The sun creeps over the pines on the ridge of University Drive in Durham on Wednesday morning as my friend T and I carpool to the offices of Manpower. We’re in search of one of the much-coveted production jobs at IBM, the largest computer-maker in the world.
The downsizing of the American workforce and the shift to offshore production in the sweatshops of Southeast Asia and Latin America has been one of the dramatic changes of the last decade. You can still get a production job at IBM, though. You just don’t technically work for IBM.
Manpower is in a row of neat offices that also includes other temporary labor agencies and some realtors. L, with her shaved head and muscular build, snorts, “Manpower? What about womanpower?”
In the front office a bulletin board informs us that Manpower pays $8 per hour and lists various training times. The receptionist ushers us into a small conference room. L and I are both chafing at the controlled atmosphere of this office, but we have no right to be smug. The other five applicants–all African-American–sit with quiet, studious composure.
Manpower touts itself as the largest flexible staffing company in the world, with more than 2,400 offices in 42 different countries, but Hoover’s Business Index lists it as second, after Adecco.
A receptionist walks in and announces unceremoniously, “If you have a criminal record of drug use, assault or theft, you cannot work for Manpower.”
One applicant rises and says, “Well, that rules me out.”
“Yeah,” says the receptionist sympathetically, “you may as well be honest and save yourself the three-hour training.”
Later, when our trainer comes in, we sit down with a dizzying array of forms. L asks him if we will be subjected to a drug test.
“You will be tested for drugs,” he affirms.
She shrugs her shoulders, “I guess I’m outta here, Jordan.”
The form asks for a detailed rundown of our skills and what jobs we are interested in, everything from light assembly to clerical to warehouse to construction. It asks such questions as “Are you interested in work involving rapid, continuous wrist movements along with hand-eye coordination to complete precise tasks?” The response should be “yes,” because the jobs they are offering are first, second and third shift production at IBM’s six production plants in Research Triangle Park.
Most of the people in this room have been in the workforce for at least 10 years, and some are in the midst of intense vocational technical training for a career in computers, but the setting is pretty much like a high-school guidance counselor’s office. A poster with a photo of a matchbook going up in flames says, “Attitudes are contagious–is yours worth catching?” Applicants receive a packet that includes a safety handbook, which the trainer tells us to skim through and then sign the sheet in the back. Employees of Manpower are also required to sign an Employee Confidentiality Agreement which states that “all information to which I have access while on assignment by Employer is considered proprietary to Employer’s customers.”
Of course, companies have always claimed as their intellectual property the real, lived-in experience of their workers. It’s nearly always one of the terms of employment taken for granted, whether it’s for the purpose of keeping trade secrets or minimizing workplace agitating.
As we muddle through the forms, the man across from me grumbles, “I hate temp services. You can’t get nothing permanent.” He is working towards his Microsoft certification.
In the training video, the narrator cheerfully reminds us, “Never ask the customer about pay. Remember, you are an employee of Manpower.” And later she reiterates, “Our customers’ confidentiality is important. Don’t talk about your job outside the workplace.”
What is unnerving about this arrangement is that it reinforces to employees that they should not invest themselves in their work as a claim of pride or a fight for just conditions in the workplace. When you’re on temporary assignment, you know that the door is always open for you to leave. If you have a problem with your working conditions, a sympathetic Manpower staffer can conveniently reassign you to a different work site.
Temporary employment services have exploded in the United States and Western Europe in the last decade. Manpower’s “Guide for New Industrial Temporaries” explains it in glowing terms of flexibility and efficiency–an extra service that benefits both companies and temporary employees without affecting permanent employees. Businesses utilize temporaries, the brochure says, “during staff vacations, peak-season overloads, long-term projects–in fact, whenever demand gets ahead of supply.”
IBM, like many other American companies, is undergoing a massive casualization of its workforce. And temporary contracts may not be so temporary, after all. The Microsoft student tells me that he knows someone who worked for IBM for five years as a temporary. In fact, many manufacturing workers in the Triangle end up bouncing from one labor-contracting company to another without ever finding a permanent position.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time–about 10 years ago–when IBM had a reputation as a company that rewarded loyal employees with solid wages, good benefits and generous retirement packages. In 1992, faced with declining profits, the company instituted a massive layoff of its workforce. In One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, William Greider recounts, “One of the thunderous complaints from finance capital was that these companies (IBM and others) were being too sentimental about their workforces.”
So this is why we’re at Manpower looking for a job, not at IBM. We watch the training video, most of us with our eyes glazed over in amused boredom. We’ve heard these sales pitches for temporary transition jobs before. The video touts its training programs as one of the biggest benefits. It tells us to ask about a long-term benefits package. In fact, Manpower guarantees paid holidays, vacation pay, life and health insurance–after a full year of uninterrupted employment. The company even gives its long-term employees the option of paying into a retirement plan. It sounds great, but no one believes it. If employers were really that reliable, why would we be looking for work at Manpower, the surrogate parent of absentee corporate employment?
I can’t help feeling just a little insulted when the video narrator cheerily announces that if I make it through 500 hours without an accident, I can receive a Manpower T-shirt. Even more amazing, after 1,500 hours without an accident, I will be sent a safety catalogue with different products to choose from: safety glasses, boots, heavy jackets. It seems these might come in handy before you start working, not after 1,500 hours.
After the video, we take an inspection test with diagrams of C-clamps, circuit breakers and gears. Our job is to identify the defects, missing parts, enlarged characteristics and differences of shading. Then we take a sorting and checking test known as the Ultradex T, exclusively used by Manpower. We are required to rapidly sort a stack of cards into the bins of a small plastic case.
After passing Manpower’s preliminary tests, I have to set up an appointment for a urine test to prove that I am substance-free. As I’m waiting to get directions, a clean-cut man in his 30s with a demeanor of harassed tidiness fidgets in front of me. He is agitated about a problem with his paycheck and wants to express his dissatisfaction to a supervisor. He says his paycheck was withheld because he supposedly failed to return his badge. “This is ridiculous,” he says, “because I was never issued a badge from IBM in the first place.”
He has been trying to resolve this issue for three weeks now. The receptionist listens politely while the trainer furrows his brows skeptically.
Later, in the parking lot, the man tells me, “I would not work for Manpower. They’re not worth it.” Clearly frustrated and contemptuous, he says, “I always had problems getting paid.” He shrugs, “That’s all right. Believe me, I’ve got a real job now.”
The assignments don’t have to be temporary, I am constantly reminded. They last as long as you keep showing up for work. From an employee’s perspective, there’s nothing very flexible about it though. You can choose between first, second and third shift, but that’s about it. Once you sign up, you’re expected to show up for work five days a week and sometimes, with short notice, on weekends.
IBM is one of many companies who have decided to contract out their hiring. Several “flexible staffing companies” in the Triangle offer to provide labor for almost any industry. Staffmark Medical Staffing provides registered nurses and X-ray technicians to area hospitals. Accountemps and Accountants On Call provide workers for the banking and finance sector. Headway provides administrators and clerical workers for corporate offices. Even graphic designers are up for rent by Creative Freelancers.
Tomorrow I’m making a dash to RTP to catch the 7 a.m. production shift. I’ll be putting disc drives and circuit boards in plastic processor casings to turn out servers for IBM. I’ll come back out the gate through the metal detector past the intense gaze of the Wackenhut security guard. Will I get started in a great new career at IBM? Probably not. Does IBM covet my loyalty as a dedicated production worker? Possibly, but not likely.
What I’ll get out of it will be a little extra money to shop for a better job, and IBM will have some savings in labor costs to pass on to their investors.