Ghost in the Machine

Eighteen Months in the Info-Quarry.

Training here takes about four hours. Pay is about $8 an hour, with benefits of a sort available after a thousand to 2,000 hours depending on whether you work for a temp agency or the company itself. In either case, this is project work. We are what organizers of today's workplace call the "contingent workforce."

Contingent is the term that replaced temporary after temporary became fleeting. Work here lessens with every advance in technology. Jobs disappear overnight out over the Pacific Rim, where enclaves of well-educated, English-speaking people will work for a fraction of the going U.S. wage. A while back there was a note on the bulletin board that said, "This is a test and only a test. If it was a real job there would be decent wages, benefits, and promotions."

This is a typical workplace of the 1990s, part of a job pool shared by students, graduates in holding patterns, immigrants, seniors who can't make it on their pensions, parents who need second jobs and third jobs to support their families, downsized workers, and people being tossed out of welfare programs.

There are also people here who have been misled. Say you are a college graduate with whopping loans, a current student accumulating loans, or a prospective student looking forward to your very own staggering debt load. All because you bought the story that you had to have a college degree these days.

University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof, looking for ways to pay faculty salary increases, said recently that, given the 4.57 percent increase in tuition, admitting another thousand students to the Minneapolis campus might be done "with good result."

The same day, the state planning agency said that according to its projections, only one in four jobs available in Minnesota between now and 2005 will require a four-year college degree. Combine that with a study by researchers at Northern Illinois University that says only 17 percent of the full-time jobs available last year to low-skilled Minnesota job seekers paid at least poverty-level wages of $12,278 for a family of three; that nearly a third of welfare recipients were already in the workforce; and that welfare had, in effect, become a subsidy because wages were too low to support a family.

The new age is noisily touted as an economic bonanza. But low-level jobs along the information highway are way stations at best. They deal in phantom know-how. Coding regimen. Telemarketing technique. Customer service or collection procedures. Routines and processes that change often or disappear entirely--repetitive work that claims chunks of days for unmemorable lengths of time. Tasks that will never again prove useful. Competencies not transferable to any other job. The best one can hope to reap from them is a reference saying you showed up on time and did what you were told. Had a good attitude.

During a conversation in the St. Paul Pioneer Press between MIT economist Lester Thurow and Arthur Rolnick, research director of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, Rolnick says at one point, "We've got virtually full employment now."

Thurow replies: "What's happened is that unemployment numbers cease to have any meaning, because we have this vast army of partially employed or underemployed people."

Rolnick says: "I'd distinguish between skilled and unskilled workers, and lousy and good jobs."

With an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent at the time, Thurow said there were officially 7.5 million unemployed people but another 6 million unemployed who weren't counted because they didn't meet the test for active workers. There were 5 million more who worked part-time but would like to work full-time, and another 8 million in temporary jobs.

He added, "We've got 2 million people who work on call. We've got 8 million working who are one-person, self-employed contractors. And we've got 6 million missing American males between the ages of 25 and 60. The Census Bureau says they exist, but the Labor Department can't find them."

Thurow is known for saying what average workers have come to believe: Government statistics on the labor market are rigged. But it was the establishmentarian Rolnick who coined the defining label for work in the 1990s.

Lousy jobs.

We can eat at our workstations as we code. The coding room is alive with the rustle of candy wrappers and the hiss of pop cans. In a recent informal poll, microwave popcorn was voted best aroma. Worst aroma was burnt microwave popcorn.

Coders bring food from home or satchels from fast-food outlets. Potluck food nights are like street festivals. But the constant sidekick and faithful droid of cyberserfs is the vending machine.

It's not just the clever tiny meals or the ice-cream-bar machine with the vacuum tube that retrieves your selection in full view. Vending is sustenance, investment, and drama played out in the 10-minute interludes of break time. Encounters at a vending machine can be as meaningful as your workday's going to get.

Beverly has stalled out at a candy machine. She says, "I want the Almond Joy but there's a Mounds ahead of it. See?" I could be a sport and buy the Mounds but it's not in the cards. I'm set on a tiny bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. The moment passes and Beverly leaves empty-handed. I get my cookies. It's enough.

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