Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Seeds of Postal Service’s decline planted years ago

In June 1994, leaving the employ of the U.S. Postal Service seemed like the biggest mistake I had ever made.

Friends, relatives, co-workers and postal managers advised me that I’d starve to death out in “the private sector,” and that as soon as a job interviewer found out I had a postal past I’d be removed from consideration for employment. I didn’t feel that way, though, and it turns out I was right.

It was easy to understand their viewpoint, however. Many people sought lifelong jobs, economic security and a sense of purpose in the Postal Service and found it there. Sure, the postal facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where I worked for more than eight years of my nearly 11½ years in the Postal Service, was far from a workplace where insight, understanding and forward thinking were encouraged, but for many people it was the only job they ever knew. The devil you know is often a lesser threat than the one you don’t, and that kept people from considering other careers, pursuing educational opportunities and eventually leaving the Postal Service.

I was a rebel. An outlier.

For six years, I had pursued higher education at a community college and then a university, working at night at the postal facility and taking classes during the day. Thanks to a set schedule that never changed, a benefit of being in a union job, I could plan my semesters, find the courses I needed and even participate in a couple of extracurricular activities at college. Thanks to the good postal pay, I was able to cover my living expenses and get a bachelor’s degree without taking out a student loan. During lunch breaks, I’d sit in the employee cafeteria with headphones on, studying and doing homework while listening to Mozart and Beethoven, and dream of my future outside those walls.

In many ways, it was the best time of my life. I had given up my hopes of advancing within the Postal Service and was on a new and better path.

Others thought I had gone around the bend psychologically. Out of the thousands of workers at the postal facility, only one other had gone to college at the same time I did and graduated, and then moved on to better things. I was determined to be the second one.

By the early 1990s, the reality was that computers were here to stay, and online services were becoming popular. People found they could contact each other in writing without writing a letter, putting a stamp on it and mailing it through the Postal Service. Businesses pumped out catalogs and advertising mail, and some postal facilities were getting close to gridlock.

“The mail will never be replaced, so long as senior citizens can’t figure out computers,” I heard from postal managers. “And they’re too old to learn to use them.”

But I knew that wasn’t true, because I’d seen retired folks take to computers and discover the wonders of email. Computers were becoming easier to use. Businesses were learning how to use the Internet for functions that had, in the past, taken place through the mail. Much of what we take for granted about the online world was in its formative stages then, but depending on who you asked I was either out of my mind or correct in my belief that the Postal Service was going to lose this technology war.

In 1993, I attended a postal “Career Awareness Conference” to see if there was finally any chance that I could advance in the system. I had started in college in 1988 after two years of mostly futile efforts to get promoted to even entry-level management; I again wanted to see if there was any future advancement in the Postal Service for someone like me.

If nothing else, the conference showed me that I was on the right track out the door. “God has taken the Postal Service under His protection,” one worker declared. “He won’t let anything bad happen.” That sort of thinking, while comforting, didn’t take into account that alternatives to the mail were already in use, and more were on the way. Other signs were more worrisome. In Florida, hundreds of able-bodied workers were on “injury comp” and not touching the mail, and virtually every postal installation had a horde of allegedly injured “Equal Employment Opportunity” staffers who made a postal salary while making photocopies and handing each other paperwork for 40 hours a week.

Training for newly hired workers was non-existent, and most of the new hires I saw in my years in West Palm Beach quit soon after starting the job or were fired, though not before royally messing things up due to a lack of training. A supervisor once took issue with the fact that I was teaching newly hired workers their jobs, declaring, “It’s a waste of time to train them because they just quit after a month.” I tried to explain that training them might mean they’d stay awhile and do better work, but she declared that the fact that they were working for the Postal Service instead of doing something else was a clear indication of their lack of intelligence and untrainability.

In the Postal Service, position made you right, not experience or knowledge. I had to stop training newly hired workers and refuse to answer their questions.

I found this odd because in late 1982, after getting out of the Marine Corps, I had worked over the Christmas holiday for United Parcel Service, and even though I was a temporary worker, one of the two managers in the facility watched me work, taught me how to load the familiar brown trucks and explained how I could do my job better and more efficiently. I was flattered that even though I was a temporary worker for the holiday the company was willing to expend that kind of time, money and effort on me, and the supervisor said it was an investment for the company, even if I left or was let go – as I was — and never came back.

In the Postal Service, though, training – except for the letter sorting machines and other sorting devices — was considered a waste of time that took resources away from “productive” work. “Most people who come to work here are too dumb to work anywhere else,” a human resources manager told me one time. “So what’s the point of showing them how to do anything?”

Such a viewpoint was even expressed to new hires at new employee orientation, which shocked me. In all my years of working since the Postal Service, I have never worked for a company, no matter how menial the job, where orientation began with an insult for coming to work there.

Sadly, despite my own intellectual pretensions, I think that even if the Postal Service had given me more than a two-week tryout as a supervisor and manager, the outcome wouldn’t have changed. Technology is making the Postal Service obsolete; it’s just taking a very, very long time to work itself out.

I am part of the problem, too. I buy stamps perhaps once every two months, and transact most of my business online. I still pay a few bills by mail, and order products and services online. Still, I will miss the catalogs and occasional letters that land in my mailbox. It’s a hard fact that the decline and eventual fall of the Postal Service, at least in its current form, is an inevitability.

Change is very painful to people, and while some of us can embrace it and find new paths, there are many who believed that the Postal Service would never change, and never would face a serious challenge to its dominance. If there’s anyone left in the Postal Service with any foresight at all, they will see the approaching end. If not, they will be the first to pay the price.

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December 1, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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