I Think A Society has to Provide the Equivalent of “KP Duty” Jobs – for the Good of All (A Saturday “let’s think about things” post)

The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.
James Baldwin (quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in this article)

Here is more of the James Baldwin quote:
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence — the public existence — of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare — at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare — and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.
A few have always risen — in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.


(Note:  this is very much an “I’m just thinking about these questions/issues post.”  Call this a “big, big societal issue to think about” post.  In other words….  I believe this: you can help make your good learners better at their jobs through organizational learning and training initiatives.  But, let’s think about something else for a bit…).

I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Let me ask you a question or two?

Should only the best workers have jobs?
Do you really think that all (“all”; “every one”) of the less-than-excellent workers will become better, and then among the best, workers?

Photograph by Loyd Sandgren, from the fun site Vintage Jacksonville
Photograph by Loyd Sandgren, from the fun site Vintage Jacksonville

Do you remember all the World War II war movies?  (I was born in 1950 – I remember a bunch of them).  There was always a scene or two of “KP duty.”  Usually, the person was peeling potatoes.  It was “punishment” (the person had done something wrong – in these movies, usually more “naughty” than criminal) and was thus assigned this low-level task.  But, if you looked carefully, there were some performing such low-level duty alongside those doing KP as punishment, because that was all they were capable of.  And they may not have been all that good, even at peeling potatoes.

In other words, the military found some “work to do” for even the bottom 10% of it workers.  Because, it had to.

And, you know what? – even the poorest, least-motivated workers got enough of the potatoes peeled that the sailors and soldiers had meals to eat.

Recently, my wife spent some time “observing” the full array of workers at a workplace.  She was not working there – she was in “observer” mode.  The place had a full shift of workers on at all times.  She was there for at least two of the different shifts, on many, many days, for long enough to see plenty.  Her observation:

Some of the workers were excellent.  Others, well…  a long way from excellent.  She thought – and I agree – that such lower-level workers had the same “low” level of “attentiveness, industriousness, work ethic” that they have probably had since the equivalent of their junior high days.

Some of the much-less-than-excellent workers frustrated their fellow workers.  And, they frustrated my wife.  Their work was important, needed – and they were not very good at it.

Now, two considerations.

One, this place clearly would prefer to hire only the excellent workers.  But, there simply are not enough such workers available.  You really can’t find enough of the excellent-at-whatever-they-tackle workers to hire.

Two, what happens if there are no jobs for the less-than-excellent workers in society?  No paychecks; no income?

You get it, don’t you?  Even the less-than-excellent workers contribute to the consumer base of a society, if they have money to spend.

It sounds so simple.  “No one should get money from the government forever.  Let them get a job.”  And, most people out of work would contribute in a number of endeavors – contribute in ways that added value to those endeavors.

But, let’s face it – some may never be much of an “add-value-contributor.”  What about them?

You can argue all you want that they need to be trained, or motivated, until they get better – good enough to be a value-adding contributor.  Or, if they do not get good enough, they need to be fired.  But the Bell Curve reality is that there will always be some less-than-value-adding performers.  Always.

What should our society do with such folks?

I think they need some job – even a job they do poorly.  A job is a better solution than to be put out on the street, or to be put on some form of government welfare for the rest of their life.  Don’t you agree?

Jack Welch championed and pioneered the practice of differentiation.  The simple description – fire the “bottom 10%” every year.  Here’s a description from this article, Jack Welch – On Differentiation: Or, making winners out of everyone:

Bottom 10%
As for the bottom 10 percent in differentiation, there is no sugar coating this—they have to go. That’s more easily said than done; It’s awful to fire people—I even hate that word. But if you have a candid organization with clear performance expectations and a performance evaluation process—a big if, obviously, but that should be everyone’s goal—then people in the bottom 10 percent generally know who they are. When you tell them, they usually leave before you ask them to.

Mr. Welch also argues that many of them go on to become better performers at their next job.  Maybe…  for some of them.  But not all – nowhere near all.

So, again, what about the true bottom 10%?  (And, let’s be honest – the “less-than-adding-value” performers probably number more than just the bottom 10%).

Now, here’s the problem for a society built on profit — every company has to turn a profit.  For its owners; for its shareholders.  And, ultimately, if it does not turn a profit, it goes out of business.  I don’t disagree with this motivation.  I get it.  A business is in business to make money.  It has to make money. Otherwise, it will ultimately go out of business.  (Anybody bought anything at Montgomery Ward’s lately?  Or Circuit City?)

So, I think we would all agree that the General Electric’s of the world, in business ultimately to make money, should not keep a worker who does not at least return the cost of his/her work to the cash flow of the business.

But, somewhere, some entity, or company, or organization has to provide “KP duty” jobs for the less-than-excellent workers among us.  For them – for their own dignity.  And for the good of our society, and our economy (with a paycheck, they become consumers, as I said).

We actually understood this, at one time.  Such jobs were provided for the “less-than-the-best” workers during the Great Depression (The very best workers still had work to do, even in the midst of the depression.  The unemployment rate was high – 24.75% in 1933, the worst year — but it was not 100% unemployment).

Here was the “KP work” of the era – the WPA (here’s the description, from Wikipedia):

WPAsignThe Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. In much smaller but more famous projects the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.
Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. The WPA’s initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP), and in total it spent $13.4 billion.

And, though we did not get back to healthy employment until World War II, the unemployment rate went down dramatically after these “KP jobs” were made available.  (Read the year-by-year statistics here).

Our society (any society) has to provide a place to work for, has to have jobs to be done by, the less-than-excellent workers among us.  For the good of those people – and for the very survival of our economy.

…As I said, this is a “let’s think about a big societal issue” post.  Soon it’s back to writing about how to make your good learners better through organizational learning and training initiatives.


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