Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Are You Replaceable?

MY DAILY DUTIES ARE simple now. They weren't always so, but most of my job functions are no longer in my hands. I approve newsletter issues that have been typeset overseas for press, and I then confirm that they have been placed on the proper printer's FTP site. Errors, once rife, are considerably fewer, especially now that they are using the same software that my department did. We are three issue-months into the transition. From the comments between the in-house editors and the outsourcing folks, I can see that they are now receiving files prepared according to the long-heralded change in production methods that finally started during my last weeks at the job. I've already had the chance to approve for press a title done in this fashion. Looked identical to the product my department provided. The editors are pleased with the results they are getting. This, too, I read in an email on which I may or may not have been accidentally cc'd.

I am forced to conclude that I was replaceable. So were all of us in the design team.

Perhaps I and especially my supervisor should take some solace in the rapid improvement we achieved since the first, haphazard issues the outsourcing bunch laid out. We worked very closely with them, my super even reviewing first-pass proofs for the first and second months, to minimize editorial/scheduling trauma and preserve the pubs' look and feel. We successfully got them to switch back to InDesign from their little-known layout software, and to use our tried-and-true templates. My super drilled the lessons into their heads over February again and again until we got consistent results. I helped as well, spotting her in reviewing these titles when she got swamped, and writing a comprehensive guide to doing a weekly title with a 24-hour turnaround that resulted in proofs with barely any corrections the first time through.

Our job during these last few months has been to ensure that this transition would succeed. We have done so. The typesetters overseas absorbed our seemingly endless feedback and got better quickly — faster, even, than some domestic folks I have trained in person. In other circumstances, we would be rewarded for "efforting this cost-saving initiative." The only problem is, the final step in the initiative is our departure.

We realize now that we were the ones who cared the most. The editorial directors only need the publications to be printed correctly and mailed on time. Marketing barely gave half a fuck until some goon needed a pallet of samples for a trade show. Our director hardly knew what we did until he was forced to take the work away and we began telling him our duties. Our old boss had cashiered us long ago to concentrate on her pet production-switch product, and our new boss had other things to worry about and was frequently bewildered with our work and the trafficking demands, all of which she will shunt to a sister office as soon as my supervisor is gone.

Again, there might be a positive lesson here. I have had the pleasure of more time to discuss work and life issues with my supervisor, and I commented that all of this transition, and the ignorance we discovered on the part of our upper managers, gives me hope that I might have a strong chance to launch my own business, as a freelancer most likely. Clearly folks have succeeded in my company by talking a good line of shit with a few nuggets of truth and some promises about savings as a garnish. Might an honest belief in my talent, the ability to point out to others why it is worth hiring, and a deep care for the fruits of my labors be more effective than this?

Here's a better question. Whether I am exercising my design talent as an independent contractor or an employee, I have to be concerned that someone will try to find a cheaper worker to do the same job. What skills or talents do I possess that I can channel into work that cannot be sent overseas?

Warnings of negative employment trends in creative industries will not come from top management until it's too late. Why should they tilt the crystal ball until the second they're done with paying American salaries? We have to do our own research to find out what skills U.S. companies are eager to outsource. Doing good work may not be enough any more. Employers are clearly willing to settle for less quality in favor of more, cheaper product and higher profit margins. Sadly, this affects editors, designers, Web programmers, and maybe even editorial assistants — don't believe for one moment that tasks like manuscript prepping and entering handwritten author corrections can never be sent out of the pricey New York market or entirely outside the country. They may even try to outsource writing someday. I cannot rule it out.

Some ideas: Branch out from your traditional role or your job description, or add new skills or certifications on software. Cross-train on the skills of another department. Ask to learn the details of finances, subscription fulfillment, promotions, anything that — if you are laid off — might give you an edge on snagging an open job in another department for a short while during your hunt. (A month or two of full health coverage while you search can save a lot of COBRA money.) If your boss fosters an "us versus them" attitude toward other departments, reach out discreetly and try to learn why. Make connections. They might welcome a person who doesn't exhibit the same mindless hostility, and you could possibly temp for them if your boss lays you off, or even switch your primary creative skills over there before a layoff. For this I have an example:

Nine months into my stay at the current company, it was decided that typesetting be moved entirely out of the editorial department, where I had been doing both editing and layout. My bosses, both poisonously negative people, hated the production people for various petty reasons. Nevertheless, I tried to work amicably with the designers (my current supervisor among them), because I, too, did layout, and could understand the technical points that inspired fear and resentment in my technophobic editorial bosses. I would have quit had I not been known as a more reasonable person in production and, therefore, specifically sought out as a new recruit. My editorial department head didn't tell me about the offer for 2 weeks because she was afraid I was going to quit if forced to work for production! Showing interest in the other department in this case got me a lead that spared me a second job hunt within a year.

Now that same department is letting me go. In doing so, they forced me to accept a truth dawning across more and more creative-service folks these days. You might be replaceable. My task now is to develop defenses against another layoff, the skills, connections, and experiences that will make me stand out more than just being a salary on an Excel table, a keystroke away from being deleted.

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