This is not a trend that will go away in our lifetimes. Many American companies are in mature industries that face tremendous challenges to survive. As a result they are unable or afraid to innovate, which would create the next job revolution. So instead they focus on becoming efficient…and that means laying off, squeezing their existing workforce, offshoring, and automating as much as possible.
I walk into work this morning just like every other morning, one foot in front of the other and avoiding eye contact at all cost. At 5:50 am I’m not quite ready for small talk and smiles. Sorry. As I walk into the main break room entrance I see a face I’ve never seen before. He’s sitting at a small fold-out table and dressed rather sharply. Head shaved he looks at me and the guy walking in behind me and smiles brightly. “Good morning” he says to me. I reply back, begrudgingly and with a half smirk/half grin. I’ve never seen this man before, but I knew right away who he was.
I work in the orthopedic field. In fact, I live in the orthopedic capital of the world. Four of the worlds biggest orthopedic companies call my Midwest hamlet home. Since the age of 19 I’ve worked for an orthopedic company. It wasn’t some lifelong dream. It wasn’t the master plan for my life. It just happened. If you didn’t go to college in my town you either went to work for R.R. Donnelley & Sons, an orthopedic company, or you sold pot to deadheads. I’d heard enough about the headaches of the printing business from my dad enough to know that I didn’t want anything to do with that line of work. I didn’t get high, nor did I care for The Grateful Dead, so my only option was to get into the orthopedic game. Prior to starting at my first job in the orthopedic field, I’d worked for about two months for a smaller, yep, printing company. This was a smaller, localized paper that specialized in great recipes that your annoying neighbor Mrs. Brash submitted, or what that crazy Pastor Willebach was up to over at Trinity United Methodist Baptist Lutheran Tabernacle Church on Sunday mornings. I was a driver for them. I’d deliver bundles of papers to the actual paper route folks, which surprisingly were very few kids and more or less creepy shut-in types that watched a lot of morning talk shows and WWF wrestling. Prior to that job, I was renting porn tapes and cigarette smoke-stained VCRs to creepy shut-in types that watched a lot of hardcore porn and WWF wrestling. In retrospect I wish I had stayed with the porn before the orthopedic gig. Anyways…
In 1993 I started my current “career” as a cog for the orthopedic machine. I started out in what was called the Loaner Dept. This department built implant and instrument sets that were shipped to distributors who would then take them to hospitals for surgery. Kinda interesting, actually. Occasionally we’d get back an instrument set with a bone reamer or bone drill and it would still have bone and blood on them. Cool. You had to be thorough in checking these sets out when they’d return. “Life is like a suitcase full of orthopedic instruments, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
I went from the loaner department to international shipping, to finally being a Distributor Inventory Auditor. The auditor job entailed me flying across the country and auditing distributors’ inventory of consigned product. The work was monotonous, but it was fun traveling…for a bit. Hotels got old. The food got old. The distributors got annoying. The really fun jobs were flying out to count the inventory of a distributor we fired. I know there were cops involved in some of these jobs. Fortunately I never needed police protection. When my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child, I’d decided I’d had enough of the traveling gig. I applied for a job at another orthopedic company and one morning after getting home at 1am from a trip I got a call from this other company asking me to come in for an interview. I got the job. I left the comfort of six years at the same place -since I was 19- for a new gig. There were no pagers involved, or laptops, or flight schedules, or even a cubicle wall. I got a job as a receiving clerk. More money, less airport terminals. It was chaotic at first. Seemed so disorganized. So many people crammed into one small space. I truly questioned the decision to leave my comfortable job for this new insane one. But then on May 13th, 2000 the decision turned into what I clearly saw as the only decision I could’ve made when my oldest daughter was born. It was a done deal. I never regretted the move again. Then I walk in today and see this guy sitting at a table…
Our company recently announced cutbacks. It’s a part of business. You need to save money, so you take away some benefits, cut back on bonuses, stop having company picnics and holiday parties. The last move is cutting jobs. We’ve been pretty lucky here for the nearly 14 years I’ve worked for(insert spinal company name here). There have been very little job cuts. But three weeks ago it was announced that 40 to 50 folks would be losing their livelihood because of a cost savings measure. These cuts started about two weeks ago. We lost a quarter of our department alone. Many machinists and tool and die guys were cut as well. If they weren’t cut, they were offered jobs 3 or 4 pay grades less than they were currently at. A job is a job, I know. But most of these alternatives were slaps in the face, with the company knowing full well these guys wouldn’t take them. I got extremely lucky in all of this. I must be a valuable employee. Either that, or the Polaroids I have as blackmail are more valuable than I thought. Either way, I’m still here. I’m still here earning a paycheck, and with health insurance for myself, my wife, and my three kids. If it were just me, I don’t think I’d care nearly as much about all of this. But it’s not just me. I’ve got a family that relies on those bi-weekly paychecks and free wellness check ups, and asthma inhalers, and allergy medicine.
This job I have is just that: a job. It’s not something I went to college for. It’s not a lifelong dream. It’s not an artistic outlet. This is my paycheck. It’s a job I put everything in for 8 hours then go home, and it stays here. I don’t have to think about it(except for when they’re restructuring of course). That leaves another 16 hours out of the day I can be a husband, dad, musician, writer, and general citizen. It allows me to retain that element of myself that would otherwise be lost in some sort of existential identity crisis.
But despite this job not being my “career”, it is my livelihood. It’s groceries, bills, gas, trips, iTunes cards, comic books, records, concert tickets, novels, yarn, dinner and movie, cough medicine, beer, school tuition, and those extras that can make an ordinary evening into something a little more. And there’s a quite a few people here today in my Midwest hamlet that are going to lose their livelihood. The sharp-dressed gentleman with the shaved head sitting at the entrance door will be delivering the bad news.
I’ll walk out today like I do every day, one foot in front of the other. My eyes not averted, but looking straight ahead at what’s in front of me.