The pendulum has swung too far

Rookwood, Going Postal
Corporate greed and corruption
Richard FisherLicence CC BY 2.0

I’m an old fashioned sod. When they finally cart me off in my wooden overcoat with my toes turned up and my face a mask of deathly pallor, there will still be a part of me that doesn’t want to shuffle off this mortal coil. Fortunately, for employment purposes at least, my physical demise will come much later than my expired commercial usefulness in the current employment market. If you are male, white, and over 50, unless you are very fortunate, it is downhill all the way for any decent career prospects, certainly as far as most Human Resource departments are concerned. As baby boomers, we are the final generation that will have any concept of full-time employment or indeed a career for life.

Which is why I am almost giving myself an aneurysm laughing at the current shrieks of dismay at the proposed points-based immigration system. Long overdue, it is but a thin thread in the new tapestry that will be required if we are to return the UK to reasonable levels of innovation, productivity and employment. Like many sectors, sad to say, the employment sector is rife with corruption, nepotism and dirty dealings that would make your maiden aunt blush. With nearly 40 years of dealing with employment agencies on a regular basis, I can honestly say I have only come across one decent one, and because they were so professional and honest, they went bust for the privilege. The rest are more bent than a Milton Keynes roundabout. Every scam imaginable from falsifying CV’s to lying about vacancies, opportunities, terms and conditions is fair game. The majority seem to be staffed by commission based staff, who are rewarded on the basis of placements rather than any professional integrity. I once, rather foolishly, walked into one in West London a number of years ago, to hand in my CV, long before the age of email or Internet. The reception I got was not welcoming. Arrogant, bullying, rude and staffed by a bunch of clearly emotionally frustrated, overweight, cat owning, sexually anodyne females with nascent beards, I genuinely felt threatened. And I am a 6 foot male. I got out the door as quick as I could in bad humour, despite being accused of smoking marijuana at the time (For the record, it was a Gauloise). Thankfully, I did not hear from them again.

I have saved a few organisations hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds in my career. By developing specialised solutions or using dedicated, custom software tools, I have never failed in a project brief or gone over budget. I pride myself in finding creative, well engineered answers to intractable problems. I have worked all over the world. You would think such skills would be in high demand, but no. Unless you are willing to join or lead a team, an independent thinker is considered high risk. He might fall under a bus or go to a competitor and the company would lose a critical resource, but more often than not it is down to control freaks not allowing any potential chance of “Empire building” or being “Shown up”. And of course, the oldest rebuttals in the book, “Not invented here”, “Too old”, “Not qualified enough”, “Too well qualified”. Despite the pleas for innovation, creativity and original thought, the minute you dare step outside of the boundaries of the latest commercial hype, you are ignored and sidelined. Say goodbye then to the individual who is willing to take ownership and responsibility from start to finish on a project. You need to be a specialist “Project team coordinator” now. And so the buck passing commences.

The rot started in the early Eighties. I remember in a civil service post, we had a staff bar and sports club we could visit at lunchtime and the evenings, were paid Luncheon Vouchers (Remember them?), and had a lady come round twice a day in rollers with the tea and coffee trolley. Travelling expenses were paid, be it for company business, or attendance to interview. In return, you were expected to be smartly dressed, reasonably competent and honest, turn up on time and not indulge in carnal relations with the aforementioned tea lady, in or out of business hours. The line between business and pleasure was well defined, and any calls on your time outside normal working hours were met with sincere apology, or an overtime payment. Saying that, the money wasn’t exactly stellar for London, and there was no way I could afford to buy a flat, never mind save for a deposit. It wasn’t until I started my own business I managed to make enough money to do so, even then I was crucified by the banks charging me a high rate of interest as I was self employed. Then the government abolished mortgage tax relief, but that is another tale entirely.

I think the turning point was also when your local friendly “Personnel Manager” became co-opted into the politically correct regime, and spawned a “Human Resources Department”. Generally staffed by the genetically and mentally mutilated offspring of the aforementioned cat ladies, HR are an evil lot. Take a local employer I know of, who will remain nameless. It was decided to axe a number of departments, so the strategy was simple. Make life as difficult for everyone to force them to leave. This included drastic changes to terms and conditions, which genuinely left staff out of pocket and subsidising the organisation out of their own pocket. One particular wheeze was to get rid of all lease vehicles across the board for essential operations, and making staff use their own vehicles on a derisory pence per mile basis. To add insult to injury, they refused to pay anything towards any additional “Professional use” insurance costs. Everyone, quite rightly taking into account the additional costs and wear and tear involved, said “Thanks, but no thanks” and refused. HR then removed staff car park permits from some of those that refused to co-operate, forcing staff to park at greater expense, if they could, in an already overcrowded, rural town centre. It wasn’t as if the staff permits were free either. The war went on. Staff were denied compassionate leave of more than a few days, irrespective of circumstance. The slightest misdemeanour was pursued to verbal, and if at all possible, written warning. Then came the killer blows. Posts were regraded, and the new posts, demanded qualifications and experience that none of the staff had. While offering slightly more money (well below market rate for the “New” qualifications), the fix was in. In the end, the majority took voluntary redundancy. It was interesting to note all staff involved in this Stalinist purge were over 45, most with many years irreplaceable knowledge and experience. Yes, a few were probably guilty of swinging the lead, but the majority were decent, hard working folk. In the end, it has cost the organisation millions, as they have had to take on expensive agency staff to cover the shortfall, and to cover the costs of multiple projects imploding due to the lack of experience of the new replacement staff. This was all sold on the basis of making the organisation more efficient and professional. You just couldn’t make it up.

Some of of the practices in the social care system and retail sectors border on immoral, especially considering the low wages. They too, have been infected by this “Professional staff” ethos, but not in a good way. In a professional role, at least in the Eighties and Nineties, there was a simple quid pro quo. We will pay you a decent salary, on the basis you get the job done, working additional unpaid hours as necessary. The thinking was simple, especially in IT. As systems were often mission critical, requiring 24/7 support, rather than complex overtime or rota arrangements, full-time staff would get the job done. I’ve lost count of the number of Sunday evenings I have lost for instance, having to be in some European city 7:30 am Monday morning. No chance of getting the early bird, if I missed that for any reason (Remember the M4 Heathrow tunnel collapse anyone?), I was missing in action. This was compensated for by a meal in a reasonable (but not overtly expensive) French or Austrian restaurant. I was once locked in a customer business park in Paris when the security staff forgot I was working late, and was almost arrested when I tried to get out. I have slept on reception sofas and in airport lounges more times than I care to imagine, missed my 35th birthday party in my favourite French restaurant, all due to meeting urgent deadlines and firefighting crises not of my own making. This was counterbalanced with being allowed to come in late, occasionally leaving early on a Friday, and working from home saving me a 3 hour commute. Everyone was happy, and I didn’t mind the occasional 10pm phone call. We even had taxis home if we were working after midnight when public transport stopped. If I needed a car for business, a hire car was arranged without quibble. Even then, the daily parking costs in a long term car park in London were approaching £80 a day IIRC.

Now, the boot is very firmly on the employers foot, and boy is he is stamping it well. Minimum wage has driven salaries down, to the point that a similar IT role in the mid Eighties now commands at least £10-15K less than then. Outsourcing and IR35 has decimated the post 2000 UK IT industry, feeding big business at the cost to the independent. Without certification, it is hard to get an IT role, but the quality of technicians has fallen, mainly due to the “tick box” approach to qualifications. Experience counts for little, and many posts require a Computing degree to compensate, something us old codgers look upon with a certain amount of suspicion, having dealt with the quality of work served up by many a graduate trainee. Your employer expects to know your email address, personal mobile number, and your Facebook page in case you are posting anything derogatory about them. You will quite possibly be drug tested regularly, even in non-safety critical roles. Many employers will not hesitate to contact you out of hours, either requesting assistance, clarification, or a shift change, often inconvenient and at short notice. I know someone who has to drive 30 miles round trip every fortnight (at their own expense) to hand their time-sheets into their employer, as they will not accept electronic versions, and sending them by Royal Mail will mean a payment delay of two weeks due to the cut-off date. In the social care and retail field, you are paid the minimum mileage, and woe betide if your car breaks down or you get a puncture. One employer wrote to staff stating that if they were late attending clients due to any of these reasons they would be disciplined. Another employer demanded that you have the latest mobile phone with 5G before they would accept your job application, as such a device was necessary to access their business portal.

The sooner employers in this country start taking financial responsibility for their business, the better. Tax credits, Housing benefit and Council Tax reductions are a gross market distortion, that begs a simple question. If an employer cannot afford to pay a decent living wage to his employees without government subsidy, how good is his business model? Why should taxpayers subsidise his profit? Much is said of benefit scroungers, but in my eyes, the employers who leverage lower wages in such a manner are just as at fault, if not more so. The end of cheap labour will hit London hard. Very hard. Good. Forty years ago, I lived in a crummy bedsit in North London. It was all I could afford, even although I was employed by a prestigious public sector employer. Prior to when I left, the Director sent me a personal letter begging me to stay, due to my experience and “Can do” attitude. Sadly, I had to leave, I couldn’t afford to stay, even if I wanted to, which I did. 3.5 times my salary then would buy me lots of belly laughs at the estate agents. And so I jumped ship to decent salary progression, international travel, and a liking for French cigarettes. Yet it is clear, forty years on, depressingly, the opportunities are less, not more. With the glut of worthless degrees in the marketplace, there is a generation qualified on paper, but not in hard-nosed experience, feeding the bloated and ever expanding “Politically correct non-jobs” market. If we want to move forward, the cloud cuckoo land HR “professional” has got to go, along with many of her hellish minions, including the more parasitic facets of the employment agency sector and the zero-hours contract gig economy. The NHS, allegedly, is strapped for cash. I can save them millions, if not more. Bring recruitment services back in-house, use technology, and ban the use of agency staff under any circumstance. If surgeons, consultants and nurses want to work in the private sector, they have a primary responsibility to the NHS who probably trained them, so any work sharing agreement should be primarily agreed with them, not some third-party who is lining his pockets at the taxpayers trough. Until we see a major shift back towards a very old fashioned maxim, “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”, from both sides of the employment equation, such problems will remain intractable.

© Rookwood 2020

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