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This week in STEM: Annnnd a NEW round of job cuts!

This morning, Microsoft announced a new round of job cuts.  It recently acquired Nokia and that seems to be where the bulk of the 18,000 hits are going to come from.  Let’s try to parse why they’re doing this, shall we?  Here’s an explanation from new CEO Satya Nadella:

The larger-than-expected cuts are the deepest in the company’s 39-year history and come five months into the tenure of Chief Executive Satya Nadella, who outlined plans for a “leaner” business in a public memo to employees last week.

“We will simplify the way we work to drive greater accountability, become more agile and move faster,” Nadella wrote to employees in a memo made public early Thursday. “We plan to have fewer layers of management, both top down and sideways, to accelerate the flow of information and decision making.”

The size of the cuts were welcomed by Wall Street, which viewed Microsoft as bloated under previous CEO Steve Ballmer, topping 127,000 in headcount after absorbing Nokia earlier this year.

“This is about double what the Street was expecting,” said Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. “Nadella is clearing the decks for the new fiscal year. He is cleaning up part of the mess that Ballmer left.”

The goal is to simplify the work process.  That sounds good.  Everyone likes simplicity.  It makes work easier to deal with if the path forward is cleared of unnecessary complexity and clutter.  But that’s not really why they’re simplifying, is it?  The goal of the simplification is actually to “drive greater accountability”.  On the surface, this also seems reasonable until we stop to consider, accountable to whom?  If you’ve been paying attention in the last decade, this usually refers to shareholders.  Shareholders want greater accountability.  Does that mean they want a bunch of reports and retrospective analyses to peruse at their leisure to make sure everything is being done with an eye towards simplicity, agility and speed?  Probably not.  Accountability is generally a code word for shareholders wanting to see that they’re not spending a penny more on people than they absolutely have to so that they can increase the amount of money they can hoard get for their shares.  It will be up to these 18,000 people to account for their existence.

It sounds like they’re going to get rid of management- everywhere.  Good luck with that! </snark>

Finally, we see that Steve Ballmer left a mess.  Not sure what that’s all about since I’m not in the software side of tech and I only use Microsoft products under duress.  But just because the company now has 127,000 people doesn’t mean that some of them necessarily have to go.  Unless they need to be accountable, of course.  I’m sure this comes as no surprise to the workers at Nokia but no one forced Microsoft to buy them.

So, to recap, Microsoft buys struggling cell phone manufacturer Nokia, drinks its smooth and tasty patent milkshake and discards the worker bees because they are no longer sufficiently accountable.

If anyone is still wondering why the US doesn’t make anything worth exporting, look no further than this layoff announcement and the rest of the carnage happening at IBM, Cisco, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.  It looks like a bloody hemorrhage this month.  There will be a lot of tech workers hitting the virtual pavement.  Contrast this with the way Germany handles its STEM workers.  When times get tough, they reduce their hours to part time and keep their wages high.  That way, when the economy recovers, they can rev their engines up again and work productively with a work force that has not lost its critical skills.

German shareholders and the government work together in a smart way to ensure they have the skills to compete in the market later.  American shareholders and government?  ehhhhhh, not so much.  Finland (the home of Nokia) must be thrilled with Microsoft’s announcement, even though they must have been expecting it since the acquisition.

Someone should tell the Microsoft people to stop referring to its workforce as a “mess” that needs to be cleaned up.

In the meantime, Derek Lowe wrote another post about the prospects of new Chemistry PhDs.  It looks like the number of post docs has gone down in recent years and the number of unemployed PhDs has gone up.  So, to recap, you spend 4 years as an undergrad and about 5-7 years getting your PhD in a very difficult subject that demands sharp, innovative thinking and many thousands of hours of lab work and what do you get for your hard work?  Not much.

Paraphrasing what a former colleague told me in 2009, when it comes right down to it, the reason why employers say they can’t find good help anymore is because what they want, what they really, really want, is a new graduate with 25 years of experience.  I would add, and someone who they can make accountable whenever they please.

Hey, did you hear about the CDC losing track of influenza and smallpox vials?  Funny what persistent underfunding and a round of sequestering will do to your disease control mechanisms.  I’m not surprised after what I heard during my trip to Cambridge, MA in May.  A recent visitor to the CDC said that the place is demoralized and disorganized with co-workers not even knowing who was in their groups.  I don’t blame this on government since the CDC didn’t used to be this FUBARed.  No, I blame it on the authoritarian nut cases in the Republican party whose intractable, unyielding, “take-no-prisoners”, never compromise, never surrender attitude and actions are putting the rest of us at risk.

We need to hold them accountable.

Oh, by the way, congresspersons who vote for more H1B visas in the immigration bill before the excess glut of American STEM workers are re-employed should be vigorously primaried.

 

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The case against increasing H1B Visas: the Wyeth-Pfizer massacre

I’m on a roll this morning.  I’ll have another post later today on the “Academia discovers everything that pharma goes on to exploit” myth and explain why, counterintuitively, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But for the moment, I want to go over the reasons why business leaders are lying through their teeth about needing more highly skilled workers from other countries because the US simply does not produce enough {{rolling eyes}}.

First, I want to say that I worked with a lot of Chinese, Indian and European scientists and back in the 90’s, the US benefitted from an influx of foreign scientists and students, particularly Chinese and Russian emigres.  Most of them have since become American citizens so whatever provision is made in the immigration bills to displace them with cheap foreign labor is going to affect them as well.  I’m also aware of some Chinese students who had a hard time getting their PhDs because their advisors saw them as indentured servants who could be kept working indefinitely because the only alternative for them was to go home.  And then there were the Chinese scientists who only had work visas who were promptly sent home as soon as their companies laid-off, closed their facilities, etc, because the company itself had sat on their green card applications while the MBAs decided how they were going to restructure their R&D facilities for the 450th time.  There are a lot of sad and tragic stories from foreign researchers that I knew personally whose lives and families were not at all important to the companies they worked for and lost their ability to live in the country they called home, where they BOUGHT homes and had children and friends.  Some of these people had no choice but to leave all of that behind when they lost their jobs.  This country can be cruel to the best and the brightest, especially those from foreign countries but this country doesn’t spare it’s own citizens either.

Secondly, I have to bust the myth about the superlative skills of the foreign scientist. Not all foreign researchers are geniuses.  They’re a lot like other researchers.  Some are brilliant, some are hard-working, some of them didn’t realize what they were getting into before they had invested a good chunk of their lives in science.

So, that out of the way.

In 2008, Pfizer bought Wyeth.  Pfizer is a behemoth of a pharma company that has spent the last 10 years gobbling up companies, extracting their pipelines and spitting out the people who, you know, actually did the discovery.

After Pfizer bought Wyeth, it laid off all of the Wyeth research staff.  Yep, all of them.  Oh sure, a handful of the 19,000 people were retained and sent to Groton where Pfizer had a few holes to fill in their own ranks.  But there were thousands and thousands of scientists, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Israeli, you name it, who were laid off en masse for no reason at all.

It didn’t matter how good they were and I knew quite a few who were excellent and extremely hard working scientists. It didn’t matter what their performance evaluations were like. The lay off was indiscriminate and didn’t separate the wheat from the chaff. It didn’t matter how cheap they were.  They didn’t choose to live on the East Coast where the cost of living is extremely high.  A lot of them had been displaced by previous mergers and acquisitions from more affordable midwest facilities.  And it’s not like Pfizer was particularly choosey when they laid off.  It didn’t look at both companies and pick the best people to save.  No, it just picked the losing company and laid off all of those researchers without any consideration at all whether they were laying off the next blockbuster discoverer or not.   You’d think the board of directors and shareholders would have preferred Pfizer to be more selective but that didn’t seem to be very important and no one seems to have asked why that was.

All that mattered was THERE. WERE. TOO. MANY. OF. THEM. FOR. PFIZER.

Researchers cost money and research costs money and that was getting in the way of the people who were trying to make money off the acquisition so the researchers had to go.  Other labs might have been able to absorb all this excess talent but other labs were also shedding American and foreign researchers like there was no tomorrow so most of my friends ended up contracting, consulting, working for much less money in academia or small start up companies or getting out of science altogether.

So, verily I say unto you congresspersons who are about to flood an already flooded market with cheap indentured servants from other countries, you really need to stick an amendment into this bill that prevents companies that laid off thousands and thousands of experienced, well educated, highly skilled researchers from getting away with ruining the lives of those researchers, some of them foreign who they swear they need, and contributing to the collapse of the economy and housing markets in places like New Jersey.  It is time that companies who work here in the US who claim to be corporate “persons” to start acting like good citizens.

One last thing: there is simply no good excuse for Congresspersons and Senators to not check out the claims of the businesses who whine that they “can’t find good help anymore”.  All you have to do is get one of your congressional staffers to contact the departments of labor in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, California (San Diego area) and New York to verify that the unemployment rolls have been chock full of math and science majors who were laid off since 2008.  It shouldn’t take longer than a few hours in one afternoon to expose the truth.

Anything else is craven laziness that helps to depress the economy and further erode research in this country.  Researchers are not swappable, just-in-time, labor parts.  They’re individuals with specific knowledge bases who need continuity and support for their expertise to thrive.  Anyone who tells you differently is lying through their teeth.