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The End of Employees

Published: February 3, 2017
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The Wall Street Journal has an important new story, The End of Employees, on how the big company love of outsourcing means that traditional employment has declined and is expected to fall further.

Some key sections of the article:

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry.

The men and women who unload shipping containers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. warehouses are provided by trucking company Schneider National Inc.’s logistics operation, which in turn subcontracts with temporary-staffing agencies. Pfizer Inc. used contractors to perform the majority of its clinical drug trials last year….

The shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted…

For workers, the changes often lead to lower pay and make it surprisingly hard to answer the simple question “Where do you work?” Some economists say the parallel workforce created by the rise of contracting is helping to fuel income inequality between people who do the same jobs.

No one knows how many Americans work as contractors, because they don’t fit neatly into the job categories tracked by government agencies. Rough estimates by economists range from 3% to 14% of the nation’s workforce, or as many as 20 million people.

As you can see, the story projects this as an unstoppable trend. The article is mainly full of success stories, which naturally is what companies would want to talk about. The alleged benefits are two-fold: that specialist contractors can do a better job of managing non-core activities because they are specialists and have higher skills and that using outside help keeps companies lean and allows them to be more “agile”.

The idea that companies who use contractors are more flexible is largely a myth. The difficulty of entering into outsourcing relationships gives you an idea of how complex they are. While some services, like cleaning, are likely to be fairly simple to hand off, the larger ones are not. For instance, for IT outsourcing, a major corporation will need to hire a specialist consultant to help define the requirements for the request for proposal and write the document that will be the basis for bidding and negotiation. That takes about six months. The process of getting initial responses, vetting the possible providers in depth, getting to a short list of 2-3 finalists, negotiating finer points with them to see who has the best all-in offer, and then negotiating the final agreement typically takes a year. Oh, and the lawyers often fight with the consultant as to what counts in the deal.

On the one hand, the old saw of “a contract is only as good at the person who signed it” still holds true. But if a vendor doesn’t perform up to the standards required, or the company’s requirements change in some way not contemplated in the agreement, it is vasty more difficult to address than if you were handling it internally. And given how complicated contracting is, it’s not as if you can fire them.

So as we’ve stressed again and again, these arrangements increase risks and rigidity. And companies can mis-identify what is core or not recognize that there are key lower-level skills they’ve mis-identified. For instance, Pratt & Whitney decided to contract out coordination of deliveries to UPS. Here is the critical part:

For years, suppliers delivered parts directly to Pratt’s two factories, where materials handlers unpacked the parts and distributed them to production teams. Earl Exum, vice president of global materials and logistics, says Pratt had “a couple hundred” logistics specialists. Some handlers were 20- or 30-year veterans who could “look at a part and know exactly what it is,” he adds….

Most of the UPS employees had no experience in the field, and assembly kits arrived at factories with damaged or missing parts. Pratt and UPS bosses struggled to get the companies’ computers in sync, including warehouse-management software outsourced by UPS to another firm, according to Pratt..

The result was $500 million in lost sales in a quarter. Pratt & Whitney tried putting a positive spin on the tale, that all the bugs were worked out by the next quarter. But how long will it take Pratt & Whitney to recover all the deal costs plus the lost profits?

There’s even more risk when the company using contractor doesn’t have much leverage over them. As a Wall Street Journal reader, Scott Riney, said in comments:

Well managed companies make decisions based on sound data and analysis. Badly managed companies follow the trends because they’re the trends. A caveat regarding outsourcing is that, as always, you get what you pay for. Also, the vendor relationship needs to be competently managed. There was the time a certain, now bankrupt technology company outsourced production of PBX components to a manufacturer who produced components with duplicate MAC addresses. The contract manufacturer’s expertise obviously didn’t extend to knowing jack about hardware addressing, and the management of the vendor relationship was incompetent. And what do you do, in a situation like that, if your firm isn’t big enough that your phone calls get the vendor’s undivided attention? Or if you’re on different continents, and nothing can get done quickly?

We’ve discussed other outsourcing bombs in past posts, such as when British Airways lost “tens of millions of dollars” when its contractor, Gate Gourmet, fired employees. Baggage handlers and ground crew struck in sympathy, shutting down Heathrow for 24 hours. Like many outsourced operations, Gate Gourmet had once been part of British Airways. And passengers blamed the airline, not the wprkers.

Now admittedly, there are low-risk, low complexity activities that are being outsourced more, such as medical transcription, where 25% of all medical transcriptionists now work for agencies, up by 1/3 since 2009. The article attributes the change to more hospitals and large practices sending the work outside. But even at its 2009 level, the use of agencies was well established. And you can see that it is the sort of service that smaller doctor’s offices would already be hiring on a temp basis, whether through an agency or not, because they would not have enough activity to support having a full-time employee. The story also describes how SAP has all its receptionists as contractors, apparently because someone looked at receptionist pay and concluded some managers were paying too much. So low level clerical jobs are more and more subject to this fad. But managing your own receptionists is hardly going to make a company less flexible.

Contracting, like other gig economy jobs, increase insecurity and lower growth. I hate to belabor the obvious, but people who don’t have a steady paycheck are less likely to make major financial commitments, like getting married and setting up a new household, having kids, or even buying consumer durables. However, one industry likely makes out handsomely: Big Pharma, which no doubt winds up selling more brain-chemistry-altering products for the resulting situationally-induced anxiety and/or depression. The short-sightedness of this development on a societal level is breath-taking, yet overwhelmingly pundits celebrate it and political leaders stay mum.

With this sort of rot in our collective foundation, the rise of Trump and other “populist” candidates should not come as a surprise.

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