Ever get the disturbing feeling that you’re going backwards even though all your key indicators suggest you should be going full speed ahead? That’s how the American economy seems to be heading right now, and I have a theory as to why it’s happening. It’s an issue of people and how their circumstances put them irreconcilably at odds with their employer’s expectations.
Saturday morning, my phone alerted me to a new episode of APM’s Marketplace podcast titled “US hiring bounces back in October with 531,000 jobs added.” I started to listen, then paused to read a text from a young fellow that started “Just learned something you might be interested in.” Between the two stories, the poignant anecdote from the frustrated worker seemed more compelling than the professional newscast trying to explain official government statistics. Not that the Marketplace article was wrong; I just thought the macro-level analysis didn’t drill deep enough into our current predicament to explain why productivity, morale, and our various supply chains all seem to be completely borked.
The young man – let’s call him Arturo  – dropped by and shared his story over a pint.
“I learned something today,” Arturo began. “The loaders in our warehouse complex are ‘graded’ on an arbitrary individual performance metric that actively disincentivizes them from doing the work needed for our site to meet its corporate goals.”
Arturo works in a massive distribution centre that employs hundreds of “unskilled” workers.  His job straddles the line between white- and blue-collar work, as he’s responsible for scheduling outbound freight. His role requires him to coordinate with the “pickers” in the warehouse and the “loaders” on the freight dock to deconflict issues. That’s where his new story came from.
“I discovered that the managers over the loading dock track and measures all of the loaders’ scan rates. That is, the number of times per hour that each loader uses their laser barcode scanner gun thing to record an action taken on a piece of freight. When the pickers deliver a box full of compressor blades to the loading area, for example, the loader scans the box ‘in,’ then scans it a second time once it’s added to shipping pallet, then scans it a third time when the pallet is cleared to be loaded onto a trailer.
“The dock managers worked out a capricious metric of a certain number of scans-per-hour that an ‘ideal’ worker needs to meet or exceed to be considered ‘acceptably productive.’ If a worker doesn’t get ‘enough’ scans recorded in a day, it suggests the worker is slacking off.”
“Why did the managers choose ‘scans-per-hour’ as their metric?” I asked.
“Because it’s the only ‘objective’ metric they could come up with,” Arturo explained. “HR won’t accept a manager’s complaint that they ‘think’ a worker is ‘lazy.’ That’s what this is all about: during the normal workday, there’s far too much chaos for the managers to look up anyone’s metrics. The only time the dock managers look up a worker’s scans-per-hour numbers is when they’re fishing for a justification to fire them … Everyone on the floor knows this.”
I nodded. I’ve seen leaders weild similar arbitrary production metrics like a truncheon to motivate their workers to toe the line when their cheesy motivational posters come up short. This is particularly common in workplaces where the line workers aren’t unionized and it’s every-man-for-himself. Arturo’s company is, as you’d expect, strongly anti-union.
“This is where it gets stupid,” Arturo said, holding his empty glass out for a refill. “The workers all know that they have a target number of scans to make every hour so they make scanning things their primary focus until they ‘hit their number’ every hour.”
I nodded and filled Arturo’s glass. He’s a college graduate, as are most of the people he works with. Like most young workers of his generation, he followed all the rules for preparing for adulthood: he got good grades in high school, earned his Eagle Scout rank, went to university, got a degree, and completed an internship … According to the auld standards, he and his peers should have landed entry-level white-collar jobs that paid them enough to move out of their parents’ homes and start their own lives. The keyword in this paragraph is “should.”
For reference, MIT’s living wage calculator figures that a single adult with no spouse or children in 2021 needs to earn a minimum of $15.21 per hour ($31,634 per year) to be able to live on their own in Dallas … after their student loans are paid off. Arturo and his mates all had hefty loans to pay down and needed something closer to $20/hour before the pandemic … Meanwhile, rents in Dallas have increased 15.5% in 2021 alone. Per the Dallas Business Journal, “Median rents in Dallas for September now stand at $1,140 for a one-bedroom apartment.” That amounts to a staggering 43.25% of the pre-taxed earnings of a single adult with no dependents earning MIT’s “living” wage. Not a lot left over for student loan repayments. Or unexpected bills. Or an extended period “between jobs” where they must live off their personal savings because Texas’s social safety net is a joke.
Painfully aware of just how tough market conditions were, Arturo submitted dozens of applications after graduating university and never got an interview. He – and most of his mates – couldn’t break into the office worker sphere where there were far too few entry-level openings. Desperate, he got a junior job in a warehouse making significantly less than the “living” wage, knowing full well that if he did anything to jeopardize his job, he’d have a danged difficult time finding a new one. HIs mates all found themselves in the same predicament.
Makes sense then that a loading dock worker might be laser-focused on keeping their personal productivity metrics up, right? Do what you must to keep your crappy job, no matter who else it might impact. After all, the only person looking out for you is you … not your boss.
As such, these young, clever, college-educated workers quickly found and exploited the flaw in their managers’ metrics system: parcels. Per Arturo, cargo being moved on pallets requires three scans (as described above). Parcels, though, don’t. In their warehouse, a “parcel” is a piece of cargo that isn’t palatized for commercial ground, air, or freight shipment. These are more like consumer purchases that you’d make at Amazon: boxes that arrive at the warehouse, get a new label slapped on them, and then get pushed out via the usual carriers (FedEx, UPS, etc.).
Parcels, Arturo explained as he quaffed his lager, only get scanned once. The loading dock workers are required to scan each parcel’s new outbound label to “release” it for shipment. Then they’re expected to carry the parcel onto a courier truck. Except … they don’t. The scanned parcels are tossed into a pile in the corner of the warehouse and are never touched again until someone from Arturo’s office comes downstairs to sort out why the *#&¢ a thousand parcels that should have moved out the previous week are still still piling up, untouched, on the dock.
It makes perfect sense when you think about it. A loader can maintain their required productivity metrics by scanning cargo onto pallets or by scanning newly labelled parcels, but they’ll tank their metrics if they “waste” time loading parcels onto trailers. Time spent carrying boxes is time spent not scanning … which is the only activity that “matters” according to their supervisors. Ergo, scans become the highest priority while loading cargo on the loading dock becomes task that only fools and newbies waste time on.
The inevitable result of this optimized behaviour is that the entire site gets dinged by corporate management every month for failing to move hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of small freight because no one will carry the released boxes onto a lorry until a manager from another department throws a fit. It’s an abysmally counterproductive behaviour from a macro perspective, but it makes perfect sense to the young and desperate workers who are compelled to put their individual survival ahead of the company’s revenue targets.
This is what you get when companies treat their workers like fungible commodities … These young people experience working as disposable meat robots undeserving of compassion, respect, or basic courtesy (to say nothing of job security). In such a hostile work environment, why would any worker put the company’s goals above (or even on par with) their own? The company sure as hell isn’t, so the company receives the exact same level of loyalty from its workers that it has for its workers … none. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
This is not to say that Arturo’s pals on the loading dock are being actively malicious or engaging in sabotage. They’re not “sticking it to the man” … like there was anything a single worker could do to meaningfully “harm” a billion-dollar corporation. These workers are just doing what they must to sustain an awful job that they’re overqualified for and don’t enjoy because it’s the only paying option they have in an economy that’s supposedly “bouncing back.”
As such, I think Arturo’s “ground truth” is going to put paid to economists’ rosy predictions of a return to normalcy post-pandemic. People will “get back to work,” sure, but that doesn’t mean that output is likely to ever return to pre-pandemic levels. Not until we have a reckoning in this country about the importance of balanced labour relations.
Remember this when your small parcel inexplicably arrives a week late. It’s not that there weren’t enough cargo containers to pack it in or enough truck drivers to haul it or because a cargo ship got stuck in a canal. It’s probably because a desperate worker didn’t dare “waste” their time loading in on a truck thanks to a poor manager’s productivity metrics solution … Something that no one needs when trained leaders treat their workers fairly.
 Not his real name and these aren’t his exact words. I’m changing them enough to prevent his story from being traced back by people who might want to retaliate against him for airing his organisation’s dirty laundry.
 Don’t get me started on why that term is condescending horse manure or we’ll be here for fifty thousand angry words.