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Continental Drifter -- Firing Otto

Sept. 14, 2005
A new thought-provoking bimonthly column that delves into the social, cultural and economic conditions of manufacturing across the world.

Editor's Note: IndustryWeek is pleased to bring you the first installment of a twice- monthly column written by Mark Gottlieb, a 25-year-veteran freelance journalist.

My friend Otto lives in a European country that shall go nameless here. It doesn't really matter which European country; they're virtually all the same with respect to the subject that affects my poor pal.

Otto is a draftsman, trained four decades ago to draw schematics with a Rapidograph and T-square. He is, in other words, a dinosaur -- a lumbering nitwit when compared to his much younger colleagues, all of whom received training on high-powered computers stuffed with design software that obviated the necessity to learn freehand drawing, complex computations or even simple addition.

Otto works for a large firm that designs hydroelectric power stations, many of which line the banks of the beautiful blue Danube. I should say he "works" for this firm, because in truth he hasn't been too busy there for the past six years. There is no place anymore for a pen-and-ink draftsman at Otto's firm, because everything is now done on CAD computers.

By rights, then, Otto should be out of a job. But hang on a minute, pardner.

In continental Europe, a fellow with Otto's seniority -- now middle-aged, he started with the company when he was 17 -- can't be summarily dismissed just because his skills no longer match the tasks for which he should be responsible. In fact, in parts of Europe, a fellow like Otto can't be dismissed at all.

The arcane, anachronistic and borderline-psychotic work rules that govern employment in many European countries preclude my friend from being fired. And so we see Otto -- a good and gentle man of wisdom and childlike mirth -- we see him being shuttled back and forth within his firm, asked to deliver meals from the company cafeteria one day, to stack cartons the next, and to file away old drawings that, like him, have no use, meaning or value anymore. And all at a salary nearly double that of his younger, computer-literate colleagues.

This is the sort of situation you can expect to encounter when dealing with many companies inside the European Union. It's also the sort of situation you can expect to inherit, should you acquire such a company and attempt to meld it seamlessly into your existing domestic operation. The social contract across the continent is weighted heavily in favor of working stiffs like my friend Otto, and if you think you can waltz in and change the rules -- well, think again. Europe's national governments are afraid to try. You, on your own, don't stand a chance.

But so what? You've turned your back on Europe, you say, and are plunging headfirst into China, or Malaysia, or India, or one of the other flavor-of-the-month offshore locales.

Great. But it's only a matter of time before workers in those places start to demand benefits and guarantees not dissimilar to those of Europe today. Don't be surprised, therefore, when one day Zhou Sixpack gives you the raspberries and says, Go ahead -- just try to fire me.

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