It’s not just through an under-funded, shoddy educational system that the American workforce of the twenty-first century will continue its decline.
It’s also through on-the-job training — at once both superficial and way more thorough than it needs to be — that we’ll continue our transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy to a system where everyone makes their living by being on reality TV.
We had a couple of “training initiatives” at work last week that might serve to prove the point. We had to learn both how to operate the new copier and how to use a new internal email system. This was on top of our ongoing studies of how slowly we can walk to the coffeemaker, thereby avoiding work, without being mistaken for the walking dead and hauled away to the zombie re-education center (a.k.a. the Human Resources department).
Neither of these two new technologies has to be a big deal. To make a copy on the fancy new Xerox WorkCentre 5655, I assume you place your original face down on the glass and press some kind of “start” button, then wait for your duplicate to eject into a tray. If, instead of “start,” the appropriate button is something like “begin” or “commence” or “go” or “initiate,” I think I can puzzle through that without any extensive training.
The problem is, this latest high-tech upgrade from Xerox has to do more than just make copies to justify its massive footprint on our production floor. It has to collate. It has to staple. It has to reduce or enlarge. It has to lighten or darken. I think there’s even an option that offers transubstantiation, allowing you to place your ham sandwich and Diet Coke lunch on the glass and have it become the body of Christ.
And, there’s the ability to fax a document, in case I’m doing business with someone from 1998.
The machine was installed about a week before the formal training was to begin, giving everyone the opportunity to poke it with sticks and marvel at its sleek design. We were afraid to use it for copy-making without being certified by the trainer being sent by Xerox. Who knows? Maybe the “clear all” button would wipe humans from the face of the Earth.
Then on Tuesday, a car rolled into the parking lot bearing the new Xerox logo, the one that makes it look like they’ve diversified into making red-and-white hackeysacks. A woman came in, spoke briefly with a manager, then we were summoned to gather ’round the new machine.
“Anyone interested in learning about the new copier, the trainer is here,” came the announcement.
When no one stood up to signal their commitment to the lifelong learning experience so critical to career success in the global economy, the manager felt sorry for the trainer. She went to retrieve a few managers from other departments to pretend to be interested.
About four people eventually showed up. They snuggled in close to the WorkCentre 5655 like it was a warm fire on a cold night. (It puts out about as much heat). From my desk 20 feet away, I could hear “oohs” and the occasional “aah” as the Xerox lady ran through her agenda.
After about 30 minutes, people began shifting from one foot to the other, signaling either boredom or a regret that they hadn’t chosen a career in dance. The trainer sensed she was losing the crowd, and wrapped up her presentation, asking “any questions?”
I was tempted to offer one from my perch halfway across the room — “wouldn’t it have been easier to tell us what it doesn’t do rather than what it does?” — but resisted. One manager asked if the machine was prone at all to jams, and another manager said it actually “preferred jellies and preserves instead” and everyone else said “ha, ha.” Then, the training was over.
And off drove the Xerox lady in her hackeysack car.
The email training presented a similar challenge to our managers, except this time the trainer was driving in from out of state and planning to spend two days in a conference room, fielding questions about how to use perhaps the most elementary system on the market today: Gmail.
We knew we were changing from our old email system, despite the use of verbs like “transition” and “migrate” in the notices we’d started receiving last month. At first, we thought these communications were spam, and felt comfortable ignoring them. Soon, however, some of the new hires, who weren’t familiar with how many useless emails we get on an everyday basis, started asking questions.
“The subject line says ‘Google Apps June Wave Pre Go Live Log-in Information’,” said Janet. “If I knew what it meant, I’d say it sounded important.”
Normally, 90% of the non-spam email we get addresses two topics: (1) some system almost nobody uses will be down for an outage; and (2) some office somewhere in the world has moved to a new location. Reluctantly, I read the Google email.
“We are extremely excited about your upcoming conversion!” effused the Google Apps Project Team. “Moving to Google Apps is an exciting time for you. See you in the cloud!”
If I have to learn sky-diving as part of this new system, I’m outta here.
So the Google Guy shows up, and a co-worker and I are asked by the department head to meet with him. We show up, expecting to watch a presentation. He shows up, thinking he’s just answering questions. We stare at each other.
The only question we can think of for starters is “Hi, I’m Davis and this is Andy. And you are …?”
Turns out he’s Enoch, and he’s ready to answer any questions we might have about Google Apps. And “why are the three of us standing here awkwardly looking at each other?” doesn’t count.
Now, I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, but somehow I know that Enoch was the 365-year-old grandson of Adam, one of ten “pre-Deluge Patriarchs”. The function of the Patriarchs in Genesis was “primarily to mark the passage of immense periods of time.” So perhaps I need to reschedule my lunch plans.
Enoch (the Google one, not the Genesis one) is a nice enough guy, and we’re able to humor him for a good 20 minutes with questions that are approximately pertinent. The essential “takeaway” is that you require a user name and password to use Gmail, and that there’s a million other things Google Apps can do for us that we’ll never need.
We’re fortunate at that point that the manager from a different department has arrived and is having a particular issue with his account, way over on the other side of the building. We wish Enoch well on his pilgrimage across the vast, desert-hot warehouse, assuring him it’ll take well less than a century to get there.
When we returned to the department, others began peppering us with questions. We refused to answer, since we were never told we were to do anything more than show up for this face-to-face with Google Guy. Enoch was seen again the next day, dispensing free donuts as his way of buying our devotion and loyalty, and a few of my coworkers got to ask questions of their own. My favorite was “Why did Google decline to buy Skype and let it be snatched up by Microsoft?”
I think he answered with some reference to his great-grandson Noah, and how Gmail would work well even in the event of a worldwide flood.