Finding an upside in the downsizing
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday March 7, 1991
During the past 10 years, Fortune 500 companies have been job killers, not job creators.
Since 1980, those large companies have lost more than 3.5 million jobs while small and medium sized companies have created more than 22 million new jobs.
However, the downsizing of America’s largest business enterprises has two faces. It’s part of the process of “creative destruction” that characterizes capitalism.
One face is the painful, mid-career cashiering of executives or allegations of union busting.
The other hand is the bloated enterprise throwing off stifling layers of management, rooting out redundant staff activities and slashing overhead costs to become more flexible and competitive.
Downsizing is also laying the foundation for tremendous increases in American productivity – especially in the service sector, where productivity growth has been slowest. Why? Because downsizing is often followed by outsourcing – or corporate unbundling.
This practice of farming out high-salaried legal, public relations or economic forecasting staff functions or lower-wage “back office” operations to specialized enterprises who sell business and professional services back to the large corporations.
Outsourcing creates large productivity increases and the potential for higher-wage jobs, especially in the service sector, where the challenge is the greatest.
Consider the case of janitorial services. If janitorial services are provided in-house, custodians are among the lowest paid workers. Turnover is high. Supervision is provided by middle management. The janitorial function escapes top management’s radar screen.
There is an alternative. Let’s call it the ABC Office Maintenance company – ABCOM, for short. ABCOM has an entrepreneurial president trying to make a business grow and prosper. Good service and productivity improvement is the only way.
After initial successes, ABCOM’s president hires a sales director and then a human resources director – to provide better training and reduce turnover. As a result, ABCOM gets more bang for the buck. Because employees are more productive, ABCOM pays higher wages, attracts more highly motivated people and provides cheaper services. Its business grows.
ABCOM now realizes there are better methods to clean offices. So, the firm hires a procurement director to find state-of-the-art cleaning solvents and develop new time-and-motion routines in concert with a professor of industrial engineering at a local community college.
The result is a new surge in productivity and even higher wages for everyone. Also, with two layers of management, ABCOM provides a meaningful career path for custodians. It’s possible to recruit better people, keep them longer and offer upward mobility opportunities for the best.
Outsourcing is the upside of downsizing. It’s another facet of the New Economy that is working well.