The Expendables

The debate of essential or expendable job types has been around long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Expendable jobs have the primary characteristic that their tasks can be done by anyone, once they are trained properly. Once trained in this expendable position, the employee now has suitable job experience and leaves for a more desirable job. This creates a large amount of expected turnover and churn for the positions. Every person involved in the workflow knows this: the employer, the employee, the customer and the community at large.

Jobs like these are a dime a dozen, and very rarely do they come with a career path. Nobody really wants to do them because there is no future in the position, the tasks are repetitive and they often lack any means to achieve a measure of personal success. With these jobs, it’s understood you can be replaced tomorrow by any other person.

It’s a numbers game. The people working in call centers, food processing plants or fulfillment centers are treated as expendable. While the work they do is essential and necessary for smooth operation, the specific individuals who do these essential tasks rarely matter.

There is an ongoing debate on whether these positions should actually be seen as a positive career step rather than something less valuable or as a last resort. Not because the people doing them are expendable, but because these positions have the necessary intermediate learning skills that lead to advancement and growth.

Look to Chipotle, the fast food restaurant, as an example of a company investing in their new hires. They offer tuition reimbursement of up to $5,250 per year to employees, whether part-time or full-time. All they have to do is work a minimum of 15 hours per week for 4 months. The impact this advancement opportunity has on the organization and the society as a whole is a net positive.

Flip the Script

What happens when we flip this script? Let’s have companies treat all roles as essential as a standard business practice and provide each employee with a clear path for their skill-building. Staff education and training is not discretionary but becomes a standard cost of doing business.

The results? We all know that when an employee feels essential and valued, their customer and community interaction reflect this. The company’s reputation improves, and as a result, valued employees take ownership for their company success. They become essential to the success of their employer rather than viewed as a mindless set of hands for shift work. This ultimately adds up to an increase in bottom line profitability.

Getting off the Hamster Wheel

Throughout my life, I folded towels and hospital gowns at the laundry service for the University of Iowa. I continued to work my way through college as a custodian, mopping the floors of the laundry service, cleaning bathrooms at the health science library and emptying trash in the music building. Finished with college, I took the route of working in an outbound call center making telemarketing calls. I was hired into their management training program, and like every other manager in the company, I had to prove myself on the phone selling subscriptions for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Over 30 years later, I’m still on the phone, though now I am on the other side, selling these very same call center services that began my career.

Companies spend billions of dollars annually on voluntary entry-level high turnover positions just to keep that hamster wheel spinning. Most of these high turnover positions make less than $30,000 annually. According to the Center for American Progress, it costs about 16% of the annual salary to replace an entry-level person 1. This does not take into account the loss of productivity. If companies invested only 10% of the annual salary of each employee into retention and development, the result is an overall decrease in expense, increase in bottom-line profitability and an increase in employee satisfaction.

This is also a numbers game. Only this time, the numbers work out better for everybody.

The bottom-line argument may be the best argument we can make for ending employee churn. It’s not the only one, or even the most important one, yet the numbers are the most easily understood and calculated without dispute. A company’s reputation is upheld, whether good or bad, by their employees, their customers and their community.

As consumers, when we hear about the mistreatment of employees and poor working environments in companies like Amazon, or the meat packers whose health and safety are sacrificed for profit, we respond by looking for other places to spend our money. If these companies are not willing to invest at minimum in better working conditions, then clearly they would not invest in the growth and advancement of the employees who enter at the lowest rung on the ladder.

When companies want to change their reputation in the community, they need to change the story from the inside. Change their policies and make it a better place to work for everyone. They need to get out of the headlines, get their act together and take some responsibility for creating a better world.

Consumers don’t like to spend their money with companies where employees are treated like garbage.

It’s time to invest in employees, not just at high levels, but invest in employees at their point of entry into the job market.

We Can Do Better

This Way Ahead from Gap Inc. is one model of a company reaching beyond their bricks and mortar. They recruit low-income youth aged 16-24 to participate in a work-based learning program. Gap works with them in both classrooms and stores. The program includes a 10-week paid internship and provides the young people with a job coach, intern manager and peer mentor to support them during their internship. It’s making a difference for the participants, for Gap (knowing this about them leads to a desire to support their efforts and becoming a repeat customer) and for participating communities. They’ve invested in development by providing skills, some even before they graduate high school. Of course, they are trying to train future Gap employees, like any internship, but they are also giving back to the communities by helping participants overcome the barriers to economic opportunity and preparing them to enter the job market with life-changing skills from the beginning.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

As a Director of Sales for telemarketing teams, perhaps the most important lesson I learned along the way was that my teams are only as good as the least productive team member. It can be easy to fall into a trap of developing the middle and top producers; however, my experience has been that when I focus energy and time coaching and mentoring the poorest performers, performance of the entire team improves. Rising tides lift all boats.

We need companies to start thinking about how they can improve the socio-economic standing of the people in their communities. We need leaders to find ways to hire, train, motivate and develop members of their community who face barriers, like injustice and inequality.

It has never been more imperative to work for and with companies that share a belief that investing in all employees at every level of the organization brings greater value to the company and the community. If there is one thing we’ve learned in 2020 – people are not expendable. Get off the hamster wheel and improve your corporate bottom line. Give people a chance. Help them succeed. The world perspective has changed and there is a new norm.

Invest in your employees, improve your bottom line and start making the difference. Your success is dependent upon it.

Picture of Ruth Egherman

Ruth Egherman

Ruth Egherman is a Director of Marketing and Sales at Artsmarketing Services, selling outbound telemarketing and telefunding services to non-profit organizations across all sectors. She has hired, trained, motivated, coached, and disciplined close to a thousand employees through her 31-year career. She especially enjoys working with employees, at all levels, to help them enhance their skills and develop new ones to advance their careers. Connect with Ruth on LinkedIn and learn more about her work at Artsmarketing Services at


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