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Sunday, June 24, 2012

More Than Qualified (Kids Today)


Several summers ago I hired a nice, well-mannered person to lend a hand in my high-tech workplace. Pleasant enough, good sense of humor, polite in terms of the pleases and thank-yous. Spoke several languages fluently. More or less showed up for work in decent attire, albeit a tad wrinkly. And SO young. Privileged enough for an excellent education, worldly enough to have needed extra pages added to a well-traveled passport, but too young to rent a car.

My first Millennial.

I think back on this experience frequently, because it bothers me that I couldn't find something else I could have tried, some power I lacked that would have helped mold this young American possibility. I was willing to spend a lot of time training, and I tried! I trained, I counseled, I supervised, I demonstrated. I held regular meetings about job performance. I always led these conversations with what tasks were done wonderfully -- it is always important to praise and reinforce good behaviors -- and then I talked about what expectations weren't quite met. 

In terms of measuring positive contribution to the workplace, the gap in our respective opinion of this person's performance continues to boggle my mind to this day.

Specifics? Learn-able things, nothing hardcore. Basic things. Like the requirement to put a PO number into a certain field on a freight transaction, so that when it came time to reconcile that invoice, I wouldn't have to spend extra time hunting down the customer job. Just one number, in one field. Yet time and again, I would look at where the PO number should be -- blank. Again. Numerous times I held a demo, so that it was crystal clear. "Here, see on this invoice where the PO would be? See how it is blank..." I got down to kindergarten basics: colors. I pinned a printout to the wall, bright yellow highlighting the PO field. 

This kid forgot that PO number every fucking time.

I'm happy that the color blue brings out my eyes, because I talked myself every shade of it from cerulean to Booberry Crunch.


Oh, you're fluent in three languages? In which one of them does "urgent overnite" mean "space out and play Solitaire?"

"This package must ship overnite to arrive first thing Monday morning" is the sort of thing I might urgently say on a Friday, handing over a box. So Monday morning, I'd log in to track the package only to find that it didn't ship. But how could this be? Why not? I thought I made it clear on Friday that this had to arrive in Los Angeles today? By way of explanation, a blank stare, a mumbled "Oh...I didn't know..."

Mixing up orders, forgetting what you were just doing, wandering off in the middle of a task -- this kind of thing happening in a coffee shop is not a big deal. Oh, you wanted hazelnut and that's french vanilla? So sorry, let me get you a fresh cup. But in a high-tech, high-dollar transaction? It's an expensive logistical nightmare and I gotta talk to the pissed off customer.


Oh you lived in France for two years? Yes I am impressed by that, but you seem to be trying to send a fax from the copy machine for the fourth time this week. Remember last time you nearly made 781 copies until I pointed out that 781 is the area code for Norwood where someone was waiting for that fax?

I don't know what was primarily to blame for the whole situation, whether it was this employee's casual under-performance at the job, or overconfidence in the great and awesome things that would be getting accomplished, if only they weren't so darn busy ignoring the work I had assigned.

My feeling is that there was intelligence there, not stupidity, but it was cloaked under a crushing mantle of "Generation Why" entitlement. These kids who were raised to think that they are special. Everybody wins. No losers. The world owes them a living. They are above entry-level anything. That, plus a combination of forgetfulness and apathy meant that I hadmore work to do, instead of less, since the person hired to help me couldn't remember anything and seemed to be allergic to taking notes. 

I know, kid, it's not glamorous work. Do you think I wrote about THIS shit when I did my "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" essay in fourth grade? No, I didn't. It may not be glamorous, but you should still have a desire to do it right. Could you at least perhaps try not to yawn in my face while I'm explaining how we do inventory here?


Oh your progressive school didn't believe in grades? And you plan to get a Phd before you're 30? That's amazing, but look closer at what you're filling out there -- that isn't a Fed Ex airbill, that's the catering fax form for Chang's Happy Dragon. I need a package shipped to New York overnite, what you're doing is getting ready to order fried dumplings.

Numerous discussions were held about the absolutely vital requirement to ask questions if there were any doubts. I cannot possibly anticipate the kinds of things you don't know! For example, it simply did not occur to me to ask "do you know how to address an envelope?"

So imagine my befuddlement when this person wanted a meeting with me and my boss. The topic? A grievance. It would seem they felt undervalued.

Apparently after working for me for nearly a year, the novelty had worn off the tasks for which I needed someone -- there was apparently no joy in filing, faxing, sorting mail, shipping or covering the phones.

No shit.

I'll never forget the earnest tone, the dead serious insistence that a promotion was due. A big promotion. "I am MORE than qualified to do what Phil does."

You're MORE than qualified? For Phil's job? That's amazing. Because Phil is in his forties. He's a senior-level engineer. He's got a Master's degree and fifteen years of experience in automated control of the Yokogawa Digital Oscilloscope and Firebird T1 testing tools. 

You, by contrast, aren't old enough to buy beer and cannot tell the copier from the fax machine. So unless by "more than qualified" you mean "dreaming in five dimensions," then no.

Amazingly our parting of ways was not the result of firing, but quitting. I was out of town on business on the day it happened. I got a phone call from a coworker. "Um, guess who just quit?" 

In the ensuing years I think I heard, maybe via Facebook, that a college degree was in fact in the making, which is wonderful. Some experience, some reality, some real-life bumps and scrapes, and I am more than sure there could be a good employee in there somewhere. 

Best of wishes and good luck, kid.

My one piece of advice is simply this: Life itself is the testing tool by which most of us learn to re-calibrate our self-valuating device. Get a Master's in that, and you should be just fine.