Labor Day Contemplation

Labor Day Contemplation

Labor Day evokes many images.  For some of us, it’s a time to savor the last days at the beach, perhaps with a good read?

Most of us hope to find meaning and purpose in our jobs.  In this era of The Great Reassessment, maybe this is the Labor Day to reconsider our own toil?  Or that of our colleagues?

Here are three suggestions to spark your own contemplation:

This podcast introduced me to Dr. Mike Rose, who was a professor of education at UCLA.  He wrote The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.  In an excerpt from the podcast, he reflects on the concept of meaningful work:

So let’s then bust this notion of meaningfulness open, … regardless of the kind of work, to be able to support a family or put food on the table, that’s meaningful. … So for her, then, in the midst of this difficult work and difficult circumstances, there was great meaning in the kind of social dimension of it, right?

Conversely, you and I both know people who are doing work that the culture at large, from a distance, would say is really meaningful — and they’re miserable.

… They’re as unhappy as can be. You know, the miserable lawyer, the unhappy neurosurgeon … So meaningfulness is a more fluid and rich and variable concept, I think, than we tend to imagine.

In Dr. Rose’s book, he references Stud Terkel’s American Classic: Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.  This 600+ page book is something we all should have picked up in quarantine! In the introduction, the author says:

“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash.”


Some industrious folks found Stud’s original reel-to-reel tapes and distilled the best of them into an hour-long podcast.  These snippets from the 1970s are both time capsule and insight into what gets folks out of bed in the morning.

Lastly, a book published about a decade ago by a modern-day philosopher, Alain de Botton. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work questions how some professions can be so admired, yet how we overlook those that accomplish remarkable feats.

As goodreads summarizes it:   

We spend most of our waking lives at work–in occupations often chosen by our unthinking younger selves. And yet we rarely ask ourselves how we got there or what our occupations mean to us.

… With a philosophical eye and his signature combination of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton leads us on a journey around a deliberately eclectic range of occupations, from rocket science to biscuit manufacture, accountancy to art–in search of what make jobs either fulfilling or soul-destroying.

All good fodder to ponder as the summer winds down, and we head back to work, possibly with renewed vigor about our own vocations.


If you heard what we heard …

If you heard what we heard …

It happened again the other day.

What I heard would surprise no one in HR.

Someone knew I did something in HR and needed to unburden.

The person, who approached as though THEY were the sinner, wanted some clarity, some understanding, some reassurance.

Meanwhile the transgressors never seem to seek counsel. 

The mindset of many employees was summed up recently:

“They’re actually questioning the whole meaning of the daily grind. Why do we put so much of ourselves into our careers? And are we getting a fair deal from our employers in return for all of this stress and heartache?”  Read More Here

When they vote with their feet, their answer is: NO – we aren’t getting a fair deal. Often it is not about the money, it is about the recognition of the sacrifices or tradeoffs that they’ve been making: maybe for 18 months, perhaps for a decade … or two.

It is one thing to joke that HR folks are like priests in a confessional – we’ve heard and seen it ALL BEFORE … and we will carry some secrets to our graves to protect those that have confided in us. 

It is another when too many in leadership positions fail to have faith in what HR experts try to impart, for decades.

The non-sinner has moved on, with a clear conscience, now free from a non-enlightened employer. 

Leadership’s penance?  Trying to fill roles left vacant by once loyal employees.

Painting a Vision of Childcare

Painting a Vision of Childcare

The U.S. Department of Labor has determined that 63% of families have both parents in the workforce. One of the many inequities brought to light during the pandemic is the lack of available, affordable, and consistent childcare for working families. It was a problem before the pandemic, for certain, but amplified by a health crisis that caused many of our nation’s flaws to be exposed. It seems that in defining, understanding, and admitting that our country has a childcare crisis, we might start addressing the issue holistically, knowing that there are no instant answers. 

In 2015, the Economic Research Institute authored an article highlighting that in 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs more than average in-state college tuition. Staying home to care for a child is very often a financial decision. Additionally, when or if the stay-at-home parent re-enters the workforce, their salaries seldom can catch-up to those that did not opt out. According to the latest study by the World Economic Forum, overall female participation in the workforce as well as pay gaps have worsened due to the pandemic. Many of the pay gains realized just prior to the pandemic have been all but erased. 

What if young adults, particularly mothers in the United States, are done playing this high stake game? Last week we learned that we now have the lowest birthrate in 50 years.  This has longer term consequences for the US economy, and none of them are good.

Countries like France have had this figured out for years.  Mothers there receive 16 weeks of paid leave for a first child and a second child.  Once a third child is born, mothers receive a total of 26 weeks of paid leave.  Parents also receive monthly “early childhood” benefits to help cover the expenses of having a newborn and these benefits continue until the child reaches age three, when children typically enter school.  Current United States tax credits are nowhere as rich as what so many other countries offer.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently proposed a $700 billion universal childcare plan to ensure no family pays more than 7% of their income on childcare. Some variation of this solution is desperately needed to incent more parents to return to the workforce in a fashion that makes financial sense. Hopefully whatever is decided upon looks better than the finger paint art I saved from my children’s kindergarten classes. When a system is designed thinking about how families and children best prosper, parents can return to work once their infants sleep through the night, and things are a bit more sensible for everyone. Let’s get back to work while caring for our number one priority, our children and the future, in the process.

Reallocation & Retraining

Reallocation & Retraining

Despite the headache caused by all of the labor market reading done for our last post, we’ve persevered.  

Some Chicago economists have had their thinking caps on, and their musings are worth sharing. They are asking the right questions as we contemplate labor markets and human capital post-pandemic.  

The Chicago Fed’s April paper focused on this:  Why didn’t more people from affected industries move over to industries that were NOT affected by the pandemic? “One sign that Covid might have increased the need for labor reallocation is the fact that even while unemployment rose substantially, firms reported an increase in job openings, the opposite of what normally happens in a recession.”

That article raised a nagging question:  Do workers lack the ability to retrain? The resources? Or the incentives?

One of Chicago’s most wry economists, Carl Tannenbaum, addresses the risks if people do NOT retrain. Solving these problems will not be easy, but he rightly points out, failing to address them will lead to even larger problems along geo-political lines. His piece’s topic sentence sums it up:  “Renewing human capital is as important as renewing physical capital.”

Solutions depend on cooperation and innovation. Education needs to orient to life-long upskilling, supporting a different concept of education before 18 and after 18, with government support. Companies must put their money where their mouth was when they signed the Business Roundtable document in 2019. If they create that ecosystem, they will retain workers for far longer—hiring based on competencies for life-long learning—and partnering with employees committed to constant up-skilling.

So many numbers, so little time

So many numbers, so little time

This past weekend seemed a perfect time to catch up on some labor market reading.  

First topic: the real unemployment in the U.S. This article does a great job of explaining the difference between the monthly numbers released by the BLS, U3, and the more accurate measure of U6, which includes those whose unemployment benefits have run out, or who are too discouraged to look for jobs. After reading their estimate on actual unemployment, anyone would be discouraged. 

Next was an article in Crain’s Chicago Business regarding staff shortages in Chicago restaurants. Many factors contribute to this, including the current, enhanced unemployment benefits. In addition, until fully vaccinated, some are very reluctant to come back to the workplace, especially one that demands constant interaction with the unmasked public.  

Finally, the most recent Economist issue featured a special report about the future of work.  These articles point out some bright spots, including how quickly employment rebounded despite dire predictions, to how many jobs were NOT automated during the pandemic. The newspaper’s overall take is this: “Today, as the economy emerges from the pandemic, a reversal of the primacy of capital over labour beckons – and it will come sooner than you think.” 

So, the only conclusion for this firm? We will be spending much more time pouring over even more jobs data to make sense of how the labor markets are affecting our clients.

Is All Well?

Is All Well?

Once upon a time there was a farmer named Sam, growing impatient with the current drought. He thought that he had prepared for hard times; he had deepened their well to hold over 10,000,000 gallons of water. That was enough to water their fields and keep their household running. He was SURE it was deep enough to sustain his family for any crisis. 

No one had ever seen blight like the one of ’20 – but it drained his well. Rain did not come for a year. Then in March, some declared the emergency over because some rain fell, and 961,000 gallons filtered into his well … but it wasn’t even one-tenth full. He needed to start using that water immediately for household use, and he doubted if it was enough to water just ONE of his fields.

961,000 jobs created in March sounds great, but when trying to make up for approximately 10,000,000 jobs lost from Feb 2020 to Feb 2021, these jobs are just a drop in the bucket. Let’s be careful about headlines that talk about growth percentages, realizing this isn’t growth from the top of the flat, smooth, fertile field—they are measuring from the bottom of the dry well.

Old Uncle Sam will go out to his fields again today, eyes raised upwards, hoping for signs of more rain to replenish his fields, and his well.