Emerging From Turbulence: Boeing and the American Workplace Today

September 15, 2015

Boeing’s 100th anniversary this year is marked by a new book;
Workers, whose lives changed with a fierce pursuit of profit, speak out


TACOMA, Wash.
– “If you don’t perform, you don’t stay on the team.” With these words in 1998, Boeing’s then-new president, Harry Stonecipher, sent a chill through the global airplane manufacturer’s thousands of employees.

What followed in the years after were radical changes that put Boeing on a new road with enormous consequences—good and bad—some of which are still unfolding today. As the company, founded in 1916 by William Edward Boeing, turns 100 years old this year, a new book, Emerging From Turbulence: Boeing and Stories of the American Workplace Today (Rowman & Littlefield; October 2015) takes a piercing look at those last two decades.

We hear many grand stories from America’s corporate bosses about the necessity and benefits of a relentless pursuit of profits in the global marketplace. In Emerging From Turbulence readers are introduced to the missing piece in those stories: the experiences of the employees who toil in the trenches every day.

Thirty-six workers voice their own views of Boeing and its future in a book that authors Leon Grunberg and Sarah Moore created from two decades of study of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Washington state. Their research at the airplane manufacturing headquarters included company-wide surveys and recent in-depth interviews with 85 employees.

Grunberg, professor emeritus of sociology, and Moore, professor of psychology, at University of Puget Sound, gained national recognition in 2010 for their book Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers, co-written with Edward Greenberg and Pat Sikora, of University of Colorado Boulder.

This new book takes another tact: giving voice to Boeing’s workers—present, former, and retired—and using accumulated data to assess what lies ahead. The resulting work identifies a noticeable shift in the workplace culture of large corporations and gives warning of a disturbing undercurrent in the “grand hurrahs” shouted for America’s global corporate success.

“The millions of ‘ordinary employees’ who work in corporate America rarely have starring roles in these unfolding dramas of change, but … a full understanding of the consequences of corporate change is not complete without their voices,” the authors write.

In one respect, Grunberg and Moore say, companies can rightly claim that the focus on short-term shareholder value is working. Boeing’s stock price has risen sharply since the early 1990s; the company has record orders far into the future; and it has shown healthy profits and productivity increases.

However, this came at a cost. The single-minded pursuit of shareholder value—through a giant merger, massive layoffs, new outsourcing of parts, the opening of an assembly line in South Carolina, and a clampdown on unions and employee benefits—preceded Boeing’s well-recorded disaster with the 787 Dreamliner, a revolutionary airplane that came in 3.5 years late and more than $25 billion in the hole.

In parallel with these changes, a fascinating story of its own took place in the offices and on the shop floor. Thousands of workers, though often appreciative of the good salary and benefits Boeing provides, reacted with shock to the changes at the company they had once regarded as “family.” Meantime, newcomers, who were part of a hiring effort to replace thousands of baby boomer retirees, came in with radically different attitudes.

The book’s chapters on the “retired” and the “still employed” describe some employees who are accepting of the changes, but others who are deeply disillusioned, such as the veteran technical employee who claimed:

“Boeing no longer wants the best employees. They seem to be content to hire average people and pay them average salaries. I guess that is one way to make airplanes. Boeing used to be about exceptionalism—now it’s about averagism.”

Even more revealing are the chapters on the “Newly Hired at Boeing”—workers who have been there less than five years, and who saw none of the turmoil. Many are younger and pleased to have jobs in a difficult time. The attitude of one 27-year-old mechanic is not unusual.

“The company’s number one goal is profits. I know it sounds cold, but it’s true. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” he says.

In their Boeing interviews and surveys, Grunberg and Moore found evidence supporting the claims of other scholars that Gen Y or millennial employees (born between 1982 and 2000) are less loyal and more difficult to retain than previous generations. Gen Yers also have been described as demanding of attention, job satisfaction, and good opportunities to advance.

In one of the surveys, newly hired Gen Yersreported that they spend 66 percent of their day working to their full potential.This compared to 75 percent or more for the newly hired Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1982) and baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964).  A similar pattern emerged in response to the statement “I only miss work when necessary,” with 71 percent of Gen Yers saying “agree or strongly agree,” compared to 80–86 percent for newly hired older generations.

So, does it matter and, if so, for whom? Many human resource scholars argue that having a workforce that is not fully engaged can take a toll on innovation, quality, and productivity, the authors write. They say an apparent lack of respect for “tribal knowledge” among Boeing’s management and younger workers also could lead to lost skills and damage the long-term position of one of America’s leading technology companies.

As for the workers, in particular blue-collar workers, their middle-class lifestyle may be under threat, the authors surmise.

“It is hard to think of how such workers can continue to earn a decent living if companies like Boeing continue to squeeze their pay and benefits, introduce more labor-saving technological changes, and relocate work to cheaper locations,” the professors write.

 Today the workers may get by just fine, they conclude. But, if the new reality continues its bold strides, sidelining unions in the process, the men and women who made American companies great could find themselves out on a limb. And all on their own.

Leon Grunberg is professor emeritus of sociology at University of Puget Sound. For more than 30 years he has studied large and mid-size organizations, focusing on employee behavior and attitudes. He examined the investment activities of European multinationals, the impact of management-employee relations on productivity and safety, the promise and reality of participatory workplaces in the U.S.A., and the effects of restructuring on the attitudes and well-being of employees. Together with Moore, Grunberg has published more than two dozen articles and made numerous presentations at professional conferences.

Sarah Moore is professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at University of Puget Sound. Her research since 1993 has focused on the effects of work-related stressors, such as layoffs, re-engineering, and various job characteristics on employee health, work attitudes, and work performance. Moore has investigated work-home integration and conflict, the unique work stressors experienced by managerial women, and generational work differences and similarities. Since 1996 Moore and Grunberg have collaborated on a long-term study at Boeing Commercial, twice receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Press photos of the book jacket and authors can be downloaded from pugetsound.edu/pressphotos.

Photos on page: From the top: Leon Grunberg and Sarah Moore; a Boeing 767 on the production line, by David Axe (2007); cockpit of a Boeing 767, by Individuo (2007).

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