The elusive economic recovery: a nerd can dream




There’s the lucky one percent, the luckier top tenth of one percent, there’s the fifty percent, and then there’s the bottom quartile. Somehow, despite an education and skills, I’ve ended up in the bottom and it’s as scary as it sounds. I’m talking minimal survival here, struggling every day for basic food, basic healthcare, modest shelter. That’s why I’m asking for donations this holiday season. A site like that this can’t operate for long as a hobby, not without a little support, but it’s way past that for me and so many others like me. The corporate sector has let us down, again and again, over the last few years. It has let down the kind of people you read about, the reportedly highly sought after employable computer nerds, regardless of what media stereotypes have been packaged and sold. And it doesn’t have to be that way, judging by reported corporate earnings, there should plenty to go around. Especially for those of us who actually do the work. Alas, for many there is not.

I know everyone these days works hard, or thinks they do. But there’s typically two kinds of people who do the real money-making work of most any firm, and by that I mean customer facing, revenue-generating, in some way: sales people and support people. People like me in the front lines, anyone who directly interact with customers and solve their issues, who up sell and add on and tweak, we do all of the day to day bread and butter work, we bring in all of the revenue. Everyone else gets paid because of us, everyone else is there to support us doing that work in one way or another. And yet too often we are the worst paid in the entire place, the most threatened, the easiest targets, the least secure. We are intentionally excluded from all meetings, we are left in the dark on all important policy issues, to the point of absurdity, to the point where it’s almost as if management is ashamed, almost as if they have something to hide.

I really wonder what would happen to a world now so utterly dependent on networks and computers if we all just collectively said ‘fuck it’ for a few days and made some threats of our own, until our pay syncs up with our ability, performance, and education. A nerd can dream.

At some point this year, I determined, almost unconsciously, and unwillingly, that tech support is just not an industry to be in. Really, not for anyone. Don’t do it. It’s the worst of all modern job worlds. Hard to learn, lousy pay, no job security at all, no future to speak of, no place for the middle-aged. Join us and you’ll have to be able to jump into confusing programs and networks created by other people right off the bat, from crappy custom widgets to ugly, clunky, DOS and network based Internet back-bone stuff with scary black screens, Boolean queries, and shells, quickly get to the point where you can handle a dozen open applications at once and shift seamlessly between them with a live customer on the phone and in live chat, maybe both channels simultaneously, figure out what’s wrong on the fly, and either fix it, pull logs and refer it and baby sit it to specialized engineers, or walk the customer through fixing it themselves. Or sometimes, we get to tell the customer what they want can’t be done and hope the ensuing blow up doesn’t cost us a bad feedback survey, a missed bonus, or our job.

Are you overweight? Do you have a front tooth that needs a crown, do your clothes bought in better times still fit and are they in style? Do you have a chronic medical condition that’s manageable — as long as you have health insurance and time and money to visit specialists? Any of these things are the career equivalent of being a baby born with a birth defect in ancient Greece. Any of these things can get you passed over or not hired at all.

In tech support our schedule does not stop on holidays or in the wee hours, nor are they always predictable. In most companies these days we may be suddenly given the option of leaving early because volume is low, or being told some of us had better volunteer for overtime, because it’s spiking. A lot of the work is outsourced to us, and often we are in turn under a temp contract with little or no benefits, which together mean constant, unending threats of what we should and should not ever do if we want to keep our tenuous job.

We are almost universally smart and highly computer literate, almost universally educated with at least some college, many of us have degrees. Most of us are bright, responsible people who catch on fast and know how to dress, who understand the importance of showing up for our scheduled shift. Despite this, some days come off as a never-ending stream of threats originating from far removed senior managers involving items or outcomes everyone plainly knows are, at best, only partly under our control.

Along with that source of anxiety is the ever present expectations of near super human savant-like abilities. We are expected to be able to skim over a hastily prepared Sharepoint tutorial for a few minutes poorly illustrating some arcane new software operation, with dozens of totally counter intuitive steps, and be able to turn around and explain it to network engineers and retail users alike with the perfect, patient recall of Lt Commander Data. These comically brief lessons aren’t so much designed to actually help us as they are a device to trap us: i.e., ” gosh, isn’t this your e-signature on this module explaining this thing you’re asking for help on Mr DS?”

For all this ability and talent and passion, we get paid on average $10 to $15 an hour. Higher than minimum wage, sure, but when was the last time you tried to live on $24,000 a year … for your entire fucking life? Imagine taking home less than 1500 dollars a month for years, into your forties and fifties, no way to save significantly for emergencies, always just a paycheck away from all kinds of disaster. No margin for error, nothing on the horizon, whole political organizations at all levels, well funded and well connected think-tanks, and entire media apparatuses working against your middle class dreams, everyday, and forget about raises; even if you luck out and become a supervisor after a few years, that may get a dollar or two an hour more and there’s only one of them for every ten of you. (Or my personal fave: the person interviewing you for the supe job notes it doesn’t pay anymore, but think how well it might down the road, somewheeeeere over the rainbow, because it will be on your resume now … and nothing could ever, ever happen that would prevent you from listing that to a prospective employer!)

Even if you don’t become a casualty of merger, or “right-sizing,” or off-shoring, or bad business decisions, even if you never suffer a serious injury, heart attack, cancer, diabetes, migraines, you name it, even if you manage to stick around for a couple of years and get a 30 cents an hour merit raise, it can get wiped out by a slight increase in anything, inflation, the price of a gallon of gas or a toll increase. Because forget percentages, it’s only thirty goddamn cents. But don’t point that out or mention just the increases in copays cancel it out! Be prepared to be told how grateful you are for your thirty cents, be ready to describe how incredibly generous the people making 250k and up are for thinking of you and your service.

For these reasons among others I finally saw the light. I hope you do, too. If they can’t pay us enough to live, we have to do something that will. Or in the meantime, if it is our fate to struggle for every last dime, at least work that’s less soul crushing. Because being technically savvy used to command some respect and pay OK, there was even a viable career ladder. But that dried up with the Great Recession. Tech support pay plummeted and has never recovered. The sector has become rife with temp contracts, broken promises, and clueless department heads. And it’s just not possible to have a career and any kind of life in an industry that insecure, that bleak, and which offers that kind of crappy pay.



  1. magistramarla says

    I’m sorry to read that you are once again without a job.
    I still think that you should come down to San Antonio and interview with USAA. I really think that you might find that USAA could use your skills and would treat you more fairly. My daughter has worked there for 12 years and has been promoted regularly. She started out on the phones and is now an assistant executive director.
    If you are scheduled for an interview, we have a spare room.
    Think about it.

  2. says

    Thanks Magi, I have a friend who barely survived brain cancer and lost a ton of function, including the ability to walk. It’s sad, and it kind of keeps things in perspective for me. If you have your health …

  3. baquist says

    I second MagistraMarla here. I’m frustrated on your behalf, and if ever there is a peep of anything in the Denver metro area, we would do our best to help.

  4. magistramarla says

    Yeah, I understand that. I’m lucky that I don’t have something as bad as your friend has suffered through, but my neurological problems have cut short my teaching career and walking is painful, requiring a cane, my dog, or a walker. The worst thing is that I can no longer drive. That wasn’t so bad in California, where public transportation is good, but here in Texas it’s damned hard to get around. The hubby doesn’t have a lot of time to take me to run errands, and a trip to the beauty shop is simply not on his radar unless I complain loudly.
    baquist mentioned the Denver area. Another daughter lives there, and she says that the economy there is great and that jobs are plentiful. It may be time for you to consider other parts of the country. We are certainly planning to leave Texas once hubby pays back his time to Lackland AFB and we can get this huge old house sold.

  5. lanir says

    As far as I can tell the bulk tech support jobs like what is described in this post are dead ends. WIth just those on my resume it took me years to get another tech job and even longer to get a good one. They were something to point to when we talked about my customer service skills but that’s about it. Breaking out of that and into a more technical job with higher pay seems in retrospect to be nothing but luck and personal connections (made at the lousy jobs, I got lucky but I wasn’t playing with a stacked deck, it really was blind chance).

    There also seems to be rather large, heavily invested myth structures built around who is knowledgeable and who isn’t in tech jobs at many places I’ve worked. There’s lots of random authoritae running amok in places it has no business existing. Perhaps especially where it has no business existing. Being right or wrong doesn’t have a lot to do with it, you get brushed off. This is why you can’t really be brilliant and work your way out of tech support a lot of the time. It’s a fluke. Stopped clock is right twice a day. Kid got lucky on one thing but he doesn’t know enough to be a real admin. Or any of a variety of similar noises. But the companies and bosses are always quick to hold out the carrot that if you get lucky and win the employment lottery, you too can be one of those higher paid, knowledgeable people looking down on the peons.

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