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Repeating the Past March 27, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have all heard or read this important quote.  It is a critical reminder that we have exceedingly short memories, and we have also done unthinkable horrible acts throughout human history.

But what of the positive, progressive acts?  What of the connections we have lost and strive to regain?

Seth Godin again reminds us that our window to the past is often narrow, but always selective.  Some have a big picture view, but more likely we are limited to what we are able to immediately recall.  The wisdom of old age is often simply the ability to synthesize years of memory and experience into a cognitive prediction of the near future.  Nonetheless, certain aspects of our lives have been constant for so long, we forget there was ever another way.

Seth’s description of the industrial age and our concept of unemployment illustrates that our world view is wide open for debate.  Our modern, western perception of work – from the hierarchical organization to workdays versus weekends – is but one manifestation of our semi-capitalist system.  Not only are there many different perspectives, but they are alive and well around the world today.

I found evidence of this firsthand as I interviewed several local businesspeople in the antique and pawn trade for an upcoming article.  One in particular stood out, and related the increase of younger people visiting her shop.  At least here in Montana, there is a visible need to reconnect with simpler, more human-centric products and tools.  I wonder if it is as prevalent elsewhere in the country, but I suspect it may not be as significant elsewhere in the world where the generational gap is not so wide.

If nothing else, Seth’s article points to the fact that our industrial age may well turn out to be less than a blip on the human timeline.  If the Iron Age lasted 1,500 years and warrants little more than a chapter in a high school history book, imagine the possibility that the industrial age – so far barely 300 years old – will only be worthy of mention to serious history scholars in the year 3013.  For now, however, we often work because it’s as much a part of our culture as education or religion.  Perhaps the industrial and information ages will simply be lumped together into the next 1,000 year cycle, called the “Working Age”.

Humans, or Machines? April 25, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Labor unions are an interesting creation.  Few human institutions of the last century or so have drawn such distinct battle lines across society.  Here in the U.S., they continue to divide us into two groups: those who feel that unions provide a necessary base of power for employees who otherwise have little with which to bargain, and those who feel that unions have outlasted their usefulness and that they take away a corporation’s ability to structure its business as it sees fit – especially in countries that now have comprehensive labor laws on the books.

Regardless of the side you take, it should be clear that certain industries and companies do more to deserve the good and bad that comes from unionized employees, while others exist quite well without them.  To this day, there is a heavy bias toward manufacturing and trades.  Not so much with professions like engineering, law, or medicine (though they do have professional societies that adopt such a role in certain situations).  And some companies, regardless of their particular product or workforce, have dedicated themselves to the well-being of their employees to such a degree that the idea of a union would seem out of place.  There are examples of these even in typically unionized industries scattered around the country.

But times are tough these days. The ongoing struggle between the State of Wisconsin and its public labor unions is a prime example of how employers – whether public or private – are feeling the pressure to reduce costs, at any cost. However, though it’s quite easy to observe (and predict) how unions react when faced with cost-cutting measures, there is a more subtle reaction to an employer’s move to improve throughput or productivity, i.e., to produce more at the same cost.

There is a unique tension between the employer and the employee when a union is involved.  Essentially, the union exists to promote the employee as a human being against the employer’s treatment of that person as a mere machine that can be turned on or off at will.  When an employee believes he has been abused, the union can put the full weight of the workforce behind him to negotiate with the more powerful employer.  But what happens when the employer actually wants more “humanity” from the workforce?  In other words, what is the union to do when the employer wants individual employees to think on the job?

I’m not certain that there is a ready-made response to this, since it is a relatively new way of doing business – for both sides.  Historically, especially in manufacturing, employers wanted workers who could perform exactly the tasks required, in the minimum time, with little or no oversight.  Needless to say, the conditions under which these tasks were done left quite a bit to be desired.  Unions were a natural means of recourse.  However, more modern industries, and their commensurate complexities, require employees who are able to thoughtfully analyze their jobs and identify ways to make them better and more efficient.  The person performing the task in question really is the one most familiar with the “art” of completing it well.

But where does that leave the union?  If employees are encouraged to become more autonomous, and able to work with fewer rules governing their behavior, it would remove some of the negotiating “tools” like work-to-rule that the union depends on.  Indeed, it would make such employees more like their craftsman forebears, rather than the industrial “wage slaves” that populate the union pamphlets.  Of course, the employer must be willing to pay for this “thinking workforce”…

Righteous Indignation June 21, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Whether you like it or not, your professional engineering career is specifically geared toward clients who likely do not understand the technical design process. You are, after all, the professional. It’s easy to develop the sense that were it not for your unique skills, your clients would surely not be able to accomplish their goals. But, as we’ve discussed before, engineering education and licensure are merely the price of admission. More experienced engineers (more…)

Fuel the Fire; Don’t Burn Out November 1, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Last month, we discussed some of the factors affecting the attraction of young people to engineering, math, and science. This perennial issue seems to have as many solutions as there are practicing engineers. Existing programs, such as the West Point Bridge Design contest and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) ASCEville.com are intended to address youth directly and provide hands-on educational opportunities. But in most cases, such programs depend on the active participation of practicing engineers — many of whom have difficulty finding the time or motivation to volunteer. Are today’s engineers ready to accept the personal responsibility to develop the next generation, or are we ever more dependent on universities to provide the foundations upon which we then may build? And what of the subsequent laments that such schools do not adequately prepare graduates to enter the workforce? (more…)

Engaging the Next Generation September 18, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Fifteen years. How much can we accomplish in such a short time? As I write this, I just read President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren. His words are likely to be clouded by the bickering that inevitably seems to take center stage these days. However, regardless of your politics, his thoughts reflect many professions’ struggles with how to motivate the next generation(s) and encourage study of subjects that don’t seem to hold quite the value they once did — especially math and science. Engineers are no strangers to this debate, and some have taken proactive steps to preserve the integrity of the profession while encouraging and attracting new entrants. (more…)

Working With Your Hands May 28, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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I  can’t even begin to lay out the many ways that Matthew Crawford has put into words some of the things that I have observed during my engineering career.  He has written an extremely well-crafted essay based on an upcoming book entitled “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work”.  He makes some excellent comparisons between today’s “knowledge workers” and more blue-collar “dirty jobs” that force us to observe the realities of the machines and tools we use.

It also raises the question (if it even needed any further raising) of how Americans will continue to succeed as a society if we continue sending our children to college regardless of what their real interests are — especially if those interests lead to such jobs as mechanics and technicians.  There are simply too many tasks that cannot be outsourced but that still require a significant level of skill and training (not from college) to undertake.

I encourage you to read through the article, and I personally am looking foward to the book.