Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Skilled" Labor?

Last January I accused Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, of "telling a story" at the Davos World Economic Forum in order to convince himself "of propositions without bothering over whether or not they are true." Last night Reuters filed a report of the latest story Stephenson is telling:

The head of the top U.S. phone company AT&T Inc said on Wednesday it was having trouble finding enough skilled workers to fill all the 5,000 customer service jobs it promised to return to the United States from India.

"We're having trouble finding the numbers that we need with the skills that are required to do these jobs," AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson told a business group in San Antonio, where the company's headquarters is located.

So far, only around 1,400 jobs have been returned to the United States of 5,000, a target it set in 2006, the company said, adding that it maintains the target.

What are the propositions in this case, and how likely are they to be true?

Perhaps the most important concerns the "skill set" (scare quotes intended) for those customer service jobs. It is hardly a secret that most customer service engagements are handled by a representative who does little more than read from a script through a process that is usually enabled by current CRM (Customer Relationship Management) technology. Thus the necessary skills come down to using the technology to find the right script and then following it by delivering the lines in a clear voice that the customer understands. Not only is this not a very demanding skill set; but also it almost seems to be designed to anticipate a time when voice-recognition and speech-synthesis technologies have improved to the point that humans will no longer be necessary to do the job.

Having established, then, that "skilled" may be a euphemistic adjective, we come to the more important proposition behind Stephenson's story:

Stephenson said neither he nor most Americans liked the situation, and the solution was a stronger U.S. focus on education and keeping jobs. Business needed to help, such as AT&T's repatriation of service positions and education grants, he added.

These propositions may well be true, and they certainly demand examination. My guess is that candidates for those customer service jobs are tested for both script selection and script delivery. If they are failing on the minimal comprehension required to identify a script and on reading text in a clear voice, then this may be some of the most painful evidence we have of how pathetic our education system is. On the other hand, if we are also celebrating the skills with which high school students now communicate through the Internet, then something is out of whack, because these two observations are inconsistent.

The inconsistency may have to do with that euphemistic use of the adjective "skilled." Internet-savvy high school graduates are, indeed, highly skilled and thus may be too skilled for what AT&T expects for a customer service job, which is more of a "McJob" (to invoke that entry in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that so offended McDonald's). The question then becomes one of how AT&T is recruiting its candidates and how it screens the recruits. Perhaps they should own up to their euphemism, set a lower bar, and then select candidates who can be trained in script selection of clear reading. They probably would not even need high school graduates to make such a strategy work. This would not solve the education problem; but it might solve a broader problem, which is the risk of so many young people in this country going to waste as such young ages. This might then serve to realign our "sense of reality" about the institution of education; and, informed by that sense of reality, we might be better informed to do something about the underlying problems.

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