By now you’ve probably heard the story of the young Florida lifeguard, Tomas Lopez, who was fired earlier this month because he left his station unmanned to help with a rescue in an unguarded section of the beach, in violation of his company’s standard operating procedures.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, this story played out in the national media as a parable about the foolish rigidity of business managers. Lopez, along with six other guards who were fired or quit as part of the imbroglio, were all offered their jobs back by an apologetic owner of the lifeguard management firm (they declined). And last week, Lopez was awarded the key to the city by Hallandale Beach’s elected leaders who vowed to not renew the contract with Jeff Ellis Management, the lifeguard firm that had brought such unwelcome attention.
From another angle, this is also a parable about outsourcing and how it is reshaping large swaths of the economy.
Jeff Ellis, it turns out, is something of a pioneer in the lifeguard business. He started out as a consultant to water parks, clubs and municipalities, training lifeguards and performing annual audits of equipment and procedures that include simulated drownings to test the guards and the equipment. Today that business has nearly 700 clients in 50 states and 14 countries. Insurers have been known to give discounts on liability policies to operators who use Ellis’s services.
About a decade ago, Ellis moved to extend his franchise by offering to hire, train and manage lifeguards for water parks, municipalities and pool owners that wanted to outsource that function. One of his first customers was Hallandale, which had up to that time put beach protection operations under its fire department. In the first year, Ellis says, his company cut the city’s annual $700,000 tab for lifeguards in half. In the nine years since, Ellis says there have been no drownings and his contract has been routinely renewed.
Hallandale is like many public and private enterprises that decided to outsource to contractors work that is not part of their core missions or competencies.
Because they are generally free from union contracts and the unwritten norms of pay equality that exist within any enterprise, contractors are able to pay lower wages and benefits — in many cases, a lot lower. That was certainly the case with Ellis and the Hallandale lifeguards.
The second big advantage that outsourcing firms enjoy is the economies of scale. A firm that specializes in one function and does a lot of it can generally do it at a lower cost simply by spreading fixed costs over a much larger base of business.
Simply by having more experience, a specialty contractor is also more likely to hit upon the most efficient and effective ways of doing things and can quickly adopt those improvements throughout its operations. Unlike in-house operations, outside contractors are also subject to the discipline of competition when contracts are up for renewal.
There is, however, an important trade-off that is made by outsourcing that contractors reflexively deny but is inherent in any firm that derives its competitive advantage from having carefully constructed systems for doing just about everything.
It is these systems — the rules, the procedures, in effect the operational software — that allow companies to take relatively low-skilled, low-paid workers with relatively little experience and have them do tasks that were once done by people with higher skills, higher pay and more experience. And it is the very nature of these systems that workers are discouraged, if not prohibited, from exercising their own discretion. Their only job is to follow rules, stick to the script and leverage the experience and expertise that are embedded in the system.
The reason these various systems can deliver reliable service at lower cost most of the time is precisely because front-line workers are willing and able to act like cogs in a machine. So when two of Lopez’s colleagues later told supervisors they would have done the same thing, they were fired as well.
If you want discretion and judgment, if you want workers who really understand and relate to customers, if you want the flexibility necessary to respond to individual needs or unforeseen circumstances, then you can go back to paying twice as much to have your own, longtime employees doing the work. That’s the outsourcing trade-off. It may be a good trade-off — most of the time I suspect it is. But it is an unavoidable trade-off, no matter how good the contractors or their systems.
You can see how this process bifurcates labor markets and increases income inequality. At the low end are the low-cost expendable cogs. At the high end are those whose experience and intelligence and training allow them to demand very good salaries for designing, creating and managing these systems. There’s not much in between — or even much of a ladder for getting from one to the other.
And now, the geniuses at the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation and the USDOE and the NYCDOE and the "non-profits" like StudentsFirst and other education reform groups and the education management organizations and the consulting companies are bringing this kind of system - designed by people who think they have the experience, intelligence, training and skill to develop curricula, tests, and evaluation systems that can be used by low trained, unskilled cogs in the machine who can be tossed aside every few years for fresh cogs.
But as Pearlstein says, if you want discretion and judgment, if you want workers who really understand and relate to people, if you want the flexibility necessary to respond to individual needs or unforeseen circumstances, then you can go back to paying twice as much to have your own, longtime employees doing the work.
Or in the case of education, allowing the highly skilled, highly educated teaching workforce to do what it is quite capable of doing.
There is the meme out there, perpetrated by the hucksters in the privatization movement and their allies in the media and government, that teachers are morons, some of the dumbest people on the planet, the least educated and skilled of the "educated classes."
This meme is there so that they can convince the public that schools are "failing" and teachers are "bad" and the system needs to be changed.
This is why they say they have "outsourced" administration in schools to "business people" as opposed to "educators" - educators are not "smart" enough to do this work.
But I have seen, time and time again, teachers who really know how to teach, who really know how to relate to students, who know how to reflect upon their practices and are flexible enough to change when needed who are told "THIS IS THE WAY YOU WILL TEACH!!!"
We are seeing this now with the new Danielson evaluation rubric which the UFT, for some reason, seems to believe is a good way to evaluate teachers.
A teacher is only effective if she/he teaches the way Danielson, a trained economist who has little teaching experience though lots of consulting experience, wants her/him to teach.
One way fits all, one method fits all, one system to rule them all.
That's what education reform is all about.
Gates, Bloomberg, Obama, Duncan, Klein, Rhee et al. do not want teachers with discretion and judgment, they do not want teachers who really understand and relate to people, they do not want teachers with the flexibility to respond to individual needs and unforeseen circumstances.
They want cogs in the machine who can and will unquestioningly follow a script given to them by their corporate education reform leaders
The consequences of this kind of "reform" will be stark and destructive for the country.
But I think, in the end, that has always been the point.
In a social, political and economic system that is so rigged and corrupt, as noted here, the powers that be want a dehumanized education system taught by cogs in the machine, attended by future cogs in the machine that rewards one thing and one thing only - obeying the rules.