretionary purchases when the economy collapsed (Black Friday and Cyber Monday held no appeal to me, but I saw many pull out their credit cards and stand outside in the cold at 2 a.m.). If I have to buy something, I weigh it long and hard and only buy it if it's an absolute need. I've learned the hard way how to distinguish between an asset and a liability. I hate the frustration I feel daily, and that frustration motivates me to think harder and deeper about what I really want in life, what my true passions are, and how I can give back to the world even in moments when I think there's nothing to give.


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