Saturday, January 19, 2013

Of Wal-Mart, veterans, and the nature of jobs

I think many of us were somewhat impressed with Wal-Mart's announcement that beginning on Memorial Day, they will offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran that applies within a year of ending active duty.

There's no question that the unemployment rate for U.S. vets is too high--consistently 20-30% above the rate for non-vets.

And it's refreshing to see the private sector step up after years of veteran hiring initiatives coming primarily from the government (which is not the driver of employment, at least not recently).

So kudos to them, it continues their public commitment to hiring veterans, and it's a bold gesture (although I wish the one-year time limitation was relaxed).

But what I found even more interesting than the announcement was the reaction from the veteran support community.  For example, Yana Walton from the Retail Action Project said (from the article linked above), "Workers are going to make sure that the kind of jobs that they’ve announced for veterans are the kind of jobs that workers need.  That means enough hours and living wages and jobs with benefits."

Other workers' rights groups have pointed out that these jobs are likely to include low wages and limited benefits.

Also interesting were the competing stories for why Wal-Mart likes veterans.  Wal-Mart's U.S. CEO, Bill Simon, said veterans have a record of performing under pressure, are quick leaders, and team players.  It's that last claim that is reflected in a response from Dr. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who said, "'They like military people because they have a sense of hierarchy and a commitment to the organization they are in.  And that's important to Wal-Mart.''

Frankly I find both comments to be slightly insulting to veterans, treating them as if they are a homogenous group.  I also find it insulting for anyone to assume that veterans are going to leap to embrace any job, regardless of the duties, pay, and benefits.

Some may see this as looking a gift horse in the mouth.  I look at it as supporting the dignity of workers and those seeking employment.

One of the most interesting debates that has occurred over the last several years of high unemployment has been about the nature of jobs that people want.  Certainly having a job and an income is better than nothing (at least in most cases), but many unemployed aren't interested in any job, they want a job that holds some promise--of good working conditions, of stability, and of promise of future opportunities.

Sadly, that may not be the types of jobs that are being created, at least not in the retail sector.  And it begs a larger conversation about education and skill mismatch, as well as how organizations define qualifications.

I also find this fascinating from an assessment standpoint.  To promise jobs to a single group of individuals without regard for assessing whether the individual applicants possess the qualifications the employer is seeking for a particular position is, well, frankly stupid from an organizational effectiveness standpoint.  This is either a leap of faith on the part of Wal-Mart, or (more likely) a calculated risk given their high turnover rate and the types of jobs veterans are likely to get.

It was with these thoughts rolling around in my brain that I watched my 5-year old's teacher open the door to her kindergarten students the other day.  I wondered what it was like for her day after day--the ups (children learning), the downs (noise)--and what attracted and kept her in the job.  I would guess that most teachers that stay teachers do so because they receive a significant amount of satisfaction from seeing students achieve and change in positive ways.  It's not an easy job, and they don't make a ton of money, so something must be keeping them there.

This made me think about why people apply for jobs at all.  Sure, for some people a job is a job--it almost doesn't matter what it is.  But I think this is probably the minority of job seekers, and it may be decreasing in prevalence.  And the historically (and I would argue misleading) high rate of job satisfaction may be losing its strength as an argument as people ask better questions like whether you would make the same career decision

So if more and more people are looking not only for a job, but a meaningful, rewarding one, what can we as assessment professionals do?

For starters, we can do more thinking about how to accurately describe jobs.  Regular readers know I'm a big fan of realistic job previews and that I think organizations generally do a terrible job at letting applicants know what they're getting themselves into.

Second, we can do a better job at assessing people's motivations for applying.  We've all seen the "why are you interested in this job?" question that seems entirely predictable and pointless but often yields surprisingly honest results.  If we proceed on the assumption that job performance and retention is driven at least in part by the match between a person's interests and motivations and what the job offers, we do a pretty sad job of measuring this.  Most of our measures deal with job-related knowledge or skills.  Don't get me wrong--this is really important.  But (in addition to personality) it leaves out a huge factor, namely the motivation for applying.

We should be providing more information, asking more questions, digging deeper, investigating new ways of using technology, and treating applicant motivation with a renewed sense of seriousness.

There may have been a time when measuring motivation to apply was considered secondary or unimportant, but that time has passed.