14 February 2010


MTS stands for Member of Technical Staff. I first heard it at the old Bell Labs, where I was an MTS and an MTS-Supervisor. Since then, the label has propagated to tens of companies where scientists and engineers (aka S&Es) develop hardware and software for new products and services. It is now industrial "best practice," to call industrial scientists and engineers MTSs instead of by their actual specialties, such as plasma physicist, solid state physicist, electrical engineer, nuclear engineer, inorganic chemist, mathematician, spectroscopist, etc. The bland designation "MTS" gives the illusion that it is easy to compare the contributions of these uniquely trained and experienced individuals across disciplines. That way one can have a uniform compensation policy across disciplines, which simplifies salary administration and avoids litigation.

The risk of such an industry best practice is that management can actually come to believe that it represents some kind of ground truth. At the old Bell Labs, my management actually told me that any MTS should be able to do any other MTS's job. As a corollary, they also told me that a good manager ought to be able to manage anything, no matter what it is.

It should be obvious that neither of these statements are true. And if they weren't true at the old Bell Labs (which is now defunct) it is even less true at the US National Laboratories, particularly those involved in maintaining the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile. And yet, the US National Labs are adopting the MTS designation, and abandoning job classification by discipline. Why? Because the Labs have been privatized. They are no longer run by the University of California as a service to the nation and under contract to the US Department of Energy. They are run by Limited Liability Corporations, of which the University of California and Bechtel Corporation are senior partners.

You can't blame the Obama Administration for this. The delusion that everything will run better if it's run like a business is a Republican delusion, and this one was foisted on the National Labs under the Bush Administration. The first problem with this is that nobody, especially nobody in Congress, thought through the implications of privatizing the National Labs. As a result, the Labs lost many millions of dollars in federal, state, and local tax exemptions, and incurred millions of dollars in additional management fees - all of which resulted in thousands of layoffs, because the Lab's budgets were held flat. The second, longer term problem is that Research and Development (R&D) is not a business. It is a cost of doing business, and most businesses minimize that cost by not doing R&D. Or at least by doing only D (development) and not R (Research). This is because the only one thing in the Universe more inefficient than Research is ignorance.

Now the bean-counters, the efficiency experts, are forcing the National Labs to conform to industry best practices by adopting the MTS designation for all members of its scientific and engineering workforce. At first, this will be harmless. But, by making the members of the National Lab workforce look superficially like everybody else's workforce, it may enable the delusion that they can be managed by "more professional" executives from outside corporations who don't really understand what all those MTSs do. Who believe they don't have to understand, because "a good manager can manage anything." And then, with that lack of understanding, they may begin to mixmaster the workforce whenever they need to move people around to save jobs, because "any MTS should be able to do any MTS's job." It took about 20 years for that mentality to destroy Bell Labs. The risk is that the same mentality may be allowed to creep into the National Labs, which are part of what maintains our National Security in terms of both defense and energy.

Now the National Labs may fare better than Bell Labs, because Bell Labs was funded by a competitive business (once the old AT&T was broken up in order to settle a lawsuit by MCI). And as I said, industry survives competition by doing as little research as possible. The National Labs are funded by the US taxpayers, as represented by their President and their Congress. That should give us all confidence, right?

Oh, well. I might as well close with some levity. Imagine these words sung to the tune of the "M.T.A Song," (better known as "Charlie on the MTA," written in 1948 by Jaqueline Steiner and Bess Hawes, and made famous by the Kingston Trio's recording of it in 1959:

The MTS Song

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie

Who was put to a fateful test.

He used to be a chemist,
A very good chemist
'Till they made him an MTS.

Charlie lost his uniqueness

When bean-counters from Bechtel
Forced him to make a change

When he balked his boss told him,

"They need you in Lasers.

Your transfer has been arranged."

Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may lurk forever
'neath the beams of Lasers
He's the man who never returned.

Now all day long

Charlie sits in his office

Crying, "What will become of me?

I wanna be a chemist
But now they tell me

To do Plasma Spectroscopy!"


Charlie's colleagues go down

To the diagnostics station

Every day at quarter past two
And in between shots
They hand Charlie a sandwich

As the data come pourin' through.


Now employees of LLNS,

Don't you think it's a scandal

That our titles are meaningless

Get our uniqueness back!
Go talk to George Miller!

Charlie's a chemist, not an MTS.

Or else he'll never return,

No he'll never return
And his fate will be unlearned

He may lurk forever 
'neath the beams of Lasers.

He's the man who never returned.

He's the man who never returned.

He's the man who never returned.

See also: Leviathan, Inc.

1 comment:

motheramelia said...

I am so glad I'm retired. Loved the MTS song.