Yesterday I went to the welfare office. There remains a tinge of stigma on anything to do with welfare. I will admit that I'm not immune from it. As I made my way to the 'dole' office, something gnawed at my pride. Of course, this effect is shaped entirely by the orthodoxy that insists we must be working all the time.
We are not invited to look at it rationally, which would give a picture something like this: we work most of the time and pay in to a system that is intended to provide a safety net. More important, globalisation as made many jobs very volatile and Ireland has bought in particularly heavily to this model, therefore it is right that the state should provide adequate bridges to help people make their way between islands of work.
I was pleasantly surprised by my first visit. I had this image of nasty staff harassing applicants in a deliberate effort to discourage people from making further claims. In fact, the lady who dealt with me was courteous and helpful. And the process seamed relatively smooth to begin with. This all made it much easier. I need to go back in a few days with more documents, then I hope the payments will start. I view it as a refund of my own money!
Over the last few days I've had time to reflect on what has happened. Strangely enough, the downturn in Ireland is not the reason the company had layoffs. It is more to do with the fact that the firm never fully recovered from the dot com bust. It has been struggling ever since. Certainly, the bust in 2001 accelerated the phenomenon of offshoring which was already underway. This meant that while the market for our services (IT development) recovered, the downward pressure remained on costs and we kept on struggling to win projects. The company has an office in Eastern Europe and over the last few years that office grew while the Irish office shrank. It seemed like a deliberate ploy to keep costs lower. But even that wasn't enough.
The senior management too have been less than inspiring. They have been with the company almost since the start and are all engineers bar one, who is an accountant. I'm sure they read management blurb and are influenced by the latest trends. But they show a poor understanding of some elements of business. A poor quarter and they abandon their latest and greatest strategy for a new one. They cannot surrender pet projects – a few of which have been embarrassingly costly and were obvious dead ends. They seem to forget a very important fact: a service company relies on people! The latter failing has been catastrophic. While management grew more and more obsessed about building stories for the market and the press, they simply let the whole notion of a career in the company die a slow painful death. Morale ebbed away to reach biblical proportions. Cynicism spread through the workforce like a silent plague. A company that once gave people careers now gives jobs – mostly bad ones, and obviously not very secure ones either.
So while the layoffs were a bolt from the blue, with hindsight a few fragments of straw had been swirling by in the breeze. The company was doing badly and had been struggling for years. Over the last year our new owners, (we were taken over a few years ago), had become increasingly irritated by the performance of the company. They were stepping up the pressure on management to stop making losses, whatever it might take. And certainly a number of our business lines have been, to say the least, unimpressive. There had already been some mild restructuring – a department head removed here, a research project canned there, and so on.
But there you are. It's academic for me now and one merciful aspect of my recent experience is that I'm now liberated from an environment that had become infected with gloom.
Finally, just to say that, in a social setting, I have already met many of my ex-colleagues who survived the cull and their response was overwhelmingly, almost embarrassingly, sympathetic. I have felt a very genuine sense that they felt sorry or my situation. True, they now face going back in to a workplace where morale is even lower than is possible to measure, but still, I believe the good wishes were heart felt. That kind of reassurance is very welcome at a time like this. Not only were they re-assuring but helpful as well, in some cases providing me with a list of contacts they knew that might give me leads in a search for a new job.
And of course, there have been some very kind remarks here online as well. So there is such a thing as humanity after all! Alright, let's leave it at that. Time to move on and figure out what's next.