Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: A lot to be said for being self-employed

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There are hundreds of thousands of self-employed New Zealanders who wouldn't have it otherwise. Photo / Thinkstock
There are hundreds of thousands of self-employed New Zealanders who wouldn't have it otherwise. Photo / Thinkstock

I dislike giving speeches, yet occasionally accept an invitation if the subject interests me. One recently was the New Zealand Career Advisers Annual Conference, mindful of my own awful agonising in my mid-teens over my future before careers advisers existed.

Most of my peers shot off at 15, into the labour-short factories then abundant in the Hutt Valley. My father wanted me to be a plumber, which he, a welder, viewed as an elite trade. My mother aspired for me simply to be a white-collar worker. I, on the other hand, didn't want to do anything, so after several short-lived factory jobs, for a time I became a wharfie, where I was paid more than my father and mostly basked in the sun reading.

The work was substantially done back then by Bos Murphy's Aotea gang, as they were known. Bos had returned from a professional boxing stint in Europe; its highlight: winning the Empire middleweight title in London. He secured a contract with the port, astonishing in those union-dominated days, and employed a small army of profit-sharing Dalmatians who ran from ship to ship - a classic example of incentive behaviour.

They were detested by my unionist fellow layabouts, who would mutter abuse when they passed, although never loudly for fear of Bos, notwithstanding him resembling a poet.

He died well off a few years ago, having been self-employed all of his life, as is common with most ex-boxers given the 100 per cent self-reliance of that loner's pursuit. A restructuring along those lines might end Auckland's waterfront woes to the satisfaction of all parties.

Eventually, I solved my dilemma when I realised it was not the career options which were unattractive but instead, answering to others, which was implicit in employment. For example, when I was called up for the then three months' compulsory military training, a stand-off ensued when I refused, explaining I was incapable of tolerating being shouted at.

It wasn't belligerency but reality, and consistent with my similar refusal to do the then Tuesday afternoon army training at school for which I appeared in the school magazine's military notes as a deserter. A like-minded mate spent most of his three months' "service" in the brig, having repeatedly dropped officers for yelling at him. Like me, he was to be self-employed all his life. Anyway, before things could reach a head, the compulsory military rubbish was scrapped.

But here's my point: while most folk are content being employed, a sizeable percentage with an independent streak are not. For them, there's a special dignity in being their own masters even though it's often fraught with worries.

Contrary to belief, they're not primarily motivated by money but simply a desire to steer their own ship. There are hundreds of thousands of self-employed New Zealanders who wouldn't have it otherwise. They're farmers, retailers, tradesmen, professionals and diverse service providers.

About a third of Kiwis outside the public sector are self-employed but over the past decade, the percentage has dropped, unlike in Australia, where it's rising. Ironically, in America, the home of private enterprise culture, the percentage of self-employed is lower than here.

Careers advisers and parents should promote to teens thoughts of ultimate self-employment in whatever career they choose. They should home in on kids who eschew team sports for solo activities such as tennis, swimming, athletics, golf, etc. These choices demonstrate independent personalities, content with self-reliance. On the other hand, there are lots of people who enjoy teamwork, a point made to me by a hospital doctor in for drinks who a couple of months earlier had overseen my unexpected 13-hour dying stint in the hospital emergency department. It depends on one's temperament, thus each to their own.

Increasingly, businesses and local and central government are contracting out tasks they once employed people to do. This provides flexibility, cost savings and mutual satisfaction. My company spends many millions annually on services, so on face value should employ in-house lawyers, electricians, plumbers, engineers and so forth. In fact, it would cost more, as our demand is erratic. A job might require six blokes to deal with it efficiently, then there might be no requirements for a fortnight.

The first industry to apply this logic was advertising. Once they employed an array of skills yet their work load fluctuated as they won or lost clients. So they reduced themselves to a hard core, copywriters, illustrators and such-like setting up as independent contractors, available to all.

It's a global trend resulting in higher efficiency and job satisfaction. It's also the future. Most people could be self-employed by such arrangements, but with the proviso that they wish to be.

- NZ Herald

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