When I Learned Firsthand Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs

“You guard your hopes and you pocket your dreams. You’d trade it all to avoid an unpleasant scene.” –Billy Squier, “In the Dark”

I was wet behind the ears.

That whole summer of 1981, the produce manager and the main produce clerk would tell me how wet behind the ears I was every single early morning I came to work. My only saving grace was the sweet rock that blared from the banged-up radio with a makeshift hanger antenna; the first song I heard the very first morning of work was Billy Squier’s “In the Dark.”

Of course I felt wet behind the ears; I was young and inexperienced. In fact, I wasn’t even 16 yet when the non-union supermarket hired me to work in the produce department.

Field work is hard work for little pay

But I had my eye on the prize — my first car. All summer long I worked split shifts from 6 to 10 in the morning, and then again from 3 to 7 at night.

What I wasn’t fully aware of was the fact that we were in a recession, unemployment hovered at 7.5 percent, and only a year and a half later we’d be at almost 11 percent unemployment with nearly 11 million people out of work. What I did learn that year was that there were two symbiotic economic systems in California’s Central Valley bread basket — (illegal) Mexican migrant labor that worked the farms, and the rest of us.

The crossroads for me was our back dock behind the supermarket, where all produce deliveries were made daily. Our large and offensively snarky produce manager haggled, purchased and rejected the orders delivered to that back dock. Usually it was the local farmers who delivered their goods, but sometimes it was the (illegal and legal) foremen who delivered the produce orders.

What I learned from the latter were the crappy working conditions out in the fields for very little pay. It depressed me a little, but again, I had my eye on the prize and I wasn’t even 16 yet (I did eventually get that first car and I worked at the supermarket for over two years).

In the “world of work” today we talk so much about not-so-happy knowledge workers in global corporate offices longing for something else. In fact, according to the latest Gallup Employee Engagement Index, 71 percent of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work.

Why Americans won’t do dirty jobs

But there’s a whole other world of work, once that includes those not-so-lovely jobs that Americans stereotypically refuse to take. And the disruptive yet transparent “back dock” revealing this work reality to us all now is Alabama.

According to a must-read BusinessWeek article Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs,” Alabama enacted an immigration law in September that requires police to question people they suspect might be in the U.S. illegally and punish businesses that hire them. The law, known as HB56, is intended to scare off undocumented workers, and in that regard it’s been a success. It’s also driven away legal immigrants who feared being harassed.

You may have read about it and the back-breaking jobs that were supposed to be freed up for (legal) Americans are just not being filled. Again, crappy working conditions for very little pay, and not just in the fields — we’re also talking about in hotels, restaurants, chicken plants, fish plants and construction.

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The argument is that “illegals” are taking jobs from legal Americans. But so far in Alabama the reality is Americans aren’t taking the jobs back.

The reasons for that are plentiful, but primarily, a living wage just can’t be made and there are little to no other benefits. There are those businesses that are evolving their business models to create more competitive pay scales, but it’s still too early to see if that’ll help them fill the jobs they’ll need to remain competitive locally and globally.

I mean, $2 per basket plus $600 to clear three acres when the vines were completely picked clean? I thought I worked my butt off for minimum wage as a teenager keeping the produce racks full at the supermarket.

Americans aren’t that desperate yet

I also have to reference this anecdote from the bigger BusinessWeek article, because it’s yet another human resource reality of the supposed work of work evolution they’re experiencing in Alabama (and elsewhere):

We’re getting applications, but you have to weed through those three and four times,” says Amy Hart, the company’s human resources manager. A job fair she held attracted 50 people, and Hart offered positions to 13 of them. Two failed the drug test. One applicant asked her out on a date during the interview. “People reapply who have been terminated for stealing, for fighting, for drugs,” she says. “Nope, not that desperate yet!”

Nope, not that desperate yet. However, with 14 million Americans still out of work and too many of those becoming more unemployable by the minute, 71 percent of those working actively disengaged in their jobs, jobs that aren’t being filled and economic models that no longer work in a globally competitive world, the eye on the new prize is painfully clear.

Work evolves? Yes, no and maybe — I’m still feeling pretty wet behind the ears.

You?

This was originally published on Kevin Grossman’s blog at Marcom HRsay.

Kevin W. Grossman is the Talent Board president of global programs responsible for all aspects of the Candidate Experience Awards worldwide, the first nonprofit research organization focused on the elevation and promotion of a quality candidate experience. He also produces and hosts multiple “world of work” podcasts including The CandEs Shop Talk and WorkingTech. A certified Talent Acquisition Strategist (TAS) and Human Capital Strategist (HCS) by HCI, he has over 19 years of domain expertise in the human resource and talent acquisition industry.

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