Today we have a guest post from TechRepublic contributing writer Patrick Gray.
With Greece once again making the rounds in the press, I was thinking back to a speech I gave in the country two years ago as their economic crisis was first unfolding. I was speaking about the IT industry and about how to make it more attractive and effective in the face of impending economic calamity. During a break, a reporter told me that there was a movement afoot in some circles in Greece to attempt to form a union of IT workers, and he asked for my thoughts.
I couldn’t help but recall late-night debates I’d had with colleagues early in my tech career. As “new guys” fresh out of college we felt a bit exploited. Here we were, putting in long weeks related to a new systems implementation and earning just a bit above minimum wage when all the unpaid overtime (we were salaried employees) was factored in. Perhaps retaining a bit of academia-inspired wistfulness, we rapidly concluded that an IT workers union would be the perfect remedy to the poor masses of exploited IT workers everywhere. A few decades later, I think unionization is exactly the wrong answer, and the dynamic career IT has given me would not be possible in a unionized environment. Here’s why:
Time served versus timely skills
Perhaps the most exciting feature of the IT industry is that it’s one of a handful where knowledge can regularly trump experience. A relatively new entrant to the field can command a large salary or senior title based on their ability rather than their seniority. While this is often taken for granted in IT, it’s a rare trait in most other industries.
Unions offer legitimate employee protections, but they obviously must trade something in return for those protections. In most cases, unions trade merit-based advancement and pay for these worker protections, and with it the core benefit of an IT career. While protection against “unpaid overtime” sounds good, lower pay and seniority based on a shorter amount of “time served” nullifies the ability for IT pros to rapidly advance based primarily on knowledge and demonstrated skills. While it’s obviously not the norm, there are not many fields that can offer six-figure salaries and VP titles to twenty-year-olds with the regularity that occurs in IT.
Killing your golden goose
Critical to any field is regularly refreshing it with young talent. People new to the field bring in different experiences, expectations, and skill sets. If you’ve been around IT for any length of time, you may have witnessed how new management or even outside influence can engender a technical “renaissance” at a company, where new technologies and methodologies are introduced seemingly overnight.
With a union, maximum protection is earned through seniority. If you’ve ever witnessed a staff reduction at a unionized school, the people with the lowest seniority (i.e. the newest teachers) are the first to go. In IT, where new people often bring in new and different knowledge, routinely punishing the “new guys” during every economic downturn is a recipe for stagnation for the field.
The question of worker exploitation
Despite all this high-minded talk of knowledge and merit-driven success, are IT workers “exploited”? That might be a loaded and overly dramatic word when considering the plight of far more difficult circumstances, but there are certainly people in IT who put in more effort than the corresponding reward they receive.
While a union might offer some protection, an alternative solution is to manage your career as if you were a tiny corporation. Many workers complain about a lack of employer loyalty, but this is a two-way street. You’re always free to say “no” to yet another working weekend, turn off the mobile device during dinner, or ultimately take your skills elsewhere. It may strike some as selfish and perhaps conniving, but your employer will likely consider replacing you when the need arises, so there’s no harm in considering replacing them on similar terms.
After long hours and over a frosty beverage, a worker’s revolt of sorts in the IT industry may sound like a good idea. Defined hours and benefits, and an overarching organization designed to keep your employer in line, certainly has its positive aspects. However, that stability comes with a trade-off, one that I find too heavy a price to bear. At its best, IT offers young and old a dynamic career where merit and skill trump seniority, pricey academic credentials, and even deep pockets.