- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2012

ENDICOTT, N.Y. — Cort Martin followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and made his career at IBM.

That is what nearly everyone did in this town, the birthplace of the century-old technology titan. IBM offered the best salaries, the best benefits, and — best of all — trained Mr. Martin in accounting, management or whatever skill the company needed at a school for IBM employees on its sprawling campus here.

“My whole family was career IBM,” he recalled, a group that included three uncles and an aunt who thought it was simply the best and most admired U.S. company. An IBM staffer starting in the 1960s and 1970s could look forward to many years of generous treatment, from IBM-paid family recreation, child care and golf facilities at the exclusive Heritage Country Club here, to an extremely comfortable retirement with full medical benefits for both employee and spouse. Mr. Martin still cherishes the grandfather’s clock that IBM gave him on his 25th anniversary.

But that was not the IBM from which he retired last year. The company had changed in major ways, mostly to the detriment of its longtime employees.

To prop up its profits and match lower-cost rivals, the company has been on a drive to curb benefits and reduce its North American workforce, replacing thousands of U.S. staffers with lower-paid hires in India, Brazil and other countries. IBM’s U.S. workforce dropped about 30,000 to 105,000 in the past decade while its Indian workforce grew by 9,000 to 75,000. Fewer than one-fourth of people it employs worldwide now are in the U.S.

Most people who work at IBM today do not expect long careers, and the IBM school for training staff was shuttered long ago. Workers now have to keep up their own education, constantly compete within the organization and “reinvent” themselves to maintain their positions. Even those who get good performance reviews can find themselves on the street if they are deemed no longer necessary.

While Mr. Martin’s father and grandfather were feted at company parties when they retired, his retirement came with no applause or even a slap on the back from office mates. Having worked alone from his home here for the past eight years as a part of an IBM drive to eliminate overhead real estate costs, the company was unwilling to fly in colleagues from scattered places across the country to send him off.

Mr. Martin simply woke up one day and quietly realized that he no longer had to go through his daily work routine. That was the beginning of his retirement. But it came with a great deal of relief as he also realized that he no longer had to scramble to keep his job by finding new work to do within IBM as he had six times in his final decade at the company.

His story is not unique, not in the high-tech business and not in many other sectors across the American economy still striving to make up ground lost in the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The Labor Department outlined the depth of the problem Friday, reporting that only 56 percent of Americans laid off from January 2009 through December 2011 had found jobs by the start of this year, and more than half of those workers took jobs with lower pay. One-third took pay cuts of 20 percent or more.

In the leaner, meaner economy that has emerged the recession’s wake, American workers shared their stories of hardship, struggle and recovery with The Washington Times in in-depth interviews, and revealed how their experiences have forever changed their lives and views of the world.

Mr. Martin said that because of his growing difficulties at IBM, he didn’t encourage his children to make their careers at the company — and none of them did.

“I don’t miss it. It just kept changing. You’ve got constant churn,” he said. “You’d have to sell yourself, have another skill set” to keep your job. “You didn’t want to be the guy who doesn’t have a chair when the music stops.”

‘Interchangeable parts’

The change over the years at IBM was dramatic. IBM’s founders in the early 20th century went to great lengths to treat employees with dignity, like family members, giving the company a reputation as one of the nation’s most progressive employers. It was the first to offer paid vacations, life insurance benefits and salaries rather than hourly wage rates.

Today, workers are still among the best-paid in the country, but they are treated more like “outside contractors” or “interchangeable parts in a manufacturing process,” Mr. Martin said.

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