Understanding Microsoft

Part 8. Featherbedding

Back in the 1970's, when labor unions had a lot more pull than they do today, one common practice was called featherbedding. It happened whenever there were more workers available than were needed to do the job. Instead of simply telling the leftover workers to go find a new line of work, "fake jobs" were invented to keep them on the payroll, and to keep the union dues flowing in. This way, union membership did indeed have a high degree of job security.

Of course, there's no free lunch, and featherbedding is one of those nasty little practices that on the surface seems harmless -- maybe even kind and beneficial -- but in the long run causes business damage. Specifically, by strongly encouraging workers to keep themselves on the job doing nothing, many years that were available for worker retraining were wasted, and productivity suffered. American businesses became less effective in the global marketplace, and the economy languished. Featherbedding seemed like a great way to keep everybody at work, but sooner or later the piper had to be paid.

A similar sort of false economy is present in the economy today, particularly in areas where personal computers have been installed in large numbers. Among the shops using Microsoft products, a curious thing has occurred: a new class of worker has been given a place on the payroll. This new class of worker is the technical support person, which is someone whose sole job is to keep the other workers productive by solving their computer problems for them. This is an interesting side-effect of the use of Microsoft products, because mainframe computers did not need workers buzzing all over the office, or hopping on airplanes every few days, to help their fellow workers stay afloat. Whatever people say about mainframes, at least they *worked*. They may have taken more effort to learn how to use, but they also required much less in the way of tinkering and repairs.

This means that instead of actually improving productivity, Microsoft products have simply redistributed the workers. Instead of ten or twenty well-educated computer operators working in a secure room, there now must be fifty or one hundred low-rent techies running around throughout a business facility trying to solve Windows problems. This is one of the main reasons why white-collar workers are getting fired, but temp jobs and unlimited-overtime positions are becoming a fixture in the workplace. The technician class is not as savvy in gaining the benefits, the insurance, the bonuses, and the other perks that used to be doled out to the mainframe managers. Thus, corporations find Microsoft products handy, and extra work is generated to keep the surplus workers busy.

On the surface everything seems fine. But just as in the case of manual laborers and maintenance men being added by featherbedding, choosing shoddy products from Microsoft will have damaging long-term consequences. Technicians that only know how to fix Microsoft problems are essentially wasted talent. Keeping the technicians underpayed and overworked, as well as undertrained, will not benefit the economy in the long run.

Most recent revision: December 14, 1997
Copyright © 1997, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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