November 17, 2004

Burn Rate, or How Not To Use The Next Generation of Employees

Lots of discussion out there right now about a number of negative reports on Electronic Arts, one of which seeks to provide advice to undergraduates who might consider an offer to work for EA.

As the author notes, for many 20-somethings with the appropriate skills, working for EA sounds pretty exciting on the surface of it, given EA’s centrality to the making and selling of video games. As I read the report and the other more harshly critical accounts I would say that the reality is not at all exciting, only appalling and exploitative.

One of the dirty little secrets that undergraduates at many colleges and universities are not particularly exposed to is just how much the first, and maybe second, and maybe more, jobs that they will get after graduating are going to suck.

Some of that is an inevitable consequence of organizational life, that newcomers, however inherently talented, start at the relative bottom of any organizational structure in terms of benefits and responsibilities, and have to prove themselves before gaining respect and compensation. Some of that suckitude also has to do with the relative extent that educational institutions insulate their students from the world beyond their borders. The essentially positive, largely supportive relationship that many professors and supervisors have with students is not a good preparation for the petty authoritarianism of untalented managers. More pressingly, the arrogance that academic life cultivates in some students doesn’t help them to accurately evaluate their own skills in relationship to others, so it’s not uncommon for the graduates of selective institutions to believe themselves considerably more experienced, capable and skilled than they are.

All of that being said, I would also say that there are some organizations which essentially rely upon and take for granted their ability to parasitically extract tremendous amounts of work from well-meaning, intelligent and reasonably capable graduates in return for poor wages and poor supervision by weak managers whose short-term abuse of new workers allows the entrenched managers to simulate competency and productivity.

This is not a problem restricted to the business world. In fact, I would say based on my own experiences and many reports from alumni and friends that some of the most common abusers of highly motivated and fairly capable recent graduates are non-profit and community organizations with liberal or left political or social missions, where some truly extraordinary exploitation can occur and be justified by the proposition that staff should simply accept exploitation because of their commitment to the cause.

Whether we’re talking about a community group or a big company like Electronic Arts, it’s clear that this is where the short-term perspective of middle managers whose only goal is to protect their own prerogatives can badly damage the interests of the larger organization. EA may shovel product out the door on time, but the costs of 20% or more turnover in staff, widespread disaffection among those who remain and considerable ill-will from those who eventually depart and a pattern of rewarding managerial drones while harming creative or skilled workers is a bad way to run the railroad. It is ultimately unsustainable, a house of cards. The people who can go elsewhere do and even the gullible or innocent undergraduate who feels excitement at the prospect of working for EA starts to hear enough negative news that he or she looks elsewhere for their first job.

Some of our students, of course, can sense already the likely undesirability of many available jobs after graduation. That’s why so many of them go to law school or medical school or other graduate schools almost immediately after graduating, even though this isn’t necessarily the best strategy in terms of assessing what kinds of careers will prove the most enjoyable or satisfying.

I feel sorry that so many of our undergraduates are going to have a bad experience in the world of work when they finish here. Sometimes, it’s inevitable; sometimes, it’s probably even a valuable comeuppance or life lesson—but sometimes it’s just a sign of an organization that doesn’t know what to do with the resources at hand, and can’t think past the problems of the next week or month to its longer term health and sustainability.