A dear friend and colleague of mine, with whom I have worked closely, found out last Friday that she will lose her job in 60 days. She’s been working for a large, national company for over twenty-five years, starting as an operator in a tool crib and growing into the role of training manager at her plant.
I’m sure there were points along the path of our friendship when she was grateful to be working for what appeared to be a stable, solid institution as compared to me in a small, precarious business. She had numerous benefits, including organizational support for continuing education, profit sharing, and a terrific benefits package. As a small business owner, it was easy at the time to find myself attracted to the idea of working for a stable company like hers.
However, during the course of the past two years, her plant has been reduced from nearly one thousand employees to four hundred, not including the cuts on Friday. Many people who anticipated retiring from the company after years and years of service, similar to their parents, have been let go. Many young people who had upwards of ten years in the company and showed great promise were also let go. I’m not sure that these people will ever see big companies — like GM and Chrysler — as stable employers again. This economic mess has shaken our beliefs in what always seemed so secure.
Years ago when I applied for an equipment loan for my business at a local bank, the banker asked me what I could use as collateral. I replied, “My brain is all I have that I can think of at the moment. I’m in the knowledge business, not the widget business.” He frowned and pointed to the various manufacturers in my hometown as models of good business. Every one of those businesses is no longer in my hometown; they have either closed down completely or closed operations here. All those jobs that paid people $18–$22/hour plus good benefits are now gone.
A small business is a difficult row to hoe and not something for everyone. There are no 40 hour work weeks and benefits will never equal the “big boys.” However, there is a direct line of sight between what I do and what I earn. And, I will never be let go unexpectedly because I never take for granted that a paycheck is coming. As we celebrate our 25th year in business, I sometimes fantasize about speaking with the banker again, but even that bank has gone out of business.
I think over the next few years we are going to see a big boom in the number of people — especially young people who have watched their parents lose jobs and 401Ks — venture into the world of small business. What once seemed so risky now appears attractive. We depend on our own drive and ambition; we’re so lean we change the toilet paper only when necessary, and success is dependent on satisfying the customer, not our boss. It’s a deal that’s becoming more and more enticing to those who never thought it would be.