Analysis / Falling Down

Foster's lack of economic viability explained

At first glance, it makes no sense that an experienced engineer like Will Foster should be unemployed for that long a period of time. After all, the design of missiles involve multiple disciplines and sub-fields, all of which can easily be deployed on civilian applications. A materials and metallurgy specialist who designs the missile's fuselage, warhead casing, nozzles etc can easily take that knowledge to the automotive industry, shipbuilding, components design, appliance design etc. An aeronautical engineer who designed the missile's airfoils can deploy that skill for a number of airplane makers, or even automotive or marine applications. A heat transfer specialist could work for a myriad of industries including HVAC, power generation, manufacturing processes etc. A rocket propulsion specialist could again, have gone over to the automotive, marine, clean energy, power generation, or pretty much any field where fuel combustion mechanisms are designed. An explosive warhead design specialist could go over to a myriad of demolition firms or explosives makers. A guidance, navigation and control specialist could take those skills to a myriad of embedded system applications. So, someone with D-Fens's skills should have been able to write his own ticket anywhere in the US. Why couldn't he?

The answer lies in the kind of corporate culture that had permeated America from the 50s up until the tail end of the 80s. This was the culture of The Organization Man. The organization man was envisioned as the dedicated worker who displayed Undying Loyalty towards his organization and in turn, the organization would take good care of him. People hired in to companies, and then if necessary, received training in the specific skills they needed to do their job. If the organization needed to change your job, they retrained and retooled you at their expense. If a move was required to faithfully serve the organization, you packed up and moved your family and kids. A certain degree of brown nosing was deemed normal, and even if you weren't a prolific hierarchical ladder climber, nobody thought ill of you if you remained at your current role for years, maybe even decades. In return for all this loyalty, the company gave you a decent pay and benefits, educational assistance, loan assistance, moving assistance, medical assistance, and most importantly a very generous pension. This kind of culture would have been prevalent in many companies during Foster's career, and would have been that much more emphasized in a defense contractor. Being reliant on the government for revenue meant that a defense contractor had to become like any government agency, with its own bureaucracy. Such a place would have reinforced the notion of being a good loyal worker bee, whose loyalty shall be well rewarded.

However, this kind of organizational loyalty has a flip side - it also reinforces professional stagnation. If the organization expects you to do the same job for 30 years, then retire and collect a handsome pension, you won't be inclined to try and learn any skills outside of what is needed for your current role. If the organization gave you all the training you needed to slide into the new job they chose you for, you won't feel the incentive to develop skills and knowledge on your own. You won't be incentivized to analyze the job market out there, discover other more challenging or exciting career possibilities, or even a new idea that you could use for a startup. You will thus, have very specific skills suited for a very specific job in one organization, that doesn't translate well to similar jobs in other organizations. Then there is also the fact that experienced employees cost money - a lot of money. So, if your skills remained stagnant for years, and your salary kept increasing based only on "time in grade", you will eventually reach a point where you are being overpaid for the work you are doing. Unless you possess expert knowledge in some field, or are a very effective manager, you won't be able to justify the high salary you are being paid. Unfortunately, the ever loyal organization man cannot eventually become a manager or an expert, due to the stagnation that this culture incentivizes. Therefore, especially for a defense contractor, the only recourse is to trim the fat and get rid of the overpaid under skilled organization men. This is precisely what happened to Foster.