Monday, December 22, 2008

Wonder how much Karl's giving to the Alumni Fund this year?

The Chicago Tribune has a rather perky story today about one Karl Buschmann. It takes only a few minutes looking around the Internet to get a picture of successful businessman Buschmann: in 2000, he was featured in the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (hey, that's Booth now) as a marketing manager; just two years ago, he was named executive director of the Japan America Society of Chicago, and he was also founder and chairman of the business school's International Roundtable. Here's a guy who did the right things, got the MBA in 1985, parlayed that into the kind of connections and ties that should have ensured his success.

And yet, Buschmann has been out of work for a year and a half. Well, not quite out of work - he now cleans toilets at a clothing store. The Tribune article is titled, "Former execs prove well-suited to 'survival' jobs," a fairly sprightly title for what should be seen as a cautionary tale and a catastrophe (I've reprinted the article in full below, because I'm still not sure how the Tribune handles old articles).

This is actually a pretty strange article, with bizarre shifts in tone and content. To summarize:
  • Buschmann's good at selling menswear, because he has a great resume
  • He has to do whatever he can because he needs to work, even sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilets
  • But he seems happy that he's good at his job
  • You can follow the rules, achieve a great deal, and still move downward
  • But it should be good for retailers because they can pay minimum wage to seasonal workers who are really good with their MBAs and experience
  • But they aren't hiring anyone anyway
  • So even the minimal advantage that a Buschmann would bring to retailing, what with his work ethic and all, isn't helping people like him
  • Even with a great background, then, you can't find work in what you're trained to do, and you can't find work in a lesser field that might be able to use your talents
  • So Buschmann also works in a warehouse lugging heavy boxes, even though he's 54, but maybe that's OK because he's a triathlete
  • And his business experience implies that he understands the needs of suit-buying executives
I can't tell whether this article thinks Buschmann's situation is good or bad, so let me help.

This is bad, really bad. It's certainly bad for Karl Buschmann, who did all the right things, got the right degrees, joined the right professional organizations, got his name out there. But maybe you're an old-line Reaganomics type, and you say, "Well, that's just the way it goes, creative destruction and all that."

But can we really afford to take someone who has many productive years ahead of him and throw him, and so many others, on the scrapheap? Let's forget the plight of Buschmann for a minute, and think about what this implies.

First, here's someone who has proven talents and abilities, at a time when this country needs such people, and the best we can find for him to do is to sweep floors. We've got wetbrains paying themselves millions while their companies go down the tubes, and we think it's just part of the economic process that people like this man are cleaning toilets.

Second, what does this say to our young people? The mantra is, work hard, go to school, get that graduate degree, go into debt, do whatever the company asks you to do, and your reward will come. That's right, your reward will be to schlep heavy crates around a cold warehouse at the age of 54, and you better keep yourself in triathlon shape just in case.

Third, expect the media, on the rare occasions when they notice you at all, to write incoherent stories with cutesy headlines about this problem - my guess is the stories won't be quite so breezy when there are huge numbers of journalists who are toting that barge and lifting that bale.

Karl Buschmann has sold menswear for only a month now, but, it turns out, he's pretty good at it.

Maybe it's his years of international business experience.

Or his graduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

Or his University of Chicago MBA, Class of 1985.

Or the fact that he really, really needs this gig as a part-time sales clerk.

After a year and a half without full-time employment, the 54-year-old Schaumburg resident is resigned to doing whatever he must.

If that means sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilet at a clothing store, so be it.

"You just check your ego. It's what you've got to do," he said. "I'm good at my job."

As the recession turns ever uglier, job seekers are lowering their expectations, and employers are seeing applications from some of the most highly qualified candidates in memory.

With top companies cutting positions by the thousands, a stellar resume and strong work ethic are no guarantee against downward mobility.

"When they said, 'Go to college, go to work and, once you're qualified, the system takes care of you,' it doesn't anymore," said Brian Healy, a ministry leader at the Holy Family Job Support Group, where Buschmann is a member. "Unemployment is very bad and getting worse."

The educated, white-collar workers lining up for unemployment checks have come in handy for retailers who typically staff up during the holidays. All else being equal, that high quality should translate into better service, said Neil Stern, a senior partner with Chicago retail consultancy McMillan/Doolittle.

Yet, this is the first year in "a long, long time" that holiday hiring is down, he noted. With the recession squeezing merchants across the board, sales staffs in many cases are leaner than ever.

After decades of dwindling retail service, customers expect less. Forget about knowledgeable, friendly help. If stores have their products readily available and make checkout a breeze, "That's good customer service today," Stern said.

A few merchants such as Nordstrom's, Container Store and Trader Joe's pay more to maintain higher standards. But for most, especially with the economy flagging, "It's about cutting, trying to run as lean and minimally as possible," he said. "Survival may hinge on how fast and deep you can cut."

That approach obviously does no favors for Buschmann, who also works part time in a warehouse hauling heavy packages to qualify for the company's unusually good benefits, though it's a tough workout even for a perennial triathlete.

"I'm working a couple of survival jobs to earn a few shekels and obtain medical insurance," he said.

It's a far cry from his days of business travel to China and Germany, working in the software and consumer-electronics industries.

At least he can relate to the executives who buy suits from him. And his experience overseas comes in handy when the customers occasionally hail from Europe, Asia or Africa.

Buschmann's extended job search also has taught him he's not alone. Plenty of fellow fiftysomethings are looking for high-level corporate jobs too.

"There's more people in the pool now," he said. "We're out there in the marketplace in spades." (Greg Burns)


Citizen Carrie said...

Maybe Buschmann's Twitter skills are lacking?

BTW, I did a story at Carrie's Nation about this post.

whatshisname said...

My God, this is depressing. I do not even know where to begin...I am even more grateful for my advantages (while they last?) than I was before I read this.

Anonymous said...

Once you get out of your specialization, be lucky get back into anything. Let's say 1.5 years get behind me without any activity in my chosen profession. I'd be delivering pizza again, or fitting crotch lines at the Men's Warehouse, in a job I'd be lucky to get.

But your point is about a sort of "class tenure"... make the right choices, and America will deliver. Recently VP-elect Biden was named to a task force to study and defend interests of the middle class.

I cleaned toilets and swept floors in part of the last recession, between selling pizza slices to rich, white children who attend an elite private high school nearby. I expect no reward from that mantra you described there: get a graduate degree, go into debt, follow company orders, and a reward will come? Nonsense. Delusions. Which leaves us... where? Looking still for some assurance that proper credentialing is sufficient for maintenance of class status? It is not, and thank goodness for that.

Ron May said...

I don't want to sound like the skunk at the garden party, but I have known Karl Buschmann for years now, albeit not all that well. Well enough though to tell you that as smart as he may be, he is lacking in what we used to call 'people skills,' not that he is a techie dork or geek or anything like that, but he is somewhat the equivalent of that for the business world. He used to write a column for my report and his columns should still be there on the site.

He is likeable enough, but he's a bit stiff and not the most garrulous person in the world. At any social gathering there would not be flock of people around him in all likelihood. I personally like the guy but I have an affinity for 'odd ducks' being one myself. Karl is a classic University of Chicago type and I doubt that Kellogg would have admitted him.

He has legitimately been involved in doing business overseas, but he has not had what you might call a traditional corporate job as far as I know. He organized a few trade missions to China and he has been entrepreneurial in some ways, but always on the edge. I know he has an MBA from U. of C., but my recollection is that much of his international activity was tied to Northwestern. There is much more, but let this suffice for now.

I just wanted to say that actually knowing a person helps and labels, including degrees earned, are not very helpful when you want to get below the surface.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us about Mr. Buschmann in more detail, Ron. The thesis here is that Mr. Buschmann's fate awaits us all, and you seem to refute that, but the host added a whole new post to suck up to you anyway.

Anonymous said...


I just stumbled upon this and your comments. Amazing that someone who would call themselves a friend, or a professional public leader would make comments about anyone like you have in your post. You must have some other issues that you are not telling us about yourself and your own limitations personally and professionally. It for sure tells me about your "People Skills". I would hope that programs like Northwestern and Chicago would actually teach a few lessons on ethics - oh, sorry I forgot, this recession is the result of poor business ethics. Perhaps you can educate us on the ethics you learned while in school for us? Just to help you a little bit, I am referring to the ethics of business decision making, but also the ethics of treating people with the respect they deserve.

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