Outside column: Hard times are payback for skewed priorities

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I heard the day I wrote this that a local firm I'd done business with for years had been hit with a massive layoff. I began touching base with friends who worked there to see how they fared. All I reached had survived this round but had to take pay cuts. They were devastated, talked about "survivor's guilt," bemoaned the loss and harried futures of friends, co-workers, families.

One female friend, younger than most, recently married, no kids and fortunately renters, had a stoic, almost upbeat attitude. "We're young, we have plenty of time to make it back." She's right, and I'm almost as grateful for that as she is.

I'm a headhunter, a recruiter in and for corporate America. It's my job to know what's going on in employment, in my and my company's focus industries, in the marketplace of 21st-century laissez-faire capitalism.

And I'll tell you, we're in hard times.

I witnessed the early exodus from the dot-com bust, telecom overreach and, most recently, ridiculously overheated real estate and construction. Will we get through it? Of course.

Will America and the world be forever changed by what we're experiencing now and are likely to for some time? I certainly hope so. The 20th century, in my view, lasted way too long.

When I graduated from college in the late '80s, the word in the marketplace was not to say, "I'm a people person" - the kiss of death. Business, we were led to believe, wasn't about people. It was about revenue streams and profit margins and return on investment. This was the advent of the MBA tsunami.

Business, I'm happy to report, is, in fact, about people - the people you hire, the people you retain, the people you buy from and sell to. It is the workers who perform the labor and who add the value to capital that built our middle class, who fueled our growth and prosperity through their sweat and efforts, and who now are being idled in recent record numbers, who made America what it was until recently.

What we're suffering is a world economy led astray in pursuit of personal wealth, trying sluggishly and belatedly to align itself with the newly revealed reality.

My dear old dad told me when I was still wet behind the ears that America was in for tough times - that we were turning out far too many MBAs and lawyers and not nearly enough engineers and teachers.

Once again, Dad hit it right on the head. This country is hurting badly for a lack of well-trained workers who create value, coupled with a disgusting surplus of those who talk about it, measure it and try to manipulate it. And we've rewarded these latter unconscionably - to the detriment of us all.

A friend, who interestingly works in a lower-level position with Citibank and has managed miraculously to remain employed thus far, recently lent me a book by John Steinbeck titled "In Dubious Battle." I'd forgotten just how depressing Steinbeck could be.

It is a wonderfully depressing read that I highly recommend. My mother-in-law, who is doing her best to nurse multiple generations through our current crisis, remarked upon my mention of it, that this is probably a very good time for folks of all ages to read Steinbeck. He serves to remind us, in the midst of our self-pity, just how bad things can be, and how relatively survivable our current circumstance is.

America has gone through the last decade and more paying virtually nothing for our excesses in upward wealth redistribution, warmongering, financial deregulation, environmental depredation, and disdain for the other 95 percent of the world's population.

Most critically, the education and viability of the working class in this country have been totally ignored. Downsizing and merging and offshoring have made a handful of Americans very wealthy at the expense of the country as a whole.

It's simply time to pay the piper.

• Mark Greene is an executive search consultant in the renewable energy industry.



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