Why You Need to Send Your Kids to Work in a Sweatshop of the Information Age

November 18, 2010

If you’re reading this article, there’s a high likelihood your kids are going to work white-collar jobs in America. There’s nothing wrong with the manufacturing sector or other blue-collar businesses in our country (the bedrock of our nation, my dad had 35 years in the sector), but let’s face it; that’s probably not what’s in store for your kids.

No, if you’re taking the time to read to get better at what you do, odds are you’ve put already put Johnny (your son) on a performance plan at least once in the last year when his grades slipped below what you considered to be “acceptable performance.”

He’s 6 years old. In other words, you’re a control freak.

You’ve decided Johnny has to be a knowledge worker. Good for you, and good for Johnny, I guess.

But once you get Johnny through receiving his undergraduate degree as the helicopter parental unit you are, he’s going to need a crystallizing experience as a young information worker. Johnny’s going to need to go to work in a sweatshop of the Information Age.

You won’t be allowed to help Johnny at the type of knowledge sweatshop he needs to attend. It looks more like Boiler Room than Google. There is no café. There is no company “campus.” There is, however, brutal competition for limited resources at every turn.

What am I talking about? Here’s a true story from my life as a vice president of human resources and blogger: Back in early 2008 when my blog “Fistful of Talent” was still to be launched, I was in New York to meet with a conference company regarding a serious sponsorship for the site. It was a good meeting, I pitched a bit, listened to what they wanted to do with their business, how I could help, etc. The meeting was over, and they walked me out a different door of the conference room than the one I entered.

Bam! I was looking at a floor of 200 millennial kids in cube pods with next to no privacy, with half of them on the phone—I could literally see 150 to 200 heads without moving. I looked around for about 15 seconds and it dawned on me. This is the new garment district of New York, the sweatshop of the information age.

Labor source? Millennial generation, straight out of college. It was surreal, because it was the type of floor where you could sense not only the energy, but also the desperation and toughness that direct competition with no buffer provides.

I describe that scene not to pile on the company in question, whose name won’t be used, but to frame the debate in a different way. That company may have its faults as an employer (I later got an earful from a bunch of people who said the workplace was broken), but the kids I dealt with there were all one thing—whip smart in a lot of ways.

They were straight out of college, and they wanted to live in the city while gaining some experience, whether it was marketing, accounting or sales. It didn’t matter. They were there to get started in their career.

I still remember that scene. Welcome to the Information Age, kids. We’re running a contest this week. First one to make quota gets a trip to Spain next month. Second prize is a new Android smart phone.

Third prize? You’re fired. No really, you’re fired.

In fact, the most common feature of the Gen Y Information Age sweatshop is it’s a cruel place to work. Information Age sweatshops usually have the following additional features in common:

• They support a business that is knowledge and communication intensive. Think consulting, recruiting, conference/event companies and information technology shops. We’re not talking call centers here; we’re talking real knowledge workers.

• The business is such that youngsters with hunger, polish and great communication skills are often as effective as average veterans (note I said average, not veterans who are stars) from a performance perspective.

• Most of the work can be done by phone. Thus the ability to create low privacy cube farms that puts everyone in a fish bowl. The new age sweatshop—phone and PC as the sewing machine!

• The sweatshop needs to be fed hundreds, if not thousands, of young professionals annually straight out of undergraduate programs.

• They need that many new recruits because they don’t really invest in development. It’s up or out. You can either figure it out on your own with minimal help or you can’t. Those that can’t figure it out flush out in a few months. Those that do figure it out get to stay as long as they can handle the pressure. The stars work at the sweatshop for 18 to 24 months, then cash out with another job.

If you read that and think, “There’s no way I’d let Johnny work there,” you’re focused on the wrong things. It’s not about the perks. It’s about the career acceleration. If Johnny can make it there, he can make it anywhere.

Young talent that can survive and/or thrive in the Information Age sweatshop gets the following benefits unavailable elsewhere at their age:

• They get deep functional area and industry knowledge in a much shorter time frame than possible elsewhere. One year in the Information Age sweatshop is worth four in a more conservative, predictable environment. They have no choice but to give you the business repetitions. It’s their model.

• Youngsters learn to compete. Somebody’s not going to make it. Is it going to be your Johnny or someone else? Does Johnny care? I hope so.

• How to deal with ambiguity. Most Information Age sweatshops don’t have manuals to tell you what to do next. The kids are making it up as they go, which will be a valuable skill when they bounce out of the sweatshop into the traditional version of corporate America.

Unlike many who would say kids are being exploited at the Information Age sweatshop, I’m going to spin it a different way. I think the new sweatshop is the best thing that could happen to my kids.

Not for their entire life, but for the first three years of their career.

Get the experience, get better at what you do, then if you don’t like the environment, get out when the time is right. You’re still better off for experiencing the crazy, frenzied work environment at an Information Age sweatshop. Use them, let them use you, and never remove your eyes from the prize—a long career on your terms because you did the work and learned in a tough environment at a young age.

Advantage: sweatshop worker, new age style. Good luck with Johnny.

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