It’s why the person from the credit card company can’t speak to you about your account until you put the cardholder — your recently deceased husband — on the line to give the authorization.
It’s why your company cafeteria won’t serve an Ethiopian option even if half the staff is Ethiopian.
It’s why the security guard won’t let you into the building you’ve worked in for 25 years because your identification card has expired — not even to go to the security office to renew your card.
It’s why, when you call the utility company to tell them your service is down for the third time that week, the person at the call center is completely uninterested in what you learned from the last two repairmen, assuring you that somebody will be out to check the problem and asking if there is anything else he can do for you today.
It’s why, when you call the 800 number for tech services while working at home over the weekend on a crucial project, they tell you they don’t support the application you are using and can’t find somebody who does.
And, yes, it’s why Tomas Lopez was initially fired by a supervisor who had ordered him to remain at his post until another guard arrived before responding to calls for help from a distant, unpatrolled part of the beach. (As it turned out, by the time Lopez arrived, the rescue had largely been made by another swimmer with a boogie board).
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.
The manufacturing sector has already gone through this process, and most of the work that can be outsourced has been. Now a new phase is beginning. It turns out that if jobs are so routinized that they can be done by someone without deep skills and experience, then those jobs are also ripe for being done by robots or computer-run production processes. And that makes it possible to bring work back in house, or at least closer to home, by a fewer number of experienced workers who are higher-skilled and higher-paid. The revival of the U.S. steel and auto industry is predicated on this model, and I think we could eventually see it in parts of high tech and even consumer goods. In the service sector, the drivers will be the Internet, user-friendly interfaces and intelligent, interactive software.
Of course, there will always be work that can’t be easily automated or upgraded, and being a lifeguard may be one of those. But Tomas Lopez probably made the right decision to spend the rest of the summer focused on his studies at nearby Broward College. For all its faults, that’s still the best way to ensure that he won’t end up as a discretion-less cog in a low-wage machine.
For previous Pearlstein columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.