The white noise generators fill my ears with a low level susurrus and the footsteps of unknown and unknowing co-workers pass by my cube like trains on a moonless foggy night.
Sorry, I’ll be good now.
It is the beginning of my second week on the job and my lack of anything at all to do of any kind for the past fourteen days only serves to underline the employment issues I have faced since moving to Austin twenty-eight months ago.
I left a very well paying but essentially dead end job in Princeton for the warmer climates and better job market of Texas’ capitol city. I imagined (and planned for) unforeseen problems in uprooting my life and discarding seventeen years of geographical familiarity. The profit from the sale of the townhouse I had lived in for seven years would easily provide my living expenses for much longer than even my most pessimistic estimates of joblessness. And while the first full time job took a bit longer in coming than I had hoped, it did come along in time.
The one thing I had not planned for, nor even imagined, was the type of job market for IT support professionals in Austin.
It is not something that can be adequately explained, only experienced. If I may, imagine yourself at twelve, still a virgin, wondering what sex is really like. All the preparation, imagination and helpful advice in the world won’t really prepare you for the actual experience.
The building starts to come alive. You start seeing heads moving about in the endless rows of gray cubicles. Voices previously muzzled with leftover sleep become clearer and filter in and out of audibility
“…that you can drag and drop…”
“…sounds like an enhancement…”
And the good natured laughter of co-workers in an impromptu meeting discussing a vexing problem. All seeming to invalidate the rationale behind the white noise generators mounted every few feet on the ceiling above me.
My new boss is little more than a presence felt in email. Emails about meetings in oddly named conference rooms. Emails about preferred email signature formats and other corporate administrivia. All quite innocuous. Still the emails are puzzling as they are bereft of work assignments. So I pass my days surfing the web and devouring novels from the Baen Free Library. And my (presumed) co-workers, busy with their assigned tasks pass by my cube like ghosts, unknown and not knowing that I am doing no productive work.
It’s four o’clock. I lock the screen and turn off the monitor and with another annoyed sigh grab my backpack, swing it onto my shoulder and head for the door.
“Shouldn’t I have something to do?” I mean sitting alone in a bare grey cubicle with nothing to show for all of my of hours of employment? Isn’t all that down time before starting the actual job excessive even for a large multinational corporation?
I feel like Scott Adams is drawing my job.
When I first got this job it took the better part of three days to get a network logon. Yep, I sat in a small gray cube, by myself with nothing to do for every minute of three long days. I brought a book the second day, just in case there was still no work. I brought another book the third.
On the third day, shortly after lunch I got my network logon. And then an email from the boss with a few links in it that led me to some online forms I had to fill out so I would have access to the systems that I had been hired to support. It took another six days for that access to be granted. Till then? Well at least I had internet access, and plenty of books.
I arrived in Austin on a frigid twenty nine degree December night almost three years ago. The weather got warmer and my days were filled with the minutia of moving my life to a new city. I was busy. A car was purchased, an apartment rented and my stuff moved from a big orange truck to my new apartment and a storage facility. I settle in. I start to look for a job.
And much like those first three weeks in cubicle D hell, My first six months in Austin go by in a blur of seemingly endless waiting. Like most other cities Austin has seasonal blips in job availability. December, as you can imagine, is pretty slow. It doesn’t start to pick up till March.
March got me a fascinating two week job with Hart Intercivic. A company that does, among other things, voting machines. They sent me to Albany Texas to support the Shackelford County board of elections. The March 2006 primary was their first election with Hart’s voting machines. I was there to help.
One thing that stuck with me from my two weeks at Hart was how much they seemed to be really concerned about both security and providing a robust electronic voting solution. I am neither a security expert nor a programmer but after spending two weeks working for Hart I came to feel that Hart has an excellent product that does not seem to exhibit the massive security and design flaws in most other electronic voting equipment.
But the Hart job was just a temp job. Two weeks later and I am back to waiting for something to show for the flurry of resumes papering Austin.
May rolls around. Finally a nibble of a more substantive nature.
I was offered a contract job with a hospital corporation doing desktop support at a downtown Austin hospital. From what I could see from the job interview and talks with my soon to be managers it looked like there was substantial opportunity for advancement. There was also a promise to make me an employee after ninety days. It seemed like a good opportunity and I jumped in with both feet.
As I had learned before and continued to learn in Austin. The computer contracting business is a lucrative one. A company gets a new employee with little expenditure of time or effort. The new employee comes pre-screened and carries none of the obligations of a regular employee: paid sick time/vacation, 401K, health plan, etc. As a bonus this employee can be fired at-will with zero consequences, financial, legal or otherwise.
What continues to puzzle me though is the actual cost of the contract employee to the company he is contracted to. It is not uncommon for IT Support contractors to get thirty percent (or less) of what is being payed to the contracting company for your services. It somehow seems counter intuitive that even with all the administrative overhead and benefits that it made financial sense to pay three to four times what you would otherwise pay an actual employee.
IT support people generally receive thirty percent or less of what the contracting company is paid for their services
Let’s add another middleman to this equation. The hospital I worked at paid a company to provide for all of their Information Technology needs. Some of the people I worked with, and for, worked directly for that company. They got full benefits (sick days, vacation, holidays, health plan, etc.). I didn’t actually work for them. I was paid by another company. And this company provided no benefits what so ever. No sick days, vacation, holidays or health plan. The last stuck in my craw. Here I was working at a major hospital and I had no health plan? What The Fuck? So the hospital paid one company to manage all of it’s IT needs. This company turned to yet several other companies to provide them with some other IT people. So I worked in a department of about 10-15 people, who were paid by four to five different companies. All doing essentially the same job. The number of fingers in that pie still boggles my mind.
Getting used to doing desktop support in a hospital took a bit more time and effort than it would have in the typical corporate environment that I was used to. As different as each company was, the office environment was still pretty much the same everywhere. There were no cops fighting with homeless people in the emergency room. There was no blood on the floor. There were no half clothed people being subjected to various and sundry indignities in the hopes that they would soon get better.
Don’t get me wrong, all that took a little bit of getting used to. Well, OK more than a little bit. Rather a lot actually. But really it was not so much working on computers in an operating room while a scene from M*A*S*H is being enacted just over my left shoulder. That I got used to, or rather not see.
What did take the most getting used to was the groups of sad, tired and crying people in the halls mourning the loss or illness of a loved one. That girl over there, curled up on a bench, red-faced from crying all night, and staring out into space as if her world had just ended. It was the frail and failing people sharing the elevator with me. They are on their way to the room they will die in and I just need to get to the sixth floor nurses station because one of their PCs wouldn’t boot up.
But get used to it, I did. It was not happy making but I learned not to see the misery and get on with my job. And actually felt like I was Making A Difference. Let’s face it, most places you work you have to fix a PC so someone can write a report or tweak a presentation. With most of corporate America it was never a matter of life and death, no matter how pissed off that VP was about his corrupted spreadsheet. But keeping the day to day computer operations running smoothly at the hospital actually allowed the doctors and nurses to more efficiently save lives and help people get better.
So yeah, I really started to enjoy working there. I was actually making a difference and not just catering to the whims of a spoiled, entitled VP of marketing. Well most of the time.
Unfortunately around the time that I was getting into the hospital groove, my bosses became completely unresponsive on the previously promised Becoming An Employee With Benefits After Ninety Days thing.
Also it was getting a bit messy in our department. We had four people to support the hospital. They moved two onto “projects.” Projects better served by a recent DeVry graduate. That left the department about half staff. The workload for the department did not change, and we were being graded accordingly.
My bosses’ avoiding me like the plague. That, combined with the massively increased workload, was annoying the living shit out of me. So when another company called and offered me a contract job with a major computer manufacturer I leapt at the opportunity.
There have been times that I wonder if my decision to leave the hospital was a wise one. Then I remember my exit interview. My supervisor basically agreed with every issue I brought up and then told me that he was turning in his notice in a few days. He mentioned that others who had previously left jobs there gave basically the same reasons I did for leaving. A couple of weeks after he left, his boss also quit.
After ten months I was out of the hospital contract job for a supposedly better contract position (with health benefits) at a major computer manufacturer. I rationalized that the (mandatory) time-limited nature of the contract was offset by the (presumably) increased access to in-house jobs via my getting my grubby little paws on their internal hiring website. It seemed a reasonable assumption considering all of my earlier contract-based assignments.
What’s that old saying about assumptions?
Contractors were locked out of even looking at any job openings internal to the company. Contractor logins did not even display the links to the intranet pages with the internal job openings. Lovely, just lovely.
I still I don’t understand why a contractor would be ineligible for an employee position. It seems contrary to rational business logic. But then so did the mandatory nine month limit on contract positions and the one hundred day waiting period before you could get another nine month “job.”
Six months after that job started about a hundred lucky souls, contractors all of us, were laid off. The joy of IT contract work.
I spent six weeks looking for the next job. A three month contract at a bank headquarters. Six more weeks looking for the next one and I end up back at the same computer company.
And we pick up where we left off. In a job with painfully little to keep me busy. A job that I left as soon as I found my current job. See, I had learned the true reason to get a contract job there: money coming in while you look for a real job. I understand this is quite common there.
I’ve got a job now at the Austin office a Silicon Valley dot-com. Yah, still a contractor but this time I actually have full benefits and seem to be doing good work for people who appreciate it.
But just in case I keep my eye on the local job openings. You should too.
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