Hey guys, it's conference time! Is this your annual career get-together where you reconnect with your colleagues around the globe, and hope one of them can hook you up with a better gig? Is this the one where your boss grouses about the expense and makes you grovel to attend, only to have the organizers decide to host it in St. Louis rather than Miami? Or is this the year they finally decide to convene in Hawaii, so your request is met with an unequivocal, "No &%$# way Ferguson, how stupid do I look?"
Ahh, yes, the annual conference. We all want to attend to see all our colleagues, and we need the continuing education credits. We could also use some time away from office politics, and indulge in some vendor-supplied booze, heavy hors d'oeuvres and those cool stress balls, flashing buttons, pens and other tchochkes dragged in on pallets for the vendor booths. It all starts when we check in at the registration booth and are immediately saddled with a shoulder bag or cheap briefcase festooned with corporate logos and crammed with a fat, indecipherable program, CDs, marketing slicks and perhaps a coveted invitation to a hospitality suite or off-site bacchanal. These are the true score.
These vendor-hosted evening gatherings are carefully planned to ensure drunken revelers can safely return to their hotel after the event. I was at one such affair in a San Francisco night club, and saw a fellow middle-aged colleague attempting to break dance on stage with two scantily-clad go-go dancers.
"Aren't you a bit old for this, Fred?" I shouted over the pounding techno-beat.
"Yeah, but I dig these guys from Fleener Security Systems. They rock!"
"Fleener?" I responded. "Their party is over at the aquarium. You're at the senior management team mixer. I just saw your VP taking your picture with his cell phone."
For better or worse, though, times have changed significantly with the economy. There's less giddy optimism, and sadly, less free booze. I recently attended a conference of county elected officials and technologists. The theme of the conference was how to drive better efficiencies and lower the cost of providing services to their citizens. The chosen theme was not surprising, given that most states are seeing record deficits, and some notable ones are on the verge of bankruptcy. The mood at this gathering was somber and understated.
I watched with respect as the attendees flocked to session after session with notebooks in hand. The booth traffic was brisk. Participation in group discussion sessions was lively, interactive and ran longer than scheduled. This was a marked change from the somnolent conferences of yore, where people wandered in late and sat lifelessly in the back of the auditorium, bleary eyes focused on the Blackberry in their lap, or clamped shut for a cat nap. These people were serious. Did I mention much of this conference was held on Saturday and Sunday to minimize the impact on their jobs?
Sadly, their counterparts in federal positions don't seem to have these same concerns. Congress is printing money, living on deficit spending and building new federal bureaucracies at an alarming rate. Pay for federal positions has now outstripped similar jobs in the private sector, and Washington, DC is a beehive of new buildings, BMWs and bureaucrats.
At the state and county level, the budgetary impact has been crushing. Many jurisdictions have had sweeping layoffs and middle-aged employees are being hit with early forced retirement. Furloughs and unpaid "vacations" are the order of the day. Certainly, many governing bodies were part of the problem that brought us here, but states and counties are being asked to shoulder the burden while Washington continues to spend us all into penury.
No one at this meeting was asking for another "bailout" of federal money that doesn't exist. They were looking at new and creative ways to provide the services their citizens require without the need to curtail or simply eliminate them. Times are hard out here, but this economic pressure cooker contains a nugget of hope.