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.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr.John your life history is inspiring and also very motivational , To study in Princeton was my dream and till this day , I dream the same dream for my daughter who is a creative artist for her eight years old age . I love Management and I have successfully passed HR resources tailored by a HR manager in UTS Australia .yet Creative Writing and HR keeps me fascinating . I am about to release a book on Prevention of Maternity Suicides @ PARTRIDGE @ BLOOMINGTON ILLINOIS . I want to start my Own Life coach website for Victimized womena nd their kids who fall in the loop of Domestic Violence and WHEEL OF POWER CONTROL . HR is very vital and the modules I have covered IN OPEN EDU UTS , is entirely different from what you are dealing with . ITS AN ABSOLUTE DELIGHT TO LEARN FROM YOU .