Tuesday, 20 March 2018

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Take This Job, Please

A recent issue of The Economist featured a four-page spread headlined Executive Focus. Though essentially career opportunities most of us are unqualified to pursue, I was nonetheless intrigued.

America’s Central Intelligence Agency was recruiting according to a half-page, vertical, full-colour ad. No specific work background required but candidates with experience in business and marketing were deemed highly desirable. I thought, “There it is, the job I’ve wanted my entire life, and I finally fit some of the criteria!” America’s bloated intelligence industry which inflated insanely following 9/11 is facing a crisis. Though operations have become increasingly digitized in the Information Age, the best and brightest minds are instead drawn to Silicon Valley, lured by better money and less stringent working conditions. I thought, “The CIA will hire anybody now,” until I read the fine print: I could not join the drug-free workforce without possessing United States citizenship. “Can’t go for those, no can do.” Glee gone.

I turned the page to face a double-truck, black-only, bilingual ad seeking a new president and chief executive officer for Canada Post and its trio of subsidiaries. Lately I’ve been re-fighting the Second World War on YouTube, watching ancient episodes of Garrison’s Gorillas, The Rat Patrol and Combat!. Each series boasts a similar scene: some poor, perspiring bastard on his hands and knees poking at the dirt in a minefield with the tip of his bayonet. This is the job the Government of Canada hopes someone other than me will apply for, in confidence.

Times have changed since the Upper and Lower Canadas confederated in 1867. Canadian Crown corporations sport spotty histories. For the most part, these bastards of a mixed economy were created to supply essential services that the private sector was incapable, unwilling or distrusted to provide. In theory Crown corporations are models of enlightened capitalism in that profit is not their main goal but nor is draining the national treasury and so breaking even each fiscal year is the middling, sensible bar set for these entities.

Every Canadian taxpayer is a stakeholder in every Canadian Crown corporation. Every Canadian should derive some incremental benefit from the existence of any government administered business. The hitch is that Crown corporations are government businesses. They are subject to the philosophy, will and whims of the ruling party in Ottawa; long-term vision might last for three years or less because there’s always an election on the horizon. Senior executive positions, patronage plums, used to be doled out to committee room fixers, bagmen, party acolytes deemed too greasy for more prestigious Senate appointments. All a bit like the CIA these days: not much experience necessary.

Canada Post is a venerable 19th century institution attempting to cope in the 21st. Besides, telegraphs and telegrams were never a threat. Nor was Bell Telephone: people kept writing letters because long distance was so expensive. Cell phones were expensive toys for busy salesmen. Electronic mail was destined to remain an internal corporate communications tool. The disastrous parallel is Kodak blindly convinced that people would always require its film for their cameras (and high school drug dealers its canisters).

Faced with a rapidly declining volume of letter mail, unwieldy labour contracts and fearsome pension obligations, Canada Post finally began to pivot. The proposal that irked Canadians coast to coast to coast was the cessation of home delivery in favour of community mailboxes. Fewer carriers, inexpensive part-timers, could cover more walks. This was not a radical innovation. The method had already been implemented in apartment buildings, condominium developments and new suburban sub-divisions. Canada’s population is getting old; a goodly portion of us remember when the postman always rang twice and turned up again on Saturdays. And by God, we fought for the ongoing household delivery of nothing rather than walking a block for no reason.

We’re fortunate at the Crooked 9. By some quirk of fate we still have home delivery. However, our regular carrier has not been striding her route for a week now. I hope she’s on holiday and not been rotated to another neighbourhood in the city. Her substitute is some kid who wears a black flu mask – probably over his eyes because any mail we’ve received recently needs to be redirected to our neighbours. Maybe he could get work with the CIA, they’ll hire anybody, although dead letter drops might be tricky.

Canada Post’s venture into the digital world has met with middling results. Essentially the Crown Corporation was years late and an algorithm short. The other two pillars of continuing viability present an interesting juxtaposition. Direct mail, addressed or unaddressed, junk to you, works, does its job for marketers. Quaint though still remarkably effective, flyers, pamphlets and postcards draw consumers to sellers in their towns.

Cannily, Canada Post plays both sides of the country’s diminishing main streets. Revenue comes in e-commerce cartons, parcel delivery. Here, ironically, Canada Post competes against itself because Purolator, its courier subsidiary, does the exact same thing. A logistics analyst might describe the situation as a dual delivery stream. All I see are conflicting brands, and redundancies of services, jobs, fleets and facilities. A formal unification of the co-habiting cannibals only makes sense.

The morass would lay ahead, in the stew of negotiating to unite two different corporate cultures, one heavily unionized and the other not so much. A family discussion becomes a heated screaming match, dirty work. The elderly, the disabled, grandstanding politicians and union stewards will shriek about the demise of the old ways even though the status quo is ultimately the gateway to a wasteland haunted by the ghosts of Kodak and Toys “R” Us; a smoking moonscape populated with the broke spirits of Canada Post pensioners who like former Sears workers depended on their employer for a dignified retirement. Do you want this job? Are dissent, pizza flyers and hamburger coupons your passion?

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