Thursday, September 17, 2015

Brief Reflections on Work in Cape Town, South Africa

I recently returned from Cape Town, South Africa, where I had the pleasure of attending the World Congress of the International Labor and Employment Relations Association. The conference was very stimulating, and it’s always good for the ego to have scholars from all over the world wanting to talk to me about my research--past, present, and future. But it was also fascinating to get out of the conference hotel and experience Cape Town.

The shameful apartheid era has left a sad legacy of tremendous inequality and poverty. The District Six Museum memorializes the destruction wrought on that Cape Town neighborhood by the forced removal and resettlement of the ethnically-diverse residents. Visiting this museum was a moving experience, and the tremendous emotional costs were readily apparent. But not only were family and social relations destroyed, so, too, were economic relations as a vibrant community was displaced and workers uprooted from their livelihoods and segregated into townships far from the city center.

Lack of economic opportunity and work continues to be a serious problem—maybe the most important problem of all. Individuals struggle to get by in whatever ways they can; these pictures of workers rounding up passengers for unmetered taxis or selling fish from the back of a truck capturing just two examples:

I was also able to visit two micro-job creation initiatives: Monkeybiz and Streetwires. Monkeybiz gives Township women (and men) beads and other craft supplies that they turn into fantastic beadwork dolls and animals and sell to Monkeybiz on market day, which are then sold by Monkeybiz to people like you and me:

This allows these women and men to earn a basic income without having to leave their family responsibilities. Streetwires is a similar venture, though the workers artists are directly employed. This young woman created the first zebra head for Streetwires:

It was very uplifting to see these ventures in action. And even though income is tremendously important for these individuals, we know that work is more than just about income. You can immediately see the creativity and personality embodied in the workers’ creations, and can easily envision the dignity that these opportunities create. More efforts to provide jobs in these communities are sorely needed. 


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations

My friend Bruce Kaufman has produced yet another stimulating and important book. It is easy to think that good human resource management (HRM) practices are universal. Shouldn’t all workers be carefully selected into jobs that are a good fit, provided with feedback and opportunities for development, treated with respect, and rewarded for performance? But too much emphasis on universal best practices can lead to an ethnocentric mindset in which the historical, cultural, and institution-specific aspects of HRM are under-valued and overlooked, if not dismissed and rejected. Indeed, unlike many volumes of labor history and a variety of books comparing industrial relations systems across countries, very little has been written about the history of HRM and its comparative patterns. Into this void steps Kaufman with an ambitious effort to bring together experts to trace the development of HRM up to the present in 17 diverse countries.

The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations: Unity and Diversity (Bruce E. Kaufman, ed., Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014) follows a one-country-per-chapter structure along with a comprehensive introduction by Kaufman that sets an appetizing table by presenting the multiple contribution of this unique edited volume. I strongly applaud the diverse set of countries included. The roster goes beyond the usual Anglo and European suspects to also include Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey. Moreover, Kaufman intentionally relied on natives of each country to lessen American ethnocentric perspectives and ensure access to materials written in original languages. The result is impressive, including some chapters that represent the first time that a country’s development of HRM has been published, not only in English but in any language.

Some of the details are fascinating. You don’t want to miss influential incidents or phenomena like the Revolta das Panelas, the human capital stock system, “Pali! Pali!,” the Marcia dei quarantamilia, or the Stakhanov movement. More substantively, you shouldn’t miss the commonalities (all organizations manage people in one way or another), but even more so, the unique political, cultural, and historical factors involved in the evolution of HRM across this stimulating group of countries. In none of these countries is HRM a new phenomenon—again, all organizations manage people in one way or another—and nowhere is HRM immune to larger trends like globalization, world wars, and technological change. And I particularly appreciate the extent to which the chapters show that the development of HRM everywhere is inextricably linked to industrial relations and labor movements; HRM is not something distinct and unrelated.

But unique trajectories within the countries really force one to stop and think about the influences on HRM. And while all of this is undoubtedly interesting for those who like history, the importance goes much deeper because all of today’s HRM system are a product of their own development. The successes, failures, and constraints revealed by each historical record has a lot to tell us about today’s strategies, and tomorrow’s possibilities and challenges. This should be very stimulating for researchers and professionals alike. And on a narrower basis, for scholars interested in comparative research or professionals facing assignments in a specific country, this volume can also be tremendously beneficial by providing the institutional background for deeper excursions and successful ventures relating to specific countries.

Kaufman’s introductory chapter to the volume sets the stage for a theme of convergence v. divergence that runs throughout the country-specific chapters. This is important. What’s not made as clear is that the country experiences also all reflect the changing influence of different frames of reference on the employment relationship which translates into different preferred approaches for managing human resources. Neoliberalism, pluralism, unitarism, and in some countries, even Marxist revolutionary thought, all dominate at different times and yield specific HRM patterns and practices. Moreover, a related-yet-unstated theme is that the evolution of different HRM patterns and practices can be understood as the struggle of employment relationship actors to achieve the key objectives of the employment relationship—especially efficiency, equity, and voice—against a backdrop of a particular set of cultural, historical, institutional, political, and competitive factors that prioritize certain objectives while also pointing toward specific strategies for their achievement. In other words, not only do all organizations throughout time have to manage employees one way or another, but they do so, implicitly or explicitly, with certain goals and assumptions in mind and in the face of various constraints. I've written about this in various blog posts (one example, another example), and this volume provides a fascinating breadth of contexts in which we can see these challenges evolve.

In closing, this is an important and interesting book that should be of value to HRM professionals and researchers from diverse fields. The motivation for the volume is compelling, and the execution is well-done. Today’s debates over best practices, strategic HRM, and the determinants of HR practices have finally been given their historical foundations in a diverse set of countries, and scholars and managers should embrace this opportunity to understand the evolution of HRM practices and the implications for today’s research and practice. I would like to see two things, however. First, the publisher should price the book lower to make the volume more accessible, especially to students and to readers worldwide. Two, it would be fascinating to see a second volume that further diversifies the coverage of this volume, especially into Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Africa beyond South Africa. But this isn’t meant to take anything away from what Kaufman and his team of authors have produced. I highly recommend The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations as you will be stimulated by the unity and diversity of the development of HRM—broadly defined to include employment relations and public policy—from many corners of the globe.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Reflections On My Own Work Experiences

In my May blog posting, I reviewed a new book by Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan called Just Work. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s famous book WorkingJust Work gives voice to 30 workers. Actually, they gave voice to 32 workers because although they modestly relegated themselves to an appendix, they shared their personal narratives of their own work experiences. Because work can be a deeply personal experience, it was great to see these authors putting themselves into the same position as their research subjects while also self-reflecting as well reflecting. And they inspired me to do the same…

My family tree is full of occupations typical of various eras—homemakers of many types, toolmaker, cigar maker, rope maker, teacher, innkeeper, coal miner, tailor, mariner, produce dealer, farmer, woodcutter, soldier, cemetery-mover (when Lake Zoar was created), laborers of many types, and even a judge. Both of my grandfathers were electricians in the navy yards and factories of the eastern United States (and hence both suffered from asbestos-induced health problems) and both of my grandmothers were homemakers, with one of them becoming a librarian after her children were grown. My father was a Coast Guard officer; my mother was a teacher before transitioning to a variety of administrative positions, one of which she still works at today in her mid-70s. My stepfather is a retired engineer and jack of many trades, and my stepmother is a nurse.

I had my first formal job when I was 14 years old. I was the janitor for the Huntington (CT) United Methodist Church and the preschool that met there during the week. I remember having to delay playing with friends to instead ride my bike there most days after school, and getting chased many times by a dog on Walnut Tree Hill Road. I was there by myself so it was a little eerie, and during the summer it was also particularly challenging fighting with the floor waxing machine. In high school, I followed a friend and his sister to work at Colonial [Caterers] of Hickory Hill in Stratford. This was a free-standing wedding reception hall so the work was exclusively on weekends, usually as a busboy, but sometimes as a waiter or dishwasher. The work was intense. A “four-party weekend” consisted of arriving at 5pm on Friday to set-up for a reception that ran 7pm-midnight, then cleaning up and setting up until 2am for the next one. Then it was a late Saturday morning arrival for a noon-5pm reception followed by intense clean-up/set-up for another 7pm-midnight reception, and then another reception on Sunday. Phew! I remember that all of the busboys, waiters, and waitresses either worked just once, or many times. So it was a good group of regular workers because those who couldn’t take it (like two other of our friends) left after only weekend and never returned. We worked really hard, but had a lot of fun. At that time, I also worked during the week at a correspondence school where my mother was an administrator (County Schools on Main Street in Bridgeport). I did copying, mailroom tasks, and other things that needed doing. We listened to Imus in the Morning on WNBC (AM), had Merritt Canteen chili dogs for lunch, and listened to Howard Stern become famous in the afternoon.

I went to a private high school for my junior and senior years, so I could no longer work at County Schools during the school year. So I gave my job to a friend. The next summer, I didn’t want to step on his toes so I decided to skip working at County Schools and instead got a janitorial job at a real factory via a placement service. I’m not overly social and I’m fine being alone, but for some reason this felt like the two loneliest weeks of my life. I’m sure others worked there (obviously!), but I don’t remember any people or faces, just sweeping and mopping around pallets of things, and eating lunch in my car by myself. Compared to the fun I had with peers at County Schools and Colonial Caterers, this was dreadful. So in addition to working again at Colonial Caterers, I went back to County Schools.

The private high school I attended for two years had extra-long Christmas and Spring breaks. Who needs extra workers at Christmas time? A Christmas tree farm, so I wrote a letter (how quaint!) to Jones Christmas Tree Farm in Huntington, and spent two holiday seasons there. Since I could work all week, I worked the pre-cut lot and remember struggling to pull stout blue spruce trees through the chute to wrap them with mesh for easier handling by the customers. To this day I still have a Jones Christmas Tree Farm knit hat that smells of pine! They also hired me during spring break to walk the farm and put a coffee can worth of lime in a circle around each of the growing trees. I would be white as a ghost at the end of windy days—that was “fun,” and undoubtedly “fun” too, for my mom who was doing my laundry (sorry Mom).

I went off to college at Colgate University, and tried to enjoy my first semester by reading the New York Times and not working at all. But I think I took things too easy, and it was my worst academic semester grade-wise. My later-to-be-wife but then-new-acquaintance was on work-study so she was working a lot of hours in the dining hall, and she teased me about doing nothing except reading the New York Times (hmm…norms about being a productive member of society?). So in the spring of my freshman year, I followed her lead and started working in the dining hall in the Bryan complex (later, a little in Cutten, too). Working in the dishroom was particularly fun for some reason (having nothing to do with the occasional food fight with various college girls I’m sure). I made friends not only with other student workers, but with some of the full-time workers who lived in the area, too—but not with one cook who was particularly nasty. I spent 3½ years working there, including nearly three as a student manager. My later-to-be-wife, of course, became student manager before me. I still remember that I was working in the dishroom at Cutten listening to the radio when the Challenger space shuttle tragically exploded. Looking back, working in the Bryan dining hall was one of the strongest constants of my college life, and was the only thing that connected me to anyone besides students and faculty.  

Like every other economics major in the northeastern United States at that time, I had visions of striking it rich on Wall Street. My mother and stepfather had gone to high school with someone who was a vice president at the investment bank Kidder Peabody when I was in college, and from that connection I spent the summers after my sophomore, junior, and senior years working there in fixed income research. I lived at home in Connecticut and had quite the commute—driving to the Bridgeport train station, Metro North to Grand Central, the Lex Ave express subway to Wall Street, and a brisk walk to Hanover Square in lower Manhattan. As just a summer worker, I was probably the last to arrive and the first to leave, and yet the days were exhausting (and that was without any non-work obligations). Nonetheless, it was a fantastic experience working in New York City. I even got to cover the collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) trading desk for a couple of hours when the two traders had to be away (probably in violation of some securities law). And I still remember that because the bond traders and salespeople couldn’t leave the floor during the day, every morning we got to fill out an extensive menu choosing whatever we wanted for lunch, and it would be delivered free of charge at lunchtime.

I’m not sure how much value I created for Kidder Peabody. I don’t think my model to predict the BusinessWeek’s industrial production index made them much money. And I think my efforts to predict when a CMO would be called based on identifying the characteristics of the underlying mortgage securities were quite crude (in a retrospect, too bad others didn’t learn a lesson from this difficulty before the 2008 financial crisis). But I learned three important things of value to me. I enjoyed being part of the intellectual workforce, but I hated commuting in such big metropolitan area and I disliked doing what others wanted me to (wearing a suit every day, especially on the subway during the hot evening commute, wasn’t much fun either). So before I even worked my last summer at Kidder Peabody after graduating from Colgate, I knew that I was going in a different direction—onto an economics PhD program. [For completeness, I also had a brief internship in London during a junior semester abroad—I think it was with a tire manufacturer, but my memory is hazy. Too many pints of bitter at lunch perhaps.]

After all those jobs between age 14 and 21, my adult work narrative becomes less varied. I was a research assistant and a teaching assistant at Princeton during my PhD studies, and since then I’ve only had one formal job—a professor at the University of Minnesota. Growing up primarily in the northeastern United States, I never imagined myself living in the tundra—at least that’s what we thought Minnesota was. But here I am, why? Because of work. The University of Minnesota offered me a great job as an assistant professor 25 years ago, and I’m still here. So I guess something must have clicked. Why industrial relations? At Colgate I majored in economics and in math, and then chose graduate study in economics because it seemed more connected to real-world things. Imagine my surprise when I got to Princeton and found out that economics at that level is mostly abstract math. So I gravitated toward labor economics and development economics as being the most grounded, and within that I further gravitated toward labor relations issues as, at first, being fascinating, and then later on, as being more amenable to multidisciplinary study which is something I particular enjoy. 

Even though I’ve only had one job for 25 years (wow!), of course this one job is much more complex than my earlier jobs, and within it I’ve had varied roles—not only as a researcher and a teacher, but also as a Director of Graduate Studies, department chair, and in various service roles. The rewards are similarly complex. It has allowed me to support my family for which I am grateful. I have enjoyed tremendous autonomy which facilitates creativity and lifelong learning. My job has enabled me to interact with people from many different cultures, whether in classrooms here in Minneapolis or at conference venues, and an occasional pub, scattered around the globe. I have been able to develop teaching strategies and write books to shape student thinking, which has hopefully created more good than working on Wall Street. I have a stimulating set of colleagues who do amazing things in their research, their teaching, or their support of faculty and students (though no friendly food fights). And so on and so forth. Of course, there are many stressors, too, deriving from many of the same factors that generate these rewards, and magnified by the realities of having obligations outside of work (unlike when I worked at my earlier jobs). But I have to say that being a professor is a great job, at least for me. At practical level, it is work unlike any other job I’ve had, and unlike most other jobs period; at a conceptual level, it is work exactly like all other.