There are two Americas.
No, I am not adopting occupy-style rhetoric that pits one group of Americans against another. What I am talking about is the fundamental difference between America’s entrepreneurial private sector and America’s cumbersome public sector.
Two quick anecdotes highlight the divide.
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with an old friend who is in the private sector. He broke into the home building industry before the bubble burst, so he has seen the industry making record profits as well as businesses shuttering around him. And despite several tumultuous years, he worked hard, fought through adversity and climbed the ranks.
Rather casually, he mentioned the company was undertaking yet another round of modernization – an effort to improve inventory tracking at all of its warehouses, making it more accurate and much more efficient. It is just the latest in a series of moves by the company to become more efficient in everything from energy usage to work force management.
Recalling his early days with company, he marveled at just how much had changed. He was instrumental in pushing many of those changes, but the new emphasis on efficiency was necessitated by a changing economy. During the housing boom, efficiency was not a high priority as profits soared year after year…at times it seemed effortless.
The housing bust and subsequent economic collapse changed all of that. Market conditions forced the company to scale back; after all, it is hard to sell building supplies when no one wants to buy or build a new home. Cost savings and efficiency became the new buzzwords. Now, the company is lean, efficient and well positioned as housing starts slowly begin picking up.
I admire my friend’s ingenuity, but he was doing exactly what we would expect from a private company looking to survive in a bad economy. It was commonsense, responsible, forward looking…and very different from the public sector.
The next day – literally 15 hours later – I walked past one of the many enormous and gaudy government buildings in Washington. Outside the Federal Judicial Center, no less than four members of a landscaping crew slowly watered flowers, shrubs and trees, while another supervised.
I instantly recalled what my friend told me on the personnel side. Paraphrasing, he said all his guys are doing multiple jobs and doing them well. If he were to hire someone new, there would not be enough work to keep people busy.