Monday, December 22, 2008

Dell Cutbacks and the Sheer Stupidity of Brian Lenihan

I sat here almost galzing over with incredulity. How can somebody be so stupid, I ask myself. Yet, here it is, a headline in the Times, starting out at me, Government puts RD plan to Dell in bid to save plant. I quite simply sit in astonishment.

How can a plant that is largely manufacturing simply shift gear and turn into an R&D operation, overnight? Spectacular political pussy footing to me doesn't hide the fact that quite simply, this is a coverup for a government bereft of ideas, a government that simply has no idea of basic business management or development, save of course, protecting their cronies in the building industry through zero tax policies.

You don't simply take a factory and turn it into an R&D facility, the skills levels and indeed, the resources required, are very different. I am left reeling every time I hear of this "high value" option, as clearly, Ireland was never regarded as a good place for R&D by this company and others, who've been here 15-20 years already without feeling a need for locating the facilities here. In fact there is no way that a company largely driven by US market sales is going to place its R&D in Ireland.

There is a particularly interesting article from early in the year in fact questioning whether the disappearance of Dell is really all that bad. Actually, I can add to this. I worked in the Bray and Cherrywood businesses in the tech support division in the early years of the decade, for maybe a year. The training was good, but the jobs, quite frankly, were awful. You started on about 80% of what was then an average wage - nowadays I am quite sure its probably close to the minimum wage. For this you put in 7.5 hours a day of sheer hostility, helpless to decide anything because of the layers of "protective" gumpf that were put in place to stop you actually doing anything useful other than verbally assuage the customers unfortunate enough to buy a machine less than perfect.

I eneded up spending 6 months as single point of contact for a large UK customer, and endured day after day of sheer hell as they simply dumped their problems on me and I fought dispatchers to sort the problems. Eventually I headed for the door, almost demented and totally unsupported by management. I think we had an attrition rate of 80% for the first year alone. It was horrible, comapared to other places I worked.

Well I'm constantly bemused to discover that somebody on high thinks that tech is "high value." Your babysitter probably gets paid more, for less stress. In fact there are actually some good tech jobs in other companies, but this is basically a conveyor belt of glorified technical agony aunts. And badly paid ones too. Withing 6 years I was earning double the salary I got paid, not because of what I'd learned there, but a few months spent on application support for a large UK retailer in London.

Oddly enough, I was working in another service company about 4 years later and heard a few familiar names and places. The people I'd dealt with for the company I was dedicated to in Dell. I discovered that the people who were tormenting me were facilities staff who had no technical ability, contractors for yet another cheap low grade outsourcer who the UK giant had dumped some of its less valuable work on. I cringed and luckily the case I had was one of decommissioning their IT infrastructure. Don't think they recognised my name. Why should they? I had been yet another Dell drone. Four years later they were still facilities drones, while I'd moved into network and server support, soon to be 3rd level.

The reality of companies like Dell in Limerick is that they are basically low grade assembly operations with a bit of flourish. They only add value to the economy by their sheer size and might. My only concern is that like Gateway before them, the real victims are the pure operational manufacturing staff, many of whom are being paid well above their worth.

I learned this from an friend, who is actually an ex Dell manufacturing drone, who now works in a more high tech factory. Actually she is head and shoulders above her colleagues, because at the age of 31, she has not only a leaving cert but also a Certificate in Technology. Most of the people she works alongside don't even have a leaving certificate. These are guys in their mid 40s, wives, kids, mortgages. They are probably being paid 20k a year more than they are really worth, and the companies know it. This is what finally brought the building industry to its knees - grossly overpaid people who are so because they were lucky enough to supply a service to an in demand need - right place at the right time. And like many working in the building industry, the emperor has no clothes, how many will be revealed to have few or no skills, never mind base level qualifications.

I recall in the bad old days of the 1980s, criticism of the fact that even to get an interview as a shelf stacker in Quinnsworth etc, you had to have a leaving cert. Now I would not for 5 minutes, suggest that people who stack shelves are stupid - far from it. But the point was, having a leaving was the water line, the point at which the HR guy with 200 CVs and only time to interview 20 people eliminated as many as possible. Its unfortunate and possibly discriminatory, but its a reality to which we will return.

And so unfortunate that all of this coincides with the Fas expenditure scandals - coupled with total bullshit comparisons to the private sector. Its nonsensical to think that private companies don't squander hude sums on entertainment and amusement for their higher executives - of course they do, what do you think all those corporate boxes in Croke Park, Thomond Park and soon to be Landsdowne Road are all about? But its worrying that just when Fas is needed most, just when there is a vast growing army of unemployed and low skilled needing them, Fas is in the firing line. Lets hope that its function is not forgotten in the midst of recriminations.

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