(In)Adequate Staffing In The Workplace

I think a lot about the way that workplaces are staffed. My previous job specifically hired people who hadn’t worked anywhere else and then basically ground then into dust for way too little pay, relying on quantity to make up for a lack of quality (specifically to rely on the quanitity of employees to make up for the lack of quality training they gave to those entry-level employees). Some people thrived in that environment and some people, myself included, did not because they didn’t fit in perfectly. My current job tends to work very hard to avoid getting rid of employees but seems to be struggling with figuring out how to retain employees, especially young-ish ones. At thirty one, I’m one of the youngest people on my team and, until this week, at almost six years, had worked at the company for the shortest amount of time. Throw in a bunch of horror stories about working at Amazon facilities, coffee shops, university systems (to name a few high-profile employers who have achieved a level of notoriety thanks to the recent surge of labor violations on their parts and the resulting union drives) and I’ve got a lot of different data about what it’s like to work for an employer that has staffing issues.

My first employer burned through employees at a prodigious rate. At one point, the numbers I’d assembled using employee IDs and the company’s stated year-to-year change in number of current employees made it clear that only a third of the employees they’d hired that year had stuck around long enough for a year-end report and who knows how many of those actually stayed a full year. In the three years I was there, the total number of employees currently employed by the company had gone up by only two thousand (which is still staggeringly huge) but the new ID numbers given to people hired just before I left were over 10,000 higher than my own. They threw more and more people at every problem that came up and only slowed down this process long after I’d left when it became undeniably clear that it was only making things worse. I’ve got no idea what has gone on there in the almost six years since I left, but I can’t imagine it has gotten much better for people given the stories I still occasionally hear.

My current employer does a better job of meeting staffing numbers in a general sense, focusing on getting people adequate training, investing in current employees, and trying to figure out how to make this place a good place to work. Unfortunately, they run into issues because it pays below industry standard for pretty much every role, which isn’t as big of an issue for most of the employee population. Specifically, a population who have all lived around here for multiple decades, who have mortgages from long before the housing market crash, and who aren’t swamped by student debt. Those who are currently being hired by the company or who have been hired while I’ve worked here are in a worse position. The only way I’m still fine is because I can work overtime and, because my team is fairly lean compared to most, there’s always enough work to be done that I can easily justify as much overtime as I’m willing to do when my boss demands an accounting. Lots of people my age or younger stick around for a few years and then find something that pays better so they might actually be able to buy a house some day or because they’re tired of putting up with crusty, old rust-buckets who refuse to change by saying that their methods are tried and true. While that’s correct some of the time, it’s wrong often enough that people advocating for change or improvement get sick of hearing it.

Another thing I think about all the time is that my first employer always had enough people to do the work even if people went on vacation. The only projects that wouldn’t get handed off to other people if someone was out sick or taking a week off where highly specialized projects that had plenty of time before they were due. A lot of work went into making sure every expert had at least two backups so that someone leaving or being out sick wouldn’t prevent work from getting done. Sure, they did it in a way that was all but literally grinding employees into dust, but being out sick wasn’t a horrible experience because you’d come back and the work you were too sick to do would be done. I can’t speak about other teams or departments, but the work is waiting for you when you get back if you’re out sick or on vacation at my current employer. The deadlines are usually a lot more flexible, so it rarely results in additional pressure to get the work done on time, but sometimes ill-fated stars align and you come back after a week off to discover no one else had time to pitch in on that project you asked them to help with and now you have to try to get as much done in the next two days as you can while fervently praying to whatever gods will hear you that it’ll be enough to not hold up the project.

Still, on my team, we don’t really specialize that much. At least not officially, anyway. Unofficially we’re specialized as hell, though we’re working to fix that. There’s tons of work that, if I disappeared for a week, just wouldn’t get done because the time it would take for someone else to figure out how to do it and then do it would be longer than just waiting for me to get back. The same is true of my coworkers. We’ve been trying to reduce the amount of work like this over the past year, but I wasn’t sure we’d succeeded until this week. All the other testers are out on vacation and four high-priority projects came into testing, so I spent most of this week scrambling to get rapid feedback to developers, create test plans for projects I’m barely familiar with, and figure out how to collect useful data on a prototype so the engineers can start focusing on what needs to be improved before the next prototyped is created. I’m more busy and exhausted than I’ve been in months but I’m getting everything done at least a little bit. I’m making some progress or at least keeping the plates spinning.

Unfortunately, all of this might go to waste since I’m out on vacation next week when all the other testers will be coming back to work, so all of the transfer of knowledge is going to be done via documentation and via the engineers. Which shouldn’t be too bad, since all the engineers know their stuff and I’m quite skilled at producing thorough and easily-understood testing documentation (it’s practically my specialty). Still, I’m concerned about how much is going to get lost in translation since documentation is only good if you read it and me being the person testing things means I have direct knowledge of the projects in ways that the other people on those projects don’t. Direct knowledge that my fellow testers will need to pick up from where I left off.

Ultimately, this isn’t my problem. This is a weird situation that came about because we’re technically short-staffed and have just been getting by because we’ve managed to avoid having all of our projects come due for testing at the same time. That looks like it’s ending now, given all the projects that came due this week and all of the stuff on the horizon, and it is my employer’s choice not to hire an additional tester who could help bridge this gap or relieve this pressure. So I’m going to go on my vacation without a shred of guilt and refuse to answer my phone until I’m back at work the week afterwards. That’s my time, after all, and I have incredibly firm work/life boundaries. I would love it if this ends with my employer hiring more staff and doing a better job of figuring out how to retain staff in general, but I’m not holding my breath.

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