Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cry Me A River, Union Pacific

This weekend's Wall Street Journal has an interesting article, "Skilled jobs are difficult to fill," by Ben Casselman (11/26-27). It focuses on the problem some companies have hiring skilled technical workers -- people who aren't required to have a four year degree but do have some training above the high school level. One of the story threads follows a recruiter for Union Pacific as she tries to hire installation technicians. The job involves climbing 50 foot towers or utility poles, being away from home half the time, and working outdoors in a variety of climates. The salary starts at $48K and there is possibility for overtime. Workers pay 15% of their health care benefits. There is a union and the job has a pension attached. I don't know anything about the job other than what is in the article but I wonder if someone could physically do that kind of work long enough to get to retirement / pension age.

The article says that time away from home is one reason the company has trouble filling the jobs. I noticed something else. When people apply there is an initial screening. Those that pass are invited "to take a $25 aptitude test at their own expense." Twenty-four people were invited to take the test, 18 did, and 13 passed. Of those only two accepted an invitation to interview.

This is what struck me -- people had to pay to take an aptitude test; it cost a total of $450 to pay for those 18 people to take that test. This is after an initial screening. Why didn't Union Pacific pick up that cost, especially if they have trouble hiring for that job?

As a contrast, the CEO of Union Pacific, Jim Young, earned $12 million in 2010, including a bonus of $3.7 million (see "Union Pacific CEO's compensation grows to $12 million," by Josh Funk, AP 3/26/2011). What do you think the odds are that he had to pay $25 out of pocket to take an aptitude test before he was hired? I wonder if he pays for 15% of his health care insurance.

One rationale given for the high rate of pay for corporate executives is that these are talented people who work hard at difficult jobs and you have to pay them a lot. I don't disagree with that; corporate executives do work hard and the job is difficult. But it isn't easy being up on a 50 foot tower in a Wyoming winter either. I think the least Union Pacific could do is pay for the aptitude test for job applicants that have already passed a preliminary screening.

In any event, I don't have much sympathy for Union Pacific in this regard.

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