Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some inconvenient truths about competition

by Kellia Ramares
Here is an excerpts of a story that appeared in the New York Times on October 21, 2009.  The title of the story was “$13 an hour?  500 sign-up, 1 wins a job”.
"The 34-year-old recruiter decided the fairest approach was simply to start at the beginning, reviewing resumes in the order in which they came in.  When she found a desirable candidate, she called to ask a few preliminary questions, before forwarding the name along to Chris Kelsey, the school's director. When he had a big enough pool to evaluate, she would stop. Anyone she did not get to was simply out of luck."
The paragraph above exposes the lie that one's employability is basically a function of the individual's own ability and that if you don't have a job, it is your fault.  Built into any competitive economic system are several fundamental, interrelated and inconvenient truths.
The first is that there are often not enough jobs to go around.  In this current Great Recession, this particular fundamental truth is writ large, but even in the best of times, this is often true because even when certain jobs are going begging, it is because there is a mismatch between available jobs and available worker skills.  Rarely, if ever, do you have a situation where there is one job and only one qualified worker.  That situation is approximated only in such jobs as acting or athletics, where a particular, identifiable person is wanted for a particular slot.  Even then, other people can fill the position if, for example, the actor turns down the role or the free-agent athlete elects to sign with another team.  But in those situations, the casting director or general manager usually has a list he or she will go down to fill the position.  You wouldn't have the wading-through-resumes process that is typical of most jobs.
The second inconvenient truth is that in any competition there is a loser as well as a winner.  Those of you who watch or play competitive sports should understand this.  It does not matter how skilled a player or team is, or how much effort the player or team puts forth: in a competitive situation someone always loses.  In fact, the most interesting games are between competitors whose skills and efforts are most evenly matched, but in the end someone has to lose.  That is the nature of competition.  Thus, our economic system creates losers as well as winners independent of the losers' effort or skill because that is the way of competition.
Members of Congress and others who have spoken out against extensions of unemployment insurance maintain that all unemployment insurance does is give people an incentive not to work.  They imply that people are lazy.  Interesting, isn't it, that in the worst of times, with jobs being destroyed left and right by employers, there are people who are against extensions of unemployment insurance because they claim that people would find jobs sooner if it were not available?  Anything to keep people looking at themselves or their neighbors with a jaundiced eye, rather that looking at how the system really works!
We are often told that we need more education and training to have a "competitive" labor force.  But the same New York Times article shows how a person’s high level of education and experience can work against him or her in a tight job market:
"She dropped significantly overqualified candidates right away, reasoning that they would leave when the economy improved."
The reason that overqualified candidates apply for a position, especially in hard times, is that this is all that is available.  If there were other choices, one would normally not apply for a position that is very far below one’s education and experience and consequently would pay significantly less than one would expect. About the only time I would think that to be the case when times are better and jobs relatively plentiful is when a person is seeking a career change and may have to start at the bottom again.  But these days, job and career choices are often forced.  And the "overqualified" have bills to pay like everyone else.
The rationale for rejecting someone as overqualified -- that they would leave when times get better -- points out what is perhaps the major inconvenient truth about our economic system: that it is not a “free enterprise” system, and would not be, even if the government stayed entirely out of it.  According to economists, a "free enterprise" system is defined in part by the free entry and exit of labor and capital in the marketplace. We witness the movement of capital daily. e.g. buying and selling in the stock market.  If the movement of labor were equally free, businesspeople in such a system would expect that employees might want to leave for something better and would not discriminate against the candidate who will have other opportunities in better times.  The employers would be prepared to offer incentives in money, working conditions and general culture to keep the person, or understand that they will simply have to hire someone else eventually.  But in the real world, employers want "plop and do" workers who will stay put until the employer does not want them any longer.  Of course, the employer feels free to dispose of workers whenever he or she wants to e.g., under the doctrine of employment at-will or under the “need” to make layoffs during an economic downturn.  In other words, "free enterprise" is for the boss, not the worker. Human need for certain basics such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care severely limit, or eliminate entirely, a worker’s freedom to exit the labor force out of the worker’s own free will. Employers exploit this.
It is high time that workers start to understand these inconvenient truths about the system, how workers have been wrongly internalizing problems that are not their own, and how by keeping the worker focused on his or her own alleged personal failure in finding employment, the owning class that benefits by the current system can keep sailing along smoothly while the rest of us continue bailing out a leaky boat that is taking on water faster than we can remove it.
Journalist Kellia Ramares of Oakland, CA, knows from bitter personal experience what it is like to be refused jobs on the ground that she was overqualified. In one instance, the employer actually changed the wording of his ad after interviewing Kellia, so that other people like her would not apply.