Saturday, January 24, 2009

Zen of eavesdropping

KEEP your head down. Show up every day. Be indispensable.

When I showed up at a government agency this week, this was the drift of the office talk.

These were unusual mantras to hear from employees most likely assured of employment until retirement. Eavesdropping more, I realized that the talk circled around the recent closing of the Intel plant in General Trias, Cavite.

After someone speculated how life would be for the 3,000 or so employees laid off by the Intel pullout, a co-worker punched home this point in Cebuano: did (the workers) have any idea this was going to happen to them?

That seems to be the question on many minds nowadays.

Coming after Christmas and Sinulog, a creeping, spreading uncertainty is taking hold. I can recall the palpably different tone of the entrepreneurs and capitalists I interviewed as last year drew to a close. Many exuded a bullish confidence that Cebu will not just ride the rough swells but even be unaffected by distant rumblings.

Yet a business leader countered my queries with a question of his own: where will we be if we let our fears control us?

These days, I’ve yet to catch sight again of last year’s jauntiness—or perhaps I’m in a different company, with different perceptions. When I get off my mid-morning classes, I often share jeepney rides with call center workers also going home from their shifts at a nearby information technology (IT) enclave.

Last year, the buzz among this jeans-and-hoodie bunch was workplace gossip and the job application carousel. If the ethos among past generations of workers was to find a company to “grow with” until retirement, these young drones felt no loyalty except to the chase, for fatter salaries, more perks, more workmates’ bonding.

This year, my jeepney rides have been uneventful so far. It may be that my usual companions have decided to upgrade to taxis or are abandoning workplace-hopping for the moment. Come to think of it, I haven’t received for some time now a call from a human resource officer, requesting for an assessment of my students’ potentials for call center employment.

Yet, it was the exit of Intel—the first American semiconductor company to set up shop in the country in 1974—that made it dawn on me that, like those government workers, we should be paying more attention to business news.

The goal should be not to scare ourselves deeper into a hole. As advised by that local business leader last year, picking up some financial literacy should prepare us for facing down our fears.

Just decoding business jargon should tamp down any panic threatening to overwhelm us. An April 2008 report in quoted Intel Philippines officials as denying that the company was shutting down the entire operation, saying only that it was ''ramping down its assembly efforts in the processor arena.”

In the light of the final outcome, I will never view “ramp” with the equanimity I once reserved for a simple mechanism that is supposed to help move heavy objects. In terms of its economic dislocation, “ramp down” may be closer to its association in skateboarding.

For extreme athletes, there’s a skateboarding maneuver called the “drop in,” which requires nothing more complex than the “will and guts” to take the self mounted on a skateboard from standing on the lip of a skateboard bowl to speeding down the ramp with no way of knowing where one will end up.

Does this mean taking up extreme skateboarding to be able to surf the times or even just the business news?

My 43-year-old joints will never make it. Nor will my 10-year-old son look on kindly to my mucking around his toys.

For now, to fight this Creeping Uncertainty, I will have to stick to basics: re-read the news. Pay in cash. Keep my head down. Show up every day. Be indispensable.

Also eavesdrop. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 25, 2009 issue

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