Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thoughts On Meaningful Work

I went out ot lunch today at a local place that sits on the first floor of one of the buildings in our corporate complex. I haven't been here since I had the flu, because after eating their baked potato soup, I promptly went home and vomited.

I've been coming here for two years, and the turnover in the waitstaff is predictable. Most people try to stay out of food service if they can, or use it to pay bills to get through school or divorces. For some, a very few, like, say, my parents, it becomes a career. But not always because you want it to.

It's not usually you're first choice.

You don't sit around in fourth grade and say, "I want to be a waitress with I grow up." And if you do like the work, you're not supposed to.

I've always had a terror of these sorts of jobs, likely inspired by my parents, who dreamed of something like what I've now got: my ability to walk out of college and at the very least get myself a 401 (K) plan, health benefits, enough money to pay rent in a decent town, time to pursue other passions, holidays off, paid vacation.

They didn't want me to spend my relative youth the way they did, working 12-hour shifts, weekends, holidays, coming home smelling of burger grease and french fries.

The irony, of course, is that my parents did achieve that comfortable white collar life, the dog and the big house and the (mostly) college educated children, a little something for retirement.

And they did it flipping burgers. It got them where they wanted to be, just a little later in life than they probably wanted.

But when I'm here at lunch, watching a handful of the servers still working food service, paying bills, I wonder - do they have a plan? Do they want to run this place? Or is this enough? And are they OK with that? Am I? Because some people are OK with it.

I wasn't.

Certainly, there are things I like about all of the jobs I've had. I worked harder as a waitress and had less freedom than the job I have now, and I make twice as much money now, only the labor we exert in serving others is seen as a lesser labor than sitting on our asses typing out words and numbers and running paper reports about actual work done by others.

I take some comfort in the fact that the tower crews whose work I report on make more money than I do. You know how they get up those 200 ft cell phone towers?

They climb.

I think I have some guilt about how I work. I have some guilt about being on the other side of the table. I don't understand money. I don't understand the value of work. I look around at what everyone else makes for what they do, for how hard they work, and it boggles my mind at how undervalued the people who actually do things are. We pay managers six figures to run reports and bitch about how they don't know what's going on in the field. You want to know what's going on in the field? Put on a hard hat and get into the field. I spend all day reviewing tower audits, and I've never been to a cell site.

I remember, while working in the corporate office at the burger joint, when the VPs realized the company had grown so big that over half the office staff hadn't come up from behind the grill. They'd never seen a deep fryer up close. My mom helped spearhead a campaign to encourage office folks to get their food handlers' cards and go and help out in one of the burger joints for a day.

For paper pushes, it was an eye opener.

And, I think, for some, deeply satisfying.

We get so divorced from real, tangible work, hunched at our desks, making up reports, fielding information. But at day's end you have nothing to show for it but a paycheck.

For me, hey, that's really all I need.

But I must say, there are days when I'd like to learn how to climb a 200 ft tower and replace an antenna.

They'd pay me more, too.

2 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

We've got a diner near the office, a real honest to goodness diner where the mighty and the small rub elbows to eat a quick bite. Most times it's our default dinner out due to the decent food and great, quick service. They used to be open 'til 12am, but have cut back on the hours in recent years. No matter how long the wait line is, they'll usually get you in inside of 15 min. They do this with good management and good solid staff. It's also about the only place I go where the waitresses (yes, they're all female) are consistently older. 40's and 50's are well represented, with a mode of about mid 30's I imagine. The place works like a clock due to the old fashioned professionalism of that staff, from the short order cooks from Nigeria and the Islands to the bus boys from the projects, to the women who form the bedrock of the staffing at the counters and on their feet, a constant whirl of activity and efficiency.

So yeah, I appreciate the younger eye candy just as much as the next bloke, but please, step it up and feed me. That's why I'm here. These gals at the diner know what they're about and know what they're doing. They get generous tips, and I see the same ones year after year there. There's turnover to be sure, but some of the staff have been there awhile.

So just knowing how to deliver good service can be a valuable asset in any field, and people do appreciate it almost anywhere. Plumbers that show up on time. Contractors that call before they show up. Art Framers who can do a great rush job over the weekend for a special event. These guys & gals get my business & my thanks and appreciation for doing well at what they're doing. A regular college lad going thru the motions as a waitron who does not know the goods or the food well does not serve either his customers, his boss or himself very well by doing a lackadaisical or merely perfunctory job. No matter how tight his buns or how swell he looks in the uniform, there's a job to be done and a task at hand. Your folks knew that about decent service, and they've prospered. It's a lesson that bears and deserves to be repeated, no matter where you are or what you're doing. You can do well by doing good.

Cheers, 'VJ'  

Posted by VJ

jeff said...

Having done a lot of service work in my life, and for the first time having a desk job (it's still a kind of service work, I think, but for now I won't quibble with myself about that), I very much get where you're coming from. There is no doubt in my mind that I worked harder working at a cafe than I do working behind a desk--and yet, I get paid a lot more (well, not a LOT, but some more, maybe). And there's guilt involved there, too, for me; in particular there's a guy who comes to clean the office twice a month who works for a few hours while I sit at my desk and blog (sometimes). Once in a while I clean the office before he gets here and give him the day off, because I just think it's lame that he gets paid half of what I do to work while I sit and blog.

On the other hand, when I did service work, I would get lots of people who worked in offices (from people answering phones to highly paid lawyers) telling me that they oftentimes wished they had my job, or that they wished they could go back to working in such a job.

Just my 2 cents... 

Posted by jeffliveshere