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Mitchell: Respect for Work, Workers is Sign of Community Health

Years ago a teacher tried to explain the American attitude toward work.
His statement was that in Mississippi and elsewhere, the mainstream opinion was that people who had jobs were important to society. People who chose not to work or could not find work were useless. They were all grifters living off the bounty of the land and the work of others.
Good people work. Bad people don’t.
Naturally, he said, this fuels a mix of emotions among people without earned income — low self-esteem, resentment and even hostility toward a society that doesn’t value them. The rhyming in a lot of urban music reflects this anger. “The world hates me, but I don’t care because I hate the world.”
The teacher said all people want to work, to be “good,” but they find a subsistence lifestyle acceptable even though it means people regard them with scorn, even contempt as they use their EBT cards to by potato chips at a gas station.
It’s true that some who have jobs are arrogant, but here’s what’s strange: The lack of respect that the unemployed feel — and Mississippi leads the nation in unemployment — is felt by the employed. Many workers simply don’t value their jobs or feel fulfilled by their jobs.
More and more, workers don’t value work and employers don’t value workers.
What do employers expect?
No. 1 according to a survey is “a strong work ethic.”
This describes a person who shows up ready to strap on the day’s tasks, doesn’t spend the first 45 minutes goofing off. A person with a “strong work ethic” makes great use of his or her time, keeps at it until the whistle blows.
Second is “dependability.”
Bosses know employees have families, have relatives who get married, get sick and sometimes die. Bosses know employees are attracted to jobs by benefits, including vacation days. But lots of bosses whip more than a little guilt on a worker who wants to attend a child’s school play or an aunt’s funeral.
No. 3 is a “positive attitude.”
This means the boss can have a bad day. The employee is expected to bring sunshine and roses to every conversation.
No. 4 is “adaptability.”
An employer’s least favorite thing is an employee who pulls out a job description to see if a task is listed. Employers want workers to handle situations, be flexible and be sponges for change, new procedures and technologies.
Fifth is “honesty.”
That one doesn’t require commentary. We all expect honesty in all our dealings with each other of any and all types. Don’t always get it. Always expect it, though.
No. 6 is “self-motivated.”
A better term for this might be “problem-solver.” Bosses don’t want to hear that the copier is broken but no one called for repairs.
No. 7 is “willing to grow.” No. 8 is “self-confident.” No. 9 is “professionalism.” There are some nuanced differences among these traits, but they’re not major. I recently stood at a counter for five minutes (it seemed) while two workers discussed something that someone said a kindergarten teacher had said to one of their grandchildren before one reluctantly turned to ask my why I was there. That wasn’t very professional.
No. 10 is “loyal.”
A modern term for this is “drink the company Kool-Aid.” It may be an uncomfortable reference to a mass suicide, but it means that if one works for Joe’s Plumbing, then Joe’s Plumbing is the best plumbing company in the world.
Now some would say all this about “what bosses want” creates an imbalanced situation and that there should be more conversation about the rightful expectations of workers. But, again, the larger issue is our overall attitude toward work, period.
Increasingly, Americans equate money and influence with success, not work.
In many other cultures, skilled operators of farm equipment, people who make really good French fries and get orders right and reliable sales people who know their customers’ needs are valued and respected by the bosses and by the public. Here, not so much.
Comedians mock jobs that aren’t high profile or highly rewarding. We celebrate politicians (who, by the way, live on the public dole) and entertainers and the super rich. They get our admiration. Craftsmen, assemblers, teachers don’t.
As long as we think of most work as menial, not worthy of respect, we really have no business choosing to disdain those who choose to or are forced to live off the labor of others.
Places where both work and workers are valued tend to prosper. It’s that simple.
Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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