14 July 1986. Doesn't seem like all that long ago. Perhaps I must have skipped the second half of the 90s and all of the Noughts.
On that July day in '86, I started my first job after college in my chosen field: drafter/designer. And a lot has changed in 25 years in the American workplace.
I started at a company called IMECO, based in a small town in northwest Illinois. We made industrial refrigeration and HVAC equipment for food processing and logistics facilities all over North America. It was a great place to work. It was a family-owned business, and most of the time it felt like a family. We did a lot of after-hours stuff as a group-beers after work, hayrides, company picnics-that I've not done since. I think this kind of thing may not be as common as it used to be. Seems like people are just busy all the time these days trying to keep their noses above water. On the other hand, IMECO was in a small town. Everybody knew everybody else and the only thing that traveled faster than light was gossip. If someone did something at 8, everyone knew about it by 10. But overall, the general atmosphere was pretty laid back.
Back then, I started out drawing on the boards. The guy next to me had a smokeless ashtray. Yeah, kids-at one time you could smoke in the workplace. Tells you how far back this is! We did most of our work on boards until about '88 when we got our first dedicated CAD stations, which no doubt had roughly 1/100th of the computing power of today's smartphones. But drawing on the computer was a hell of a lot faster than doing so on paper, so it was pretty high-tech stuff. Then we could take our drawings to the new fax machine and send them over the phone lines!
Finally, we had a big ol' Digital Equipment DEC VAX mainframe for all of the company's records. There were several workstations scattered around the office for access. You know, even now, IMECO was probably the best organized place I ever worked at. It was super easy to pull up bills of material, purchased parts descriptions, and drawings. In the 9 years I was there, the company's business quadrupled. Am I proud to have been a part of that? You bet!
Eventually the owner of the company retired and the place changed hands a couple of times before I left. The last bunch mismanaged the company and it went under a couple of years ago. In a way, it's still a hard pill to swallow. We made a good company-made it work, made it valuable, only to see some chumps who didn't know their asses from their elbows run it into the ground. All too typical a story these days.
A definite change in the workplace since the mid 1980s has been the onward march of technology. Back in those days, it was possible to actually leave work. There were big clunky mobile phones, of course, and pagers-but nothing like what we have today. Given that I could run Pro/E on the very laptop I'm writing this on, I have a cell phone, and quick access to sites that host Web meetings, it'd be possible to never get away from work. Most people don't really get away from their jobs any more.
Are certain tasks faster than they were before? Certainly. Is life in the modern workplace better? That I'm not so sure about.
Right now, I'm on my third company since 1986. Not too bad a record. The last place I was at was converting over to an employee-owned company. When I left there, I got a nice chunk of change (my 'share' in the company) to roll over into my pension plan. Generally, when I've left a company it's been a more profitable place than when I started. That is by NO means all my doing-you have to have at least a core of good people at all levels to make business work, and I've been most fortunate to work with some fine people. But it's a sight better than most CEOs of major companies can say.