Thursday, September 22, 2011

Compensation in Question

For many years well educated, experienced (and sometimes well-connected) people have generally earned more than their workplace peers. American labor history has traditionally treated seniority, knowledge and skills as most important in deciding how much to pay someone. But given current trends in the business environment those standards may no longer be applicable. Certainly worker longevity and workforce continuity hold some value to business and other organizations but trends in employee turnover and the corporate emphasis on near-term results has undoubtedly eroded this value. Technology and the ability to measure more precisely a worker's activity and contribution may render obsolete these traditional measures of employee value and displace them with more quantifiable measures of worth to a firm.

Experience and seniority sometimes matter, but the employee-employer relationship has evolved to place much greater attention to a worker's contribution to the firm's short-term goals. And with the exception of unionized and some state employees, few workers expect or negotiate any additional compensation for being with a firm for an extended period of time. Nor can firms today expect to employ the same person for much more than the current product cycle given the fluid and unpredictable movement of global production and supply chains.

Paying wages according to an employee's true value to a firm is increasingly measured in terms of productivity. In the past this been largely limited to piece-work, typically on a farm or small manufacturer where the worker is paid a fixed amount per bushel harvested or other unit of measurement. Many factories in early-industralizing economies pay workers by the piece and therefore the more productive are compensated above others although at a relatively lower wage than those in other industries. Farm workers are still often paid this way. In advanced industrialized economies currently the only system of compensation that factors a worker's productivity are in sales commissions where those who generate the most sales for a firm are more highly compensated than those who don't.

Productivity is broadly meant to mean the level of output per unit of hours worked. In the 1990s, productivity of American workers grew very quickly owing largely to the Internet and the efficiencies that digital communication and information handling allowed workers. Technology has historically increased worker productivity from the time of crude tools fashioned with wood or metals to the telegraph, printing press, telephone, etc.

But if productivity is what firms are buying in today's labor market, and if the application of technology in the workplace results in higher productivity then it stands to reason that employers seek those with advanced technological skills because they produce more per hour worked. In the past 20 years, technological aptitude has accrued to the younger (and therefore) less experienced workers. Management guru, Don Tapscott says, for the first time in history "younger people know more than their elders about the biggest innovation of the day." This disparity between skills and experience leads me to conclude that there will be pressures to limit the wages of the most senior (and generally less technologically adept) while inflating wages of the digital natives and neo-natives.

Information technology makes productivity more measurable and with the skills obsolescence cycle shorter, I wonder how we will in the future decide how much each person earns. I suppose the first reaction is that we shouldn't decide, we should let the market decide. If that were allowed to happen, most of us would be in for big changes. The most productive workers would receive the highest compensation in a purely market-base approach to determining salaries and that would in large part mean the younger are paid more than older workers.

[Postscript: Of course Marx would have added, "Need" as a factor.  "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need." Would it be fair if a single parent with 4 children who produces as much as I do (a married, childless man) should be paid more based on his need?]

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