Replacable

12-08-2011

Margaret, Grace, Petronella, Maureen, Jacqueline are laughing themselves silly when they hear my offer. I have just offered them 200 shillings each to take their picture. They are the women on Muringa road in Kilimani and they have puzzled me for months for their role in the Nairobi labor market. They are casual laborers sitting on street corners, waiting to be picked up by someone for whom they can do the cleaning, the washing or the cooking. Their price per day is 200 shillings, or €1,60: no tax, no fringe benefits, no company car. This is the bottom of the labor market. So these five women have made a good deal today.

For years I taught that producing commodities was the bottom of the value chain. In Kenya I learned two years ago that people themselvescan be bottom of the value chain, when no distinct skills are required and people just line up to do the work. I wonder what beliefs make people offer their services in such standardized fashion, without trying to distinguish themselves. The street corner forms the simple market place where skills get brokered. Every woman knows exactly what to expect and what her value is, once they enter the market place.

Many companies are market places of work as well, although less straightforward and transparent than these street corners. You don’t just queue up for work at the coffee machine, the main entrance or the HR department, if you are out of work. You show your unique talents through your work and hope or ensure that these talents get noticed. In many ways job titles, job descriptions and competency profiles play a similar role as the street corners: they commoditize the work in the service economy. The better the knowledge or skill can be described, documented, trained, certified and monitored, the easier it can be detached from a person and right sized, outsourced or replaced.

That is why I would expect people to want to be different, to stand out and make it impossible to fit a job spec. In this light senior managers, who aspire to the next level in a professional service firm can puzzle me in a similar way as the ladies on Nairobi’s street corners. They sometimes argue: “it is unclear what exactly I need to do in order to become a partner”. To me they seem to ask for their future job to be ‘commoditized’ before they get there. The need for clarity and certainty seems universal from the bottom to the top of the labor market.