The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update


December 17, 2012

Emmett Dulaney: The opposite of Parkinson's law

Several months ago, my wife and I found ourselves on a bus with a fair number of high school students traveling to Indianapolis to work concessions at a ball game. Such occasions are always ideal for bringing up business-related topics and entertaining the captive throngs. Armed with the answers from an updated list by the Indianapolis Business Journal, we asked several of the students to name the largest employer in Indiana in terms of full-time equivalent employees.

Not surprisingly, the guesses centered around establishments familiar to the students: gas station/convenience store chains, restaurants, fast food stops and the like. Prompting was given to think larger, to think of a company that is not from Indiana but still has 132 locations here, and so on. Even with the prompting, not one student was able to come up with the correct response.

The answer for the past several years continues to be Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Wal-Mart employs more FTEs in this state than the U.S. government (which includes postal workers, defense and more), the state government (corrections, transportation, social services, etc.), any of the hospitals, any university or other employer. While affirming this to the students — who lost interest rather quickly — something leapt out and grabbed my attention.

While Wal-Mart continues to expand its physical presence in Indiana year by year, its FTE numbers fell by 3 percent from 2010-2012 (to put that in perspective, U.S. government grew within the state by 10 percent during that time period while the city of Indianapolis/Marion County grew by 7 percent).  The growth-while-reducing/ doing-more-with-less element drew my interest. In the past, I’ve become all too familiar with Parkinson’s Law, which essentially states that the amount of employees needed to do the same amount of work will increase over time. The situation being described by Wal-Mart’s self-reported numbers counters Parkinson’s Law and made me look at the entire list a lot closer.

What I was surprised to find in the list is that Wal-Mart is not alone. Just comparing 2012 numbers to 2011, five of the top 10 employers — 10 of the top 25 — have fewer FTE employees this year than last. Comparing 2010 to 2012 (years that we’ve been coming out of the recession), six of the top 10 employers — 12 of the top 25 — have fewer FTEs than they previously had. Even though the economy seems to be improving, many of the larger employers are finding ways to keep their payrolls low.

Again, it is important to realize that the numbers are self-reported, but the story they tell is an interesting one. Just in those top 25 employers for 2012, there are over 10 percent of the labor force jobs for the state. It is a safe bet that within a few years, a sizable number of those students on the bus will find interest in the topic once again as they start hoping one of these employers plays a role in their future. I sincerely hope that by then the numbers start going in the other direction.

Columns from the Falls School of Business at Anderson University appear Tuesdays in The Herald Bulletin. Emmett Dulaney, teaches marketing and entrepreneurship.

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