It was not long ago that JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater became our latest folk hero for dramatically displaying his end-of-workday frustration. Supposedly a rude passenger caused Slater to have a major meltdown exhibited by an obscenity-laced resignation over the aircraft’s intercom. (I would imagine that was one of the few times everyone stopped what they were doing and listened to the flight attendant.) Slater then grabbed two beers, slid down the escape slide, and ran across the tarmac as the rest of the passengers watched in disbelief and amusement.
I wonder how many of us lived vicariously when we heard that story. Whether it is Johnny Paycheck telling us to “take this job and shove it,” or Howard Beale baiting his cohorts to open their windows and scream, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this,” in the 1974 movie “Network”; there is little doubt we prefer to cheer for the perceived underdog, the unappreciated, or the hard-working employee who is simply taken for granted.
Employee discontent tends to materialize in economic hard times and high unemployment. You might think employees should just be thrilled to have a job. Not so much. While not having a job can be terrifying, having a job can be nerve-racking as well. In his Aug. 23 and 30 Newsweek article, author David Gross explained: “Employees are sick and tired of tough conditions and crummy salaries.”
And I don’t think it matters if you are employed in the for-profit world or in higher education; budget cuts have been deep, wide, and mightily felt. Gross continued: “Yes, companies have embraced the Gospel of Cost Cutting with missionary zeal—printing on both sides of the page, eliminating bottled water, turning off the lights. But most of the gains came straight out of payroll. Companies slashed salaries and curtailed benefits all while asking shell-shocked veterans to pick up the slack for downsized colleagues.”
And pick up the slack they have.
“Last year productivity—the ability to produce more with less—soared 3.5 percent, up from 1 percent growth in 2008 and 1.6 percent in 2007,” Gross reported.
The economy has been growing for a year on the backs of employees who have continued to produce at extraordinary levels, often without salary increases or professional development. There are fewer capital expenditures and aging hardware and software, making the tools to effectively and efficiently do their job woefully lacking. Additionally, hiring freezes have not been lifted and benefit packages have been reduced as health insurance costs continue to rise.
We’ve been able to be so productive thus far because we have the right people in the right jobs, they are skilled and motivated, and did not join student affairs for the money or benefits. There also is some expectation that this is not forever and that everyone from entry-level employees to supervisors have experienced some cuts, so we are all in this together. But are we at our peak? At this point, do we need some tangible sign that our assumptions and our willingness to work through these tough times will be rewarded?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has suggested that companies may have pushed workers to their limit. The second quarter of this year, productivity fell at a 0.9 percent annual rate. On the FinancialTimes.com, Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, said: “The decline in productivity was actually positive for the labour force because it meant that employers had exhausted their workers and would begin hiring more aggressively as demand gradually grew. However, stretched workers continued to cope with weak wages in the second quarter of the year.”
Similarly, it is unlikely that anyone in higher education will receive a pay increase during the second quarter of the academic year, but it would seem we need to be making the case for raises and other benefits sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, many college union professionals do not have control over wages due to labor agreements or other organizational and legal impediments. I would argue this is no excuse. Employees still need to be rewarded, and we all have it within our power to do something. I cannot assume that each member of my staff is motivated by the same things that motivate me. Some appreciate praise whereas others want more difficult tasks that demonstrate my trust in them. As supervisors, we can work to achieve higher financial compensation for our employees, and we can also ask what motivates them. Such efforts will be necessary to sustain our productivity, retain our staffs, and maintain our sanity.