On any week day go to any coffee shop and you will find a relatively new and growing phenomenon. Men age forty and older sitting drinking coffee while working on laptops, talking on cell phones and reading business journals. Who are these men and why are they sitting in coffee shops?
The number of men who work for corporations and are over forty who have been either laid-off or forced into early retirement has grown every year over the past decade in spite of a robust economy. These men are mainly white and middle to upper middle class. They have at least a college degree if not an advanced degree. They started their careers in a variety of capacities with large corporations but invariably they found themselves in white collar management positions at some level by the time they were age forty. By the 1990s companies were flattening their hierarchy to be more competitive in a global economy and reduce expenses to improve profitability. The people at the top rarely went. The people at the bottom were either needed or protected by unions or other conditions. The easiest targets were the white collar middle managers. More work could be shifted to those below them. And if they needed to be replaced over time, younger workers could be promoted or hired to do the work at a much cost. At the same time, many companies began outsourcing non-core work functions to contractors who also were selected for their low cost approach. And some functions were just eliminated as unnecessary.
The unspoken contract that these middle age white men believed in and worked for was broken when they needed a job and a paycheck the most. They had kids in college, mortgages and many had large debts from chasing the middle class dream. They were told if they went to college, got a job with a good business and worked hard, they could count on a job until they retired. They also were told if they did a good job they would slowly advance up the many levels of the corporate ladder. All of these implied promises proved to be false. And they proved to be false when, for many, it was too late to start over at a low paying entry-level position. Those making $75,000 to $125,000 per year in salary plus full benefits plus a pension were now left with no paycheck, no benefits and a gutted pension with too little to retire early on.
While much can be said about their options, the more important question is what SHOULD be done to help this great and underutilized resource?
The answers are not always the typical ones: become a consultant, become an entrepreneur or get retrained in a highly technical field. There are already too many consultants going after the same work. And big consulting firms dominate that field anyway. Many of these men went to work for large corporations for the very reason that they were NOT entrepreneurs. Contrary to the current popular myth, not everyone is an entrepreneur. And finally, many of these men studied engineer or programming or accounting while in their youth. Many at age forty plus have no desire to learn the basics of a technical field and compete for those entry level jobs with a twenty-two year old.
So what are the options left for these forty plus white men who have a life-time of business experience and no jobs?
There are many existing businesses that make less than one million dollars a year. Most want to grow and be more successful. The functional and organizational skills that these men have developed over the years could be invaluable to helping small businesses succeed and grow. Many small business people have never worked for large businesses. As such they dismiss many of the good along with the bad ideas that make corporations operate.
Teaching is another option. In this case I am not talking about walking in as an elementary or middle school general teacher. Rather, the skills in business and functional areas that these middle age former managers developed over the years would be very valuable in a high school business, community college, junior college or professional trade school environment. The key is to meet the skills and background with the need. And the need is great.
We see in the media on a daily basis who 30-40% of those in government will retire over the next ten years. The professional and functional skills that these unemployed former managers have could be invaluable to the governments of towns and municipalities, counties, states and at the Federal level. Not to displace the people working today. And not in lieu of hiring the new college graduates. But to supplement the work force in roles requiring experience in engineering, accounting, management and administration to name only a few of the many areas of need.
Finally, these is the need for formal mentoring programs that take advantage of the resource that sits in the nations many coffee shops in lieu of a corporate office today. They have, without exception, years of experience in business plus many functional specialties. That experience should be tapped to mentor young people, struggling business people and non-profit organizations. There is a very real need to match the skills and the talent with the need in this area.
While there always have been and will be men sitting in coffee shops rather than offices, the number has grown to shocking levels. Steps should and must be taken to identify and channel their skills, experience and motivation into the areas lacking in resource and ability today. Government, small businesses, education and mentoring programs would all benefit greatly from the infusion of their experience and skills.
George F. Franks, III is the President of Franks Consulting Group - a Bethesda, Maryland management consulting and leadership coaching practice. His web site is:
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