Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On the dumbing down of Australia (and the rest of the world)

Those of you who know what I do not for a living... hey wait, I need to be more specific. Let me rephrase that.

Those of you who know where I acquired my skills in cut price business administration will be relieved to know that I won't be rattling on about the sad state of the education system. Not much anyway.

No, I'm talking about dumbness in professional circles - the sort of people that should know better.

The rot started with the demise of the corner shop and the rise of the supermarket. At this point I could go on to say that it was the availability of motorised private transport that triggered this change, but I won't bother. The supermarket model was a major shift away from the old system where one man (sometimes with help from his family) ran the whole thing - butchered the cow, laid out the meat on the shelves, wrapped it up and took your money. Consequently he knew everything there was to know - but only in his field of expertise.

When supermarkets tried to become all things to all people, that intimate knowledge was lost. In the drive for low prices the retailers hired the cheapest labour money could buy, and didn't bother to teach them anything about the product. Here's a cash register, all you have to do is punch in the numbers and take the money. Customers decided that low prices were more important than real product knowledge or even friendly service, specialist shops couldn't compete and went under, and the age of mediocrity was born.

The spread has been slow but distinct. Supermarkets created a market for dumb blondes who know nothing beyond running a cash register; the population rose to the challenge and produced them. As usual it made more than the supermarkets could use (remember they were trying to cut costs, staff are just an expense really) and the employment market was flooded with them.

Gradually other industries realised that they could hire this cheap labour, thus at a stroke solving their recruitment problems and slashing their expenses. They would get just a few clever people to make the decisions, and have a bunch of these cheap Retail Workers doing the donkey work.

Soon the universities discovered that eighty percent of their graduates were just doing donkey work for the smart guys - needing only slightly more grey matter than a Retail Worker. Why are we wearing out our lecturers teaching students things they will have forgotten by the time they need to use it? Why not just teach them the things they should have been learning in high school, like how to put a sentence together correctly? (Oops, I forgot I said above I wasn't going to make slurs about the public eddication system like that. I apologise. I think.)

It only takes a few years for all sorts of industries to be flooded with mediocrity once the universities start to churn it out. Not just universities either - here's some examples.

You would have thought that flying would be the very last place you'd want to find mediocre training. In aircraft things can go wrong very fast, and there's no way of pulling over to the side of the road to chill out and think about the problem. But about a year ago one of the columns in Australian Aviation magazine talked about a trend whereby people trained as pilots, couldn't get a job with an airline (due to the number of military pilots being lured away by large amounts of money), and instead decided to become instructor pilots.

Many of these raw instructors, said the columnist, had never been in an uncontrolled spin because they couldn't afford a flight in an aircraft rated for them. How could they be an effective trainer?

Possibly the impression of mediocrity is just a reaction against the fact that all the World War II pilots (who had thousands of hours under the most incredible conditions) had died or retired. But I think the AA columnist has a point.

Household goods
How long have you had your freezer? Most people don't keep them for more than five years - ten at the most. When something goes wrong, they get replaced. Gone are the days when you could call a repair person who would take the back off, find that some condensation had corroded the contacts on the motor to the main pump, replace a few wires as preventative maintenance, pocket his fee and leave you with a working device.

No, you first assume that the old one is a write-off (after finding out that the warranty expired last month) and try to buy another. Then you get a bunch of hopeless salespeople trying to tell you the difference between this model and that model, and arranging delivery by a separate company that can't guarantee delivery schedules more accurately than a 48 hour window.

Why is it so? Because nobody in Australia knows how these freezers work. They're designed overseas, manufactured in huge quantity and shipped out here. The only person who knows what speed the motor is supposed to run at doesn't speak English.

Car repair
Once more - gone are the days when a mechanically-minded person could learn about engines and then tinker with a car until it works. No, every engine is different and they have to go to a course to learn it. As often as not it's a case of reprogramming the computer to make it work - and of course the computer is locked up and nobody can touch it.

Engineers used to be incredibly brilliant people - they could do calculations on a slide rule that would baffle a lot of electronic devices. The trainees were apprenticed to an experienced engineer for years and learned the job properly.

Nowadays they are trained to use a calculator or CAD program at university, then sent out to a big firm to practice. The blueprints come out looking great, but do they know that this kind of soil can be a tin crust over a mass of low-density stuff underneath? No, they start digging and then find out the hard way. That's why building projects cost so much.

Medical science is another place you'd expect to find none but the very most cluey people available. They make a mistake, someone dies. They show a lack of confidence, a patient worries and takes longer to recover.

But where in the old days they had years of intensive on-the-job training in the field, now they do a long university course without ever once seeing a patient, are awarded a piece of paper, and go out and practice. No good.

And there are lots of other examples of course. It constantly amazes me when I watch the Mythbusters, that they can find experts in all sorts of areas. You want to know what the actual steel cap out of a safety boot looks like? Here's one. This is just a travelling boot salesperson - not only does she know the name and price of each boot, but she knows how they work. A breath of fresh air.

Of course, it's not all bad news. Recently I was looking at buying an electric booster unit for my bike - climbing out of the Scotchman's Creek basin is no fun when you have to do it three times a week after a day's work. The salesmen in the shop (there were two or three) just happened to be the ones that designed the circuit that controlled the power to the motors. They were able to answer every difficult question I threw at them, and at one point even offered to design a modification to one product to suit our requirements - with a rough quote on the spot. I was seriously impressed.

Interestingly, it's the supermarkets, which started the downward trend, that are doing the most to reverse it. They're (re-)discovering that once you've cut costs to the bone, the only way to make money is to have more customers. Real rocket science folks. And to have more customers, you have to make sure they're happy to come back to you. Getting into brain surgery here! And how do you make them happy? You give them good service.

Of course it's a long hard road, reversing 50 years of bad attitudes. Entire procedures manuals have to be rewritten. Point of Sale software has to be modified. What gives the most trouble is taking away safeguards - they were put in place for a good reason (even though the reason assumed the worst of both customers and staff) and the responsible course is to protect the company. But the consequences of doing so are that the company can't give good service. It takes real guts (in a corporate vice president sort of way) to fix that sort of thing, and it happens slowly. But we ARE seeing progress.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Angelico said...

Another spammer! I love you, I love you to pieces. Have I introduced you to Kelpie?

Kelpie, ATTACK!