Friday, February 10, 2006

Overcompensated Myopia

A story I heard on NPR recently triggered deja vu. The story was about the Jobs Bank for idled auto-workers in Lansing, Michigan. The program pays idled workers just for their time. They could sleep, chat, watch TV or play board games - it does not matter what they do as long as they are in the premises of the Jobs Bank. To keep this alive on one hand and go off on a layoff and plant closure spree on the other seems very schizophrenic.

I used to work for a mammoth public sector company in India in the 90s. This was right after graduating from engineering school. A typical day started at 8:30 at the cafeteria where we were served breakfast. Around 9:00 we settled into our cubicles. There was absolutely no work to be done. People sat playing Solitaire on their work stations or reading magazines. There was no internet back then. To send an e-mail you either had to be the Unix admin or one of his cronies.

At 9:30 a siren would go off to announce the first tea and coffee break of the day. We would head back to the cafeteria and spend as much time as we could there. From then until lunch break at 12:30 was the longest part of the day. You could play only so much Solitaire. Most of us rookies had formed study circles to teach ourselves new technology so we could seek gainful employment in the burgeoning ranks of multinationals that were opening shop in India thanks to Manmohanomics or better still get bodyshopped for opportunities in the US.

Many of us young singles stayed overtime so we could head back to the cafeteria for free dinner. This was my life's pattern for a full year. Time moved with dreamlike slowness. Year after year the company accrued huge losses as tax payer money subsidized our way of life. Some employees had been there for generations - they had grown so used to being provided for and doing nothing in return that they could no longer meet the demands of a "real" job. The public sector had completely crippled them.

Things like the Jobs Bank in Lansing, or the public sector companies in India are conceived at the highest levels with much pomp and circumstance. It is imperative that people in such positions be visionaries. When instead they are myopic we are left with these preposterous white elephants
that blight the fate of an industry, sometimes a whole country. What's most amazing is that such myopia is frequently overcompensated turning it into a virtue.


bharath said...

howdy HC.

:-) but I contest the notion of efficiency (the idea that you should work from 9-5 everyday because you are getting paid). There is an advantage in a local sense to the individual or the business. There is no clear social advantage in being efficient.

though if you are talking of inefficiency (people not doing work when it is there) in indian public sector, then i can see why there is dissent.

-(rant mode/mood today) :)

PS: your blog title image, at the top of your blog, links to imageshack. It will be nice if it points to your blogspot start page.

Heartcrossings said...

Bharath - Good catch about the image URL. Have fixed that.

You are right about working 8 hour days not being equal to efficiency but the premise in the Indian public sector used to be that you didn't need to work - that you had done your time by getting hired.

Thereafter the system had to pay you for sitting around for 8 hours. A very peculiar sense of entitlement if you will. The Jobs Bank has many parallels.