Sunday, August 31, 2003

Workplace worries?

As more and more U.S. companies go to European and Asian countries for economic reasons, will we find many areas of our labor force staring down a road where future job security might begin to disappear on them?

The headlines keep saying there's not much to celebrate this Labor Day, but those stories must be based more on statistics than people. A variety of polls and surveys, including one taken this past week in Greater Cincinnati, find most working people saying they are reasonably content with their jobs.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) just released what it calls its "Labor Day Study on Work and Leisure," a compilation of surveys by major pollsters on the attitudes of Americans toward work and their employers. "Large majorities of workers say they are loyal to their companies. Solid majorities say their companies are loyal to them. This is true even after the business scandals of 2001-2002. Workers' perceptions of 'most' employers' loyalty are more negative, but these findings are less reliable than assessments of people's own workplaces." (The AEI survey, "Attitudes Toward Business" can be found on the Web at http://www.aei.org/).

A telephone survey of 775 adults in Greater Cincinnati, done this past week by A SurveyUSA poll sponsored by The Enquirer/WCPO-TV, found that 46 percent felt very secure in their current jobs and 36 percent described themselves a somewhat secure. Another 12 percent said they felt "not very secure," and only 5 percent listed themselves as "not at all secure." (The final 1 percent, for those of you keeping tabs, said they were not sure if they were secure or not.)

Job security, as we are talking here, is something that transcends labor/management conflict. Security these days means whether or not technology will overtake the work you have spent a lifetime doing; whether a company will relocate to another town because of a real estate tax rebate and free parking; or go to another country because workers there can be paid for a month on what it takes to pay you for a week. Security means working for a company that provides goods or services that will not become obsolete in a constantly evolving high-tech consumer society.

Most of those factors are beyond the control of any single worker. That might explain why, according to the surveys, a big part of "job security" cited by workers is feeling warm and friendly with your co-workers and immediate supervisors. Can you get that vacation when you want it? Are the people you work with the kind of folks you want to share your lunch hour with? Can you come in 15 minutes late when it is your week to drive the carpool? In other words, are we happy at work, or do our stomachs start to knot up as soon as we pull into the company parking lot?

Well, according to the surveys, most of us feel pretty good about the person in the next cubicle or the one standing next to us on the production line. A recent Gallup poll found a majority of working Americans are "completely" satisfied with the flexibility of their hours, their boss and their vacation time. AEI reports that two polls taken 20 years apart by Survey Research Center and Harris Interactive, both found that 65 percent of working Americans would "take the same job without hesitation."

Large majorities also profess loyalty to their companies and swear they believe their companies are loyal to them, according to the AEI report. Those feelings seem to be echoed locally. According to the SurveyUSA questions, 62 percent of the respondents said they were confident the companies they work for today would still be around to sign their paychecks in 10 years. A solid 42 percent pushed that figure out to 20 years. More than half of those answering (51 percent) said there was no need for the government to get involved in making sure the company they work for stays around.

So what about all that dire economic news? Don't people taking these surveys realize that employment growth is at its lowest level since 1939? Haven't they heard of companies moving their jobs to Mexico or China? Don't they realize that there are plenty of people in India who can do data processing? Did they sleep through Enron?

The answer is that of course they have heard all of that bad news and they have watched companies fold and have seen other people's jobs get outsourced. But they are still working. Every one of these surveys and polls, including the one taken here in Cincinnati, asked questions of working people. And when you are working, it is easy to think that things are pretty good because they certainly could be worse.

And if you tilt your head and read the surveys again, you realize that is exactly what they say. Ask people about what they think life will be like after they stop working and the numbers on the charts start moving the other way.

Take health benefits. Sixty-one percent of those questioned in Greater Cincinnati by SurveyUSA said their health benefits are adequate to meet their needs right now - remember that everybody surveyed is currently employed - but 64 percent said they were not confident their health benefits would be good enough to meet their needs after retirement. That group breaks down to 38 percent "not very" confident, and 26 percent "not confident at all."

The same survey found that 61 percent of the people lack confidence that their retirement benefits will be adequate to meet their needs. That can be divided among the 37 percent who are only "not very" confident that retirement will be golden years and 24 percent who are "not at all" confident they will have enough to get by on.

Comparing these numbers makes me wonder if people understand that it is usually their employers who are paying the biggest chunks of their health care premiums and retirement plans. If they understood that, why wouldn't they want the government to make sure their companies stay in business, or more particularly, stay in business here?

Maybe they just don't want to think that far ahead. Maybe they figure if they just keep their heads down and keep working, they will be just fine.

According to the surveys, they will be.


David Wells is editor of the Enquirer editorial page. Contact him at (513) 768-8310; fax: (513) 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com

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