Opinion
editor's note-People Before Profits-November 2011
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editor's note-People Before Profits-November 2011

And a salute to family businesses--and family time.

Like most people, I don’t like to be reminded that I’m getting older. Especially when I’m to blame, such as when I hear myself telling the kids, “I remember a time when . . .” But I’ll keep going with the story anyway, figuring that by knowing some history, they’ll be able to place today’s events in better context.

With age also comes the repeating of stories without realizing it. Probably three or four times now, I’ve told the kids how I remember a time when I had to stand in lines for an hour or more just to get applications for jobs that would pay minimum wage. I was one of hundreds of people for one opening. Luckily, I eventually found a job and in 1980 became a happy, part-time associate at Ridgedale’s J. C. Penney store. The unemployment rate that year was 8 percent; two years later it peaked at 10.8 percent.


I first told the kids that story sometime in 2006, when unemployment levels were around 4.5 percent, and it was in the context of how it seemed like many didn’t realize how good they had it. It was unfathomable for the kids (as it was for young adults at the time) to think that people once upon a time had to stand in line to get a job application.
 
About a year ago, I again told the kids, “I remember when I had to stand in line . . . ” as we talked about the 14 million Americans looking for work. Unemployment had peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009, and has since hovered in the 9 percent range.
 
And it came up again in early October, as we talked about Occupy Minnesota—our version of Occupy Wall Street—as its participants started protesting in downtown Minneapolis. At first blush, I looked at the protestors and figured if those who are unemployed really wanted to find a job, they could. But I realized I would be as naïve in thinking this as they are in waving signs that say “People Before Profits,” as though that’s a radical concept, when in reality, it’s the basic bedrock concept to any healthy company.
 
While it’s easy to think that most of the people protesting are doing so because they were spoiled by decades of U.S. economic prosperity and societal issues that turned their parents into their servants, there’s of course more to it. Today is truly one of the worst times in history for finding a job.
 
Unemployment spikes have almost always been followed by a significant drop, decreasing on average at least 22 percent within two years after a spike occurred (see table). Since our most recent spike in October 2009, unemployment has only receded by about 10 percent, and we’re into our 27th month of unemployment at or above 9 percent—the longest period since the rate began to be recorded.
 
At the same time, employers have become more fussy. They have the luxury of looking for precisely the correct match. So it’s taking much longer for a job seeker to apply, go through the interview process, and start over again than has been the case previously.
 
And to the protestors’ credit, there is the bad apple factor. On Wall Street as well as here in the Twin Cities, we know there are a few individuals running major business operations with callous disregard for people. It behooves the rest of us to think about ways we could toss out—or, at least, not do business with—these bad apples, especially if it ever bugs us when people criticize business as something that’s bad for society.
 
This also seems to be the most unifying issue behind the “occupy” protests. For many protesters, it isn’t that they lost a job or a house, or still don’t have a job—it’s their perception of the unethical way in which they lost that security, and how the individuals who screwed them over are still in power. The longer these individuals don’t have a job, can’t afford a house, and cannot regain a sense of financial stability, the longer they’ll fixate on this issue.
 
Meanwhile, I wish those so bitter about “Wall Street” could better understand how the majority of businesses out there are doing well by doing the right thing, and how they could perhaps become a part of those businesses in ways they hadn’t thought of before. In particular, they should look at family owned companies, where “people before profits” is simply the way things are.
 
Consider Golden Valley– based M. A. Mortenson Company, for example, this year’s Global honoree in our Minnesota Family Business Awards (see page 41). The family’s value of trusting employees— and earning trust back from them—involves placing employee interests above and beyond simple business decisions. Sometimes it has meant walking away from lucrative deals. Most recently, it involved doing everything possible to avoid laying off any of the company’s 1,332 employees, despite the recession’s impact on the local and national construction industry.
 
There’s also Angie’s Kettle Corn of Mankato, this year’s Emerging honoree. Since they started it 10 years ago, Angie and Dan Bastian have maintained the practice that their 130 to 180 employees should be able to spend time with their kids as much as possible. This has meant having to change business practices, sometimes raising costs.
 
This refreshing approach is something most of us with kids in school sports can appreciate—especially those whose kids are playing hockey.
 
Chances are you either have a child playing hockey or you know of someone who does, or did. And you know about the crazy schedules, odd times of the day to get time on the ice, equipment expenses, booster club donations, summer camps, and related injuries. More than $100 million a year is spent on junior and high school hockey in Minnesota. There’s nothing else like it, either in our state or elsewhere in the country.
 
Our cover story looks at this phenomenon from the perspective of time and money invested over the course of a child’s development—roughly from age six through 18. Few ever achieve the Holy Grail of playing on a high school hockey tournament championship team. Yet to the players—and more importantly, to their parents—the goal is worth the investments.
 
We don’t explore in this story a question that a few of us parents have, and I’m not going to hazard an answer here. But it’s worth asking aloud whether it’s healthy that sports are taking up so much of what otherwise would be “family time,” and dictating when we can eat dinner on weeknights, whether we can do anything with our kids on Saturdays or Sundays, whether we can take a vacation during the holidays, how late we can work. The answer is up to each family, of course.
 
And on that note, I have to wrap this up and get going. It’s time to pick up my son from soccer practice.

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