The income umbrella (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A wild thought: Maybe one of the hidden dangers to future employer productivity is not so much general malingering, or general genuine bad health, but the disappearance of middle managers.

Middle managers were moderately well-paid workers who might not have been superstars and might not have had many ideas to call their own but, in at least some cases, knew something about how their companies worked.

Maybe they worked their way up from entry-level jobs and still remembered some of the pesky little details, such as the code needed to re-program the telephones, or the right way to thump the photocopier to get the “needs toner” light to turn off.

Maybe, if they came up through IT, they knew how to read the COBOL, or the Hollerith cards, or whatever else has been used to kludge mysterious, essential systems together since the days when some voters still weren’t sure whether Kennedy was much of an improvement over Nixon.

When workers with important, unusual jobs and skills got sick or went on vacation, good middle managers could train other staffers or temps to fill in.

Now, at a lot of companies, experienced middle managers have taken buyouts. The remaining managers may have no idea how the company really functions and little ability to identify and hire competent workers with the right skills to fill a job, let alone train rising workers, or fill-in workers.

Employers insist that workers come to a new job knowing the job inside and out because, really, the employers themselves have no idea how those jobs work.

The result is that the line workers who still have the right skills to keep their employers lurching forward may have no one to help them train colleagues to fill in for them. Managers may not even understand much about those vital employees do, or even that the employees are vital, until the employees become seriously ill or try to leave for two-week vacations and all heck breaks loose.

An example taken from personal life, and wildly distorted to conceal the identities of the guilty and the innocent: My friend, Jane Doe, is a college dropout with great computer skills. She has risen close to the top at a glamorous New York employer in just a few years simply because she knows how the employer’s idiosyncratic computers work. She is surrounded by colleagues who have better credentials on paper but no idea how to keep the operations going when Jane Doe is away.

She will have great job security, unless her colleagues fool themselves into thinking they can get the computers to work properly in her absence, but she might not be able to stay on the job all that long, because she ends up having to work all hours of the day and night. She’s much too busy to train anyone else to do much of her job, and the last supervisor who had comparable skills was let go several years ago. A wellness coach who knew what hours she was working would probably panic and dial 9-1-1.

Of course, something similar is probably happening with many of the skilled professionals who have individual income protection.

Either the professionals have practices that function like well-oiled Swiss-made machines, and the practices practically run themselves, or the professionals end up working extreme hours because getting relief is so difficult.

Somehow, we need to bring back the idea that successful companies and practices need to bring in and train new blood, not simply depend on the Internet to produce candidates with the perfect mix of skills who are happy to work 24/7 for a bit less than minimum wage.

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