Monday, December 10, 2007

Punching In

In the 1970's, Haverford College President John Coleman went undercover, working at low-end jobs. He wrote about his journey to the "other side" in Blue Collar Journal: A College President's Sabbatical. During his time off, Coleman worked as a laborer: garbage man, ditch digger, and kitchen boy at Boston's Union Oyster House.  I had spent a summer waitressing at the Oyster House within a year or two of when Coleman worked there, so I read the Oyster House section with avid interest.

While at the Oyster House, Coleman was a salad maker where he must have replaced Willie Plummer, who was always smoking a cigar (Yes! while making salads), and muttered to me (and presumably all the other waitresses) every time we approached his station to order a shrimp cocktail or a side salad.

What he invariably muttered to me was, "I had a dream about you last night, Marlene, we was making love." (I may have been one of Willie's dream girls, but he never got my name straight.)

I knew pretty much all of the "characters" Coleman encountered there, and could easily translate the waitress he called "Myrtle" into the wonderful Bertha White, etc.

Fast forward a few decades, and Barbara Ehrenreich tried to make a living at Wal-Mart, as a Merry Maid, and at a couple of other scratch-out-an-existence jobs that I can't recall. Her efforts produced the brilliant Nickled and Dimed, which so eloquently chronicled just what it's like to be among the working poor.

Which brings us to Punching In, in which business journalist Alex Frankel spends time in a handful of businesses known for their distinct  corporate culture, and gives us a view into how those cultures are created and enforced.

Over the course of a few years, Frankel put in stints at UPS, Enterprise Car Rental, the Gap, Apple iStores, and Starbucks. In two of these situations - UPS and Enterprise - Frankel worked with folks who were for the most part intent on forging careers at the company. Most (although not all) of those he encountered on the retail side held a more temporary relationship to their place of work.

At UPS - a company that Frankel comes off admiring - everyone starts out as a man (or woman) in brown, working their way up to a management role, or content to stay on the truck (which, while a somewhat stressful way to make a living, does afford people the opportunity to make a reasonably decent living). Up through the ranks is a key element of the UPS culture - as is the brown uniform, which the drivers Frankel works with manage to personalize by combining all sorts of logo ware.

UPS folks do take the uniform seriously.l

Years ago, at my company's user group, one of our customer-presenters was from UPS. He was in the IT department but, like everyone else, had started out as a delivery guy. When he gave his presentation, he wore his brown uni.

Frankel presents UPS as a company that combines state-of-the-art technology on the back end with a decidedly old-fashioned front end: those fuddy-duddy uniforms, the retro-trucks, and the personalized service in which everyone seems to know the UPS guy on their route. (When my aunt died, the UPS guy came to her wake.)

Frankel makes an interesting side trip to UPS "package central" in Tennessee. This section doesn't fit all that well organically in the book - and, in fact, occurred while Frankel was working as a journalist, not as a seasonal UPS helper. There we see just how UPS processes such a staggering number of packages in the course of a day. Impressive.

At Enterprise, Frankel actually manages to get himself accepted into a management training program. Here we find that Enterprise is one of the largest hirers of college grads - 7,000 a year, can that be right? - most of whom, of course, will NOT end up on the track to a six-figure income but who will, instead, get burned out by the crappy pay, the 60 hour weeks, and the relentless pressure to sell insurance to car renters who neither need nor want it.

Unlike Enterprise and UPS, the retail jobs Frankel held are not so much careers as places that, for the most part, people work while in school, just out of school, in between "real" jobs. 

On the retail side, Frankel sees Gap as a spent brand that may have created business casual, but has lost itself since. Starbucks is caught between its homey desire to be the "third space" for its customers - the place you hang out that's not home or work - and its corporate mandate to open a new store every ten feet, and every ten seconds. Working at Starbucks during a busy time sounds like something out of Modern Times - or Lucy Ricardo working in the chocolate factory.  (One of the worst aspects of low paid service jobs is that they're not all that easy. At Starbucks, the provision of benefits to everyone who puts in over 20 hours somewhat makes up for it.)

The iStores come off as the best place to be on the retail side. Apple hires Apple-aficionados only, and thus has a ready supply of employees who have already bought into the cool, techie Apple culture.

Also telling, of the five companies Frankel worked at, I believe that Apple is the lone one in which there's no mention of some sort of corporate "quality police"/"spies" - my words, not Frankel's - who come around in disguise to see whether the store's clean, the merchandise neat, the service workers polite, the drivers where they're supposed to be. Apparently, with Apple's ability to hire zealots who hang out in the back room tech talking when they're not at work, there's a lot less need to put mechanisms in place to make sure that the salesclerks are nice to the customers.

In pretty much all of his jobs, Frankel is a fish out of water - not so much that he is clearly well-educated and from a seemingly more elite background than most of his fellow-workers - but because, as a self-employed writer, he's pretty much a loner who's never goint to buy into the enforced rituals, hokey rewards, and camaraderie that strong-culture organizations tend to provide. He doesn't have to. Maybe not at the end of the day, but at the end of the self-enforced stint at each of his punching-in jobs, Frankel gets to go back home to his real professional life. For a lot of his colleagues, that not-so-hot job is their real professional life. So while Frankel may not care if he ever gets awarded a green apron pin at Starbucks, but there are no doubt plenty of Starbuckers who'd covet one.

And, by the way, for those of you who fantasize that you'll always be able to fallback on a job at a store that at least vaguely interests you, Frankel failed to get hired at The Container Store, Home Depot, and Whole Foods.  A word of warning to anyone who thinks they're going to game those online tests. There's a whole industry out there that builds those tests used to weed out undesirables.

Frankel is at his best when he's reporting on the telling little details that mark the daily grind - the little things that sometime creating a truly oppressive atmosphere and sometimes alleviating the god-awful tedium.  I went numb just reading the description of the perpetual sweater and jeans folding at Gap - all while listening to an endless, dreadful Muzak loop. (Definite flashbacks to my retail days.) On the other hand, at Enterprise you get those nice little mini-breaks when you fetch a customer at the car dealership where their ride's getting repaired.

Having worked at my share of crapoid jobs, I enjoyed Punching In. From an editorial point of view, I would have made the book either tighter (more closely knitting in a thesis on corporate culture) or looser (make each chapter more of a discrete article, which some of them, in fact, seem to be). I would also have liked more insight into the career aspirations of the many people Frankel encountered along the way. We do hear from some (Jimmy at UPS, Nate the Natural at Enterprise), but I would have liked to learn more across the boards about the relationship that the workers held to their jobs.

But for anyone who's bitching about their job, threatening to pack it in and go work at "whatever", or who's ever asked themselves what it's like to deliver those packages, push that insurance, fold those khakis, pull those venti lattes, or worship those Apples -Punching In would make a good Christmas gift

No comments: