20200301 The ideas of March.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

Romans blamed “The Ides of March” for the all kinds of things, mostly unpleasant. English myth talks about “mad March hares” which run around, aimlessly, in fields where they would normally hide.

But we can think of March as the month where we will see the first signs of spring (at least those of us above the equator can), half way from the longest night to the longest day and with shoots appearing and the first lambs of the season.

So, March is also a time of renewal – and perfect for fresh ideas, hence “The Ideas of March.”

Let’s start with the fallacy of economics. one of the fundamental problems in economies is that we have gone from a pyramid where companies have a broader production base than managerial structure.

Now everyone who comes into a business seems to expect to walk into middle management.

So who’s making the stuff that companies want to sell?

We, as a global society, regard degrees as a measure of success, of our status, as an advanced or even developed economy.

But they are not; the ability of people to invent and make things is what drives solid, reliable economies.

Instead, we have told vast numbers of ordinary people that they are too good to be plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters, car mechanics, the screwers-on-of-knobs in factories and encouraged them to price themselves, and developed economies, out of the market.

This has created decades-long supplies of young people who are cheap in offices and older people are more expensive: cost not value is the primary criterion in so many businesses today.

The world-changing idea that we should not concentrate on degrees but, rather, on practical training for people to make things, either in industry or as tradesmen or skilled artisans is not new. In fact, it’s a return to days before universities became a way to postpone young people’s arrival in the jobs market or unemployment figures.

Having created an expectation of a particular type of job, the other jobs are filled by those that are deemed unworthy of the degree holders.

An apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, with qualifications gained in night-school, is how post-war Britain became an economic powerhouse despite the post-war privations. By the 1970s, society had become wealthy and, in relative terms, lazy. It was focussed on pleasure rather than self-improvement.

It’s an approach that persists today: those who want to excel are given pejorative labels such as “geek.”

We should laud the entrepreneurial spirit of those who choose the gig economy: it’s nothing new – it’s how the legal profession has worked for ever. Those who want the freedom to work when they want, to hop from job to job should be entitled to do it.

If they work exclusively or predominantly for a single agency (including a platform) then that agency should, as I was when I worked as a locum tenens on short term contracts in law firms all over England, be formally employed by the agency. In short, it might have said “lawyer” but my engagement had the same standing as a temporary secretary or receptionist. Or for that matter a model or backing musician working through an agent.

But someone chooses that gigging way of life, the price of their freedom is the loss of various forms of security. Where the arrangement breaks down is with the so-called “zero hours” contracts.  These require a contract under which the employee (for that is what he is) keeps himself available for work – on stand-by if you will – ready to attend the workplace if the employer calls on him. So he cannot, during the nominated hours, have the freedom that he would normally have. He cannot take on other employment, go out of town for the day, go to a party and so on. The employer does not pay him for these loss of freedoms and, even, a fetter on his ability to earn.

So gigging workers serve a useful purpose; if they are exclusively or mainly engaged, they should be treated as employees; if they are on call, they should be paid for that time.

Equally importantly, by encouraging the development of tradesmen and recognising them as at least as important to society as office workers, society will fill the employment gaps that are often filled by immigrants or migrants. We also need to recognise that unskilled labour does not mean worthless labour: in this way those who come out of the education system with poor or no examination results can find their way into valuable work.

There is, as briefly alluded to above the failure to recognise the value of older workers.  There is enormous benefit to companies, if not their managers as individuals, of having wise heads in companies.  It’s a policy that prevents today’s youthful managers repeating the mistakes of the past. Been there, done that, set fire to the t-shirt and burned my chest hair is a powerful lesson but it is one that escapes notice until it happens to someone else.

There, then, is another big idea: look for experience even though it will be challenging to integrate, especially for managers who are, themselves, uncertain of their own abilities and decisions.

In my field it is obvious that so many next-generation financial crime risk and compliance officers have a very one-dimensional comprehension of their subject while the old guard, of which I am proudly one, are regarded as archaic and, even, unemployable.

Most of my contemporaries find the same. We know too much, we question too much, we argue too much, we win those arguments too much.

That should be considered a valuable resource and most of us are very willing to gig.