Friday, May 26, 2006

Immigration -- Hoots' take

As the Senate and House work to hammer out a compromise between two very different approaches to the immigration issue, America waits. And as we wait we listen to a mess of carping and grumbling. Everyone has an opinion. Cheap shots, one-liners and cute but stupid non-sequeturs are a dime a dozen.

And as I listen I want to challenge about everyone I hear...
How many times have you personally interviewed job candidates? For job? At any level? How many subordinates have you discharged? And for what reasons? Please, Mr. Know-it-all, tell me what you have learned from personal experience. Don't hand me the demagogic rantings of politicians, or prejudiced ignorance hiding behind a mask of patriotism.

You, there, who just tossed out that clever solution about penalizing employers who hire illegal aliens...tell me about your experience. Looked a lot of ID cards, have you? You know at a glance which ones were real and which ones came from the flea market? You have a good memory to recall at a glance at any of the states' drivers licenses and know immediately which ones are counterfeit? Filled out a lt of I-9 Forms, have you? You been through an INS audit? Got the Social Security validation phone number on your speed-dialer? (Right there beside your employer federal ID number, remember?)

I could go on, but you get the point.

Two years after my cafeteria opened my associate manager and I sensed that the rate of turnover had slowed. We decided to check and sure enough, it had. The company furnished reports tracking terminations every pay period, not only for our unit but the entire company. Anyone could compare his unit with the rest and see the big picture. Also, we had the actual records of everyone in the file, so the numbers were not too hard to find.

We found that in order to keep forty to fifty part- and full-time jobs filled we had employed just over six hundred people in the first two years of operation. The number is a bit mesleading, of course, because the bulk of those were clustered in a steep curve starting with opening day, trending downward as time passed. But after the dust settled, it was necessary to hire an average of one to three people per week in order to keep three or four dozen jobs filled.

I don't say this to either brag or complain, but to give the uninformed reader a plain view of the food business as seen from a thirty-year personal perspective. As a manager I learned long ago that discussions of "turnover" were important, but not in the way that most people think. Typically the word turnover is a pejorative attempt to beat up management for failure to either hire, train or supervise subordinates effectively. That may be true in many cases, but there is a point beyond which turnover is as normal as breathing. When I hired someone to wash dishes, clean tables or serve on a cafeteria line I didn't expect that it was a career move for that person. Nor should it be. Those pools of lower-level jobs are where I looked when I wanted to train a baker, cook or salad maker. Those were the subordinates from which supervisors were chosen. If the chef, head baker and lead salad maker came to their jobs from other places, starting with five or ten years on the job, and were still there ten years later...looking for replacements for those better jobs was not an everyday challenge. Typically I lost those people to other employers offering better jobs.

But that isn't what I want to talk about. The point I am making has to do with the employment of large numbers of people at the bottom tier of the economy. That is a subject that I know about because it has been my life. That is a subject that I don't need hyperlinks to support. When I tell you that geography has as much t0 do with the question as ability, I am telling you a fact, not a theory. Lifestyle, work ethics and values are also part of the picture.

When I say geography it means matching available jobs with available people to perform those jobs. This challenge often has to do with land costs, meaning that in a "high end" area the price of real estate will make housing and living costs so high that low end wages will not support the people who work those jobs. I know that in the metro-Atlanta area there are locations that have an easy time hiring people and others that are a staffing nightmare. The difference is not management; it is a flow of suitable candidates that varies, typically according to the availability of low-end rental housing. That is where the marketplace will furnish the most candidates for low-paying jobs. (It is also the place that most Yuppie neighborhoods want to eliminate to their own disadvantage because it eventually increases the price of services, but that is another discussion.)

The other part of geography has to do with flexibility on the part of those who take jobs at the low end of the economy. It is no accident that one of the complaints I hear most is that immigrants live together in cramped quarters, often with three to five times the "appropriate" number of adults sharing housing. (In agricultural areas, read shabby, sub-standard housing.)

Well, Hello! D'uh...
That's the point, isn't it? How else will the jobs get done at those rates?

Our economy wants champagne service at beer prices. I can assure you that competition in the marketplace will provide just that. That's why people like to live in America. But this benefit comes with a price. The price is easy to understand. When our kids are more interested in spending their weekends playing than working, someone else will have to do the jobs they don't care to do. You see a lot of homeless people? People on welfare? You want them to take those jobs? How many of them would you want handling your food in the kitchens where you eat? If those on welfare are cheating on public assistance, do you want them handling the money where you shop? Think about it. Do you really want to do business with employees prone to stealing? (I know. We vote for that kind of person regularly, but I'm not talking politics here. This is the real world.)

I have tremendous sympathy for immigrants and their employers because I have been there and done that. Not just for a couple of years but for three decades. I have watched with amazement as waves of immigrants have come to America, from the Asians of thirty years ago to today's massive influx from the South. And I have come to admire the energy, flexibility and industry they bring with them.

Today's numbers are bigger than anything in my experience, but the dynamic is nothing new. Immigrants are responding to the marketplace. We are the demand. They are the supply. And as yesterday's essay points out, Europe and America have produced a retiring generation which, for whatever reason, has failed to produce enough of itself to sustain their retirement. The demographic reality is that immigration is the only solution. Otherwise our retirement will blow up in our face and a lot of able-bodied old people will have to go back into the workforce to pay their bills, because their pensions and other benefits will simply vanish.

As I see it, we have it better than the Europeans. We are able to import a largely Christian population to come and live among us, even if they don't speak the mother tongue. The Europeans are stuck with Muslims.
(Yeah, I know. That's a cheap, racist shot. But it was too good not to use.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The closing wasn't a cheap racist shot, it was a statement of fact and one I hadn't heard or really thought about before. Thanks. I'm still for closing, then controlling the southern border, but mostly to force the lie-abouts who're already here, drinking beer out of a paper bag on the gov't housing stoop at 10 am every weekday (don't get out that early on weekends)to work or starve. Without immigrant competition for work, there'll be no excuses. I hear the rant at the top of the post, too, though. I do employment work for some fast-food franchisees and man, their turnover is really rough. Try as they might, most can only get a very few steady management types and they want to move on to less stressful positions before too long. Measuring the seconds a car is in the drive-thru or having to juggle employees where one extra means almost no profit and one too few means everyone has such a bad night you lose business prob'ly isn't what most folks want to be doing when they're 50. As one owner told me, "Seen Jerry Springer? That's my labor pool." Makes that Big Mac or Crunch Wrap even more enjoyable than before, huh?