03 July 2015

Observations from Recent Trips Around the Country (Many Reasons for Optimism and One for Concern)

The media works hard to find the worst among us. They have thousands of employees whose job it is to find the corrupt bureaucrats, the cheating spouses, the crazed killers, and the simply peculiar. One advantage to wandering the country, able to meet people at random, is the realization that most people are delightful and good.

In the last five weeks I've been on business trips to Portland, San Francisco, Washington DC, Del Mar, California, and Boise, Idaho. We help companies to manage product development projects and when we're busy it is often a leading indicator of good things to come. When companies want to accelerate product development it means that they're optimistic about market potential and are willing to pay extra now for more revenue later. Often, our planning sessions result in their realization that in order to launch their product on-time or early, products often worth millions a day in revenue, they'll have to hire more of a particular skill set. They don't just pay us (we are typically a rounding error in their business in any case); once they see what they need to do to really accelerate, they pay more in hiring, subcontractors, and investment in equipment. All that to say that what our being busy suggests is that businesses are optimistic about future prospects. When they're worried, they focus more on trimming certain costs (that is, they don't hire us) than accelerating uncertain revenues.

We are Still in a Stage of Expansion and Hiring
It seems like we've entered a stage at which companies are less focused on getting more with less (which often means, "You'll do the work of two people for now, Joe, because we can't afford to hire anyone to replace Amelia,") than getting proper staffing. They're hiring.
When I start with a new client, I have to get processed for a badge so I can get in and out of their facility. On one of my trips, I found myself in the midst of a small covey of new employees, all looking baffled that they were just one of many starting that very Monday. "How many new employees do you hire on an average Monday," I asked the folks taking photos and making badges. "It's about 30 to 50 lately," came the response. For the one site.

At a conference for project managers in the pharmaceutical industry, about every break someone else was standing up to say that they were hiring. Then they did a little ad for their company, obviously working to make it sound appealing in their efforts to gain interest. It did not sound to me like an employers' market. On the negative, most of the jobs seemed to be in places like San Francisco and Boston, where cost of living is a big obstacle.

What We Americans Look Like to Europeans
Many of the teams I work with have a mix of nationalities. Just in the last month I've worked with folks making computer chips, medical devices, new drugs, and nanotechnology and as a general rule, the more specialized the technology skill sets, the more varied the accents. In particular, the teams I've worked with recently had more than a few Europeans. Out to dinner one night, I was sitting with a few guys from the Netherlands, one from Germany, and two from Czech. We were all eating burgers and about three bites in I felt like a barbarian. I was the only one not eating my burger with a knife and fork.

Chatting with a German from another client who had just moved to the US about four weeks earlier, I asked him what was most remarkable about the US in his brief time. "Just the waste," he said. "You buy four items at the store and they give you three bags. You order a meal and they give you enough for two people. It's amazing."

A British client has been living in the US for decades. He said, somewhat tongue in cheek, somewhat seriously, that every 4th of July he felt offended. Finally, one year he decided to take his sailboat up to Vancouver British Columbia. He was delighted with how British it seemed up there, even down to the red mail boxes. Plus he was avoiding the 4th. He felt almost giddy. Then he was driving somewhere and was shocked at how much traffic was there.
"What is going on," he asked.
"It's Canada Day," they told him.
"What's that?"
"We're celebrating our independence from Britain," they told him.
"Oh crap," he exclaimed.

Abnormal (Weather) is the New Normal
Of course everywhere seems extreme in comparison to San Diego, but even by the standards of locals the weather is extreme.
Boise got to 109 and was over 100 every day of the week I was there. Portland is setting records for hot. The grass along the runway in Seattle was uncharacteristically brown. From Seattle to Vancouver, BC, the summer has been hot and dry.
Meanwhile, the east coast and great lakes region is another kind of extreme. In four days, I had two big rain storms - complete with lightning - in DC, leaving puddles deep enough to submerge socks. Chicago set a new record for rainfall in June, getting nearly 9 inches.  In one month.

Every City is Getting Better
I love San Diego. I'm happy I live here. When I started traveling regularly, about 20 years ago, I rarely found myself anywhere that I felt I'd be happy to live, much less give up for San Diego. In the last five to ten years, though, every city I visit has become more interesting. Some I would even be content to live in.

Local government has created public works that make life better. For instance, Boise has a beautiful green belt area along the river through downtown. You can walk or jog through beautiful copses of trees. Families raft from one place to another. It's delightful.

And businesses have also upped their game. It used to be that you had to choose between local businesses with a lot of personality but bad prices, selection, and decor or mass manufactured chains that were consistent in quality but offered boring fare, products, and decor. Now, more and more local businesses have personality and quality, offer distinct products at good prices, and keep your attention. Cities are simply more interesting and safe and it is largely because of local entrepreneurs and social activists who have upped their game. The standard is high and getting higher.

The list of cities that I would be content to live in has grown in recent years. I still have no plan to move but as often as not, instead of coming home from a trip relieved that I don't live in the city I just visited, I feel like, "I could live there." Even Cleveland, Ohio, where I traveled about a year ago, left me feeling that way. (I know. I know. I wasn't there in winter. But even so, they sell heaters and jackets.)

No one will tell you this because it makes all the angry pessimists even angrier, but the country is getting better. It's a great time to be alive and - at this rate - will be even better for our grandkids. That's reason enough to have a happy 4th of July.

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