Should IT Workers Get Paid To Do Nothing?

The jobs bank that the auto industry was forced to create in the 1980s has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to auto workers who have been displaced by automation, so that those workers can continue to collect paychecks. Should the IT industry create a similar program?

U.S. auto makers have been pleading their case for why they need a federal financial bailout to keep operating. The United Auto Workers, the union that represents many nonmanagement auto workers, has acknowledged it must concede some of the employee benefits that were written into labor contracts over the years. Grudgingly, the UAW has agreed to give up the jobs bank program.

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Have you heard about this program? My jaw just about hit the floor when I read the details about it.

The program started in the 1980s when American automobile manufacturers wanted to boost productivity by increasing the automation used in their plants and using more-flexible manufacturing techniques. Because the UAW feared massive job losses from automation, union leaders pushed the auto makers and a major supplier to create a form of private unemployment called the jobs bank. General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and Delphi agreed to put hundreds of millions of dollars (each!) into the "bank" so that displaced workers could continue to collect a paycheck—whether they worked or not.

In 2005, more than 12,000 people were paid not to work. What's more, they received as much as 95 percent of their salary plus benefits, such as health insurance. All they had to do was go to their plant or a union hall every day and wait around to see if their former employer would put them back to work. Maybe they were assigned to perform volunteer work in their communities, such as sorting clothes at a donation center. Maybe they played cards with their buddies all day. Either way, they weren't making cars but they still took home a handsome paycheck.

I propose that the U.S. IT industry create a similar jobs bank for technical professionals who are losing their jobs because of offshoring, data-center consolidation projects, obsolescence, increasing automation and other situations that trim the need for IT workers. Here are my initial thoughts on how it would work; the details will need to be refined later.

When an organization undertakes any kind of technology-based project that automates tasks previously done by a person, the company must put money into the bank. This would apply, for instance, when a company deploys desktop management software that enables the management and support of PCs from a central location rather than sending technical foot-soldiers from desk to desk to install software or update configurations.

When a company sends any type of IT work offshore, it must put money in the bank to pay the salaries of U.S. workers who now are out of a job. This would help all the software developers whose jobs moved to India, Israel and Eastern Europe, as well as the help-desk staff who were forced to turn over their headsets and support scripts to their much cheaper counterparts in Latin America, the Caribbean and India.

Organizations that do any kind of data-center consolidation or server-virtualization projects must contribute to the bank. That's because their projects are aimed at using fewer resources—people, as well as devices—to do more work. Such productivity boosters require a hefty deposit to the bank.

Suppliers, vendors and consultants aren't exempt from the jobs bank program, either. If they sell or recommend a product or service that is designed to increase productivity by consolidating or automating processes, and this results in a reduced need for labor, they must contribute to the jobs bank. If they source any component of a solution from overseas, such as motherboards designed in Korea, they must make a deposit to the bank. After all, at one time those motherboards were designed in the good old USA, but those engineers are long idled by global competition.

By now you realize my ideas are completely facetious. The notion of the auto workers' jobs bank seems just as crazy to me, but obviously someone sold the idea more than 20 years ago. No wonder it's an industry on the verge of collapse. More than a billion dollars were spent on the program. Geez, for a billion dollars, all those idle auto workers could have been trained for more secure jobs as help-desk technicians!

This story, "Should IT Workers Get Paid To Do Nothing?" was originally published by NetworkWorld .

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