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Posts Tagged ‘finding a job’

The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

The end of (unpaid) internships — about time?

In behavior, business, education, film, journalism, life, Media, Money, movies, news, television, US, work on November 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, this has been a year of lawsuits against major corporations with very deep pockets who have hired interns and either not paid them enough — or not paid them anything at all.

Experience, skills and a new network are deemed sufficient compensation.

internship

internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

The problem? No lower-income would-be employee can afford to rent space, feed and clothe themselves, let alone afford gas or subway fare, if they are not paid. A serious internship requires all the time and energy it takes to make that income “on the side” — which has meant that many internships are eagerly claimed by those whose parents or partner can afford to subsidize them.

If a company can keep its lights on and elevators running, it can afford to pay its interns!

Now, in response to all the hue and cry, Conde Nast — the publishing empire producing Vanity Fair, Glamour, Vogue, et al — has decided to end its internship program.

Here’s a piece about it from mediabistro.com, a major hub for Jnews:

there’s so much more to doing internships than just the desk work. As they’re pursued in such a transitional time of life, I believe they help to shape who you are not just professionally but also personally, and if
they’re done right, they can push you toward a decision about what you want to do with your life. For the rest of your life. What if other huge names like Condé Nast gave up on their internship programs? The New Yorker, in many circles, is considered the pinnacle of journalistic success.

And for fashion writers and enthusiasts, Vogue reaches those heights. Now, freshly graduated people are potentially left to knock on Condé Nast’s door with zero relationships in the building, having had no opportunity to show them that they can hack it at a major media title —the  shot you get during an internship.

English: I took this photograph of the footsto...

English: I took this photograph of the footstone of Conde Nast in Gate of Heaven Cemetery on April 9, 2007. Conde Nast was a real person — how would he feel about all this? GNU Free Documentation License – (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And from The Globe and Mail:

I remember when my first internship ended, the staff gathered around to tell me what a wonderful a job I had done and wish me well. But instead of eating cake, I really wanted to blurt out “just put me on the payroll!”

On the other hand, that internship helped me land my first paying job. The hiring manager even overlooked his requirement that I possess a master’s degree in journalism from an expensive Ivy League college after seeing clippings of my articles published during that internship.

But somewhere along the line, internships – meant to bridge the skills gap between formal education and an entry-level job – evolved into an accepted way for companies to demand free labour.

In recent years, a chorus of discontent has arisen over unpaid internships, most notably in several high-profile lawsuits, including ones against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Magazines. Condé Nast shut down its internship program last week after an earlier lawsuit.

I have strong opinions about this as I’ve been hiring — and paying — interns and assistants for more than a decade, paying them a low wage of $10 hour to a maximum of $15/hour. I had an unpaid intern, Jessica, who received college credit for the semester we worked together — by the time it ended, I’d grown so reliant on her helpful good cheer I paid her $12/hour, and then (with one phone call) found her her first post-grad job, in the field she wanted.

On my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, I truly was broke, yet managed to find four bright, capable young women to help me with research — without pay. They were excited to contribute to a work of women’s history and I was deeply grateful for their skill and energy. One of them, 11 years later, remains a friend and colleague; she went on to work for one of NPR’s biggest national radio programs.

Cover of "Blown Away: American Women and ...

Cover of Blown Away: American Women and Guns

Since then, I’ve worked with about a dozen others, some fantastic, some less so. But I’ve paid all of them, even those without a shred of journalism experience or training. It’s a win-win for us both — they learn a lot, quickly, by doing substantive work and I am freed from endless administrative tasks to get on with higher-value work I need to do.

These are not full-time jobs. I can’t pay anyone thousands of dollars a month; i.e. a living wage. But I spend hundreds, sometimes close to a thousand dollars, each year to hire and pay people for their skills.

If someone is offering you a skill — and you, and your company, are profiting from their labor, pay them.

It seems pretty simple to me.

Have you done a paid (or unpaid) internship?

Was it as valuable as you’d hoped?

It’s Labor Day: What does work mean to you?

In aging, behavior, books, business, journalism, life, news, US, work on September 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:

As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.

An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.

Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”

Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.

I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.

I talked about this in “Malled”, my book about retail labor. It was published last month in China, with a new cover and title.

I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.

It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”

But we are both working, albeit from home.

Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.

I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.

Time Selector

Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Recent polls are shockingly sad — some 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs. A Gallup poll of 150,000 workers found many of us actively miserable in the place where we spend the bulk of our days and energy.

This is nuts!

I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.

I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.

She was right.

I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s (Photo credit: StevenM_61)

I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”

I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.

How do you feel about your job?

Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

In aging, behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, Money, urban life, US, work on April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am
Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money

Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs– to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

Ten ways to be a kick-ass assistant

In behavior, business, education, life, work on March 13, 2013 at 1:31 am

When am I gonna make a living?.
It’s gonna take a while before I give in. Yes it is.
I’m sick and tired of scratching a living.
I am hungry but I’m not gonna give in, no

—- Sade, “When Am I Going to Make a Living?”

The job market is still lousy here in the United States, for thousands of smart people — even many with Really Fancy College degrees.

In a tough economy with too many people chasing too few jobs, you need to get your foot on the rung, even the bottom one, of a ladder that might actually lead you to a job you want. That might mean becoming someone’s assistant.

No eye-rolling. No “I didn’t go to college for that!”

No one did.

OK Boss - NARA - 534390

OK Boss – NARA – 534390 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more than a decade, I’ve hired, managed and retained unpaid interns and paid assistants to help me run my writing business and to research and help promote my two books.

I got the idea while teaching a journalism class at a local university with only 13 students. I knew exactly who I hoped would intern for me — a lively, funny, down-to-earth young woman named Jessica. It was like asking her for a date! Luckily, she said yes and stayed on to work for me after her unpaid internship ended; I paid her, more than a decade ago, $12 an hour. She was worth every penny.

In return, with one phone call to someone I knew who needed help, I found her a job straight out of school in a field she wanted. Score!

One of my favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada, from 2006. I used to sympathize with the beleaguered and overworked assistant, Andie, but after the first few viewings, my sympathies switched to Miranda Priestley, her super-demanding boss at Runway magazine.

It’s a fun film — and offers much workplace wisdom.

Cover of "The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]...

Cover of The Devil Wears Prada [Blu-ray]

If you’re looking for work, certainly a first post-grad job, think on these things…

Listen carefully

In an age of CPA — continuous partial attention — it’s rare to find young staffers able to offer you their full, undivided attention and look you in the eye for more than a few minutes. This is essential for creating and maintaining a working relationship with your boss and his or her clients or colleagues. Feels weird? Tough!

Your boss hired you to help them perform better. Listening very carefully to their instructions — and the tone of of voice they’re delivered in — is key. This is tougher by text or email, so try to get some face or phone time with them as well.

Take notes

Can you possibly remember everything they asked you to do? And every deadline? I doubt it. No matter how trivial the conversation appears to be — your boss is running between meetings or it sounds like an afterthought — it’s important to them. Which means it’s important to you!

Ask a lot of questions

Some bosses don’t have much time, or patience, to deal with endless questions, so knowing how much they will reveal and when is also a measure of how perceptive and sensitive to nuance you are; read up on the notion of emotional intelligence.

EQ matters as much as — if not more than —  IQ!

Do not guess. Do not make assumptions! It’s better to feel stupid and ask a question than screw it up by thinking because you graduated college you know what your boss really wants. You might.

But what if you’re wrong?

Email, call or text when necessary for clarification

I prefer assistants comfortable working independently because I have little time to manage or train them; if you see the word “self-starter” in an ad, that’s what they mean. But you will always have something you’re not quite sure of. Check!

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sac...

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway): pre-release still photograph from the film The Devil Wears Prada; this also is the novel’s redesigned cover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Check in!

How’s it going? Really.

If something is heading south, for whatever reason, your boss needs to know about it sooner rather than later so it can get fixed. If you’re used to parents who check in with you, or you with them, this is not that. This is not you looking for approval or a thumbs-up or a “Great job!” from your boss.

Take nothing personally

It’s work, kids. It’s a job. It’s not the rest of your life. It’s not the only thing you do or care about. So if someone snaps at you or yells at you or hands you a task you think is stupid, it’s actually not about you. It’s been deemed important by the people paying for your skills and labor.

When people are nasty or rude or just even unfriendly in a work setting, it often has very little to do with you as a person  — (unless you’re rude, obnoxious, unethical, lazy or entitled. But you’re not, right?) They’re likely carrying a shitload of stress, work or personal and likely both, with few places to express it.

Yes, this task (or job) is boring/tedious/repetitive — do it really well anyway!

We picked you because you seemed like a smart, lively, high-energy person. We hired you to do everything we do not have time, energy, manpower or patience to deal with. We hired you because, in the coldest language possible, our time is now valued more highly in the marketplace than yours, and we have bills to pay. So if your boss can bill $200-1,000 an hour for their skills, that’s where their focus needs to stay.

We’ve all done this shit! And your willingness to tackle tedious stuff well and efficiently sends a powerful and important meta-message to your boss: I get it.

Be cheerful, warm and fun to work with

Huge. This is a deal-maker. I’ve had a few assistants who didn’t always do exactly what I hoped for, but their genuine enthusiasm and sense of humor made it feel like we were a team. Your boss is stressed to the max. S/he really appreciates someone whose mood and attitude can lighten their load — so no whining/pouting/crying/negativity. Learn the names of your boss’s kids/spouse/pets, (and ask how they’re doing from time to time), and his/her birthday, even if all you do is wish them a cheery “Happy birthday!” Bosses are people too. (Some of them.)

Ask if suggestions and ideas are welcome — then show us what you’ve got

It’s great that you have lots of ideas. It shows initiative and gumption. But wait a while. Wait a few weeks, even months, before you start making suggestions. Unless your boss asks you for them.

Be 10000000% reliable

This is obvious. Flaking and bailing are simply not an option. Remember the letters ID — illness or death. In my book, they’re the only reason you can bail or be late. I once hired someone, who came highly recommended, who had lots of great ideas. I was psyched! Then she quit within a week because she had another income source and she suddenly remembered it was more important.

Loyalty matters.

Bonus tip:

Discretion is paramount. Never share anything your boss shares with you on any form of social media. Don’t tell your friends or your room-mates or anyone. Don’t forward it or keep it or re-purpose it for your own ends, like the assistant who casually mentioned she’d used some of my first book’s research material for a class paper. Um, no.

You have no idea who they know — the person your boss is about to hire, fire, promote or give a grant to. I sometimes have my assistants sign an NDA, non disclosure agreement, to make sure they get it. Just because you grew up sharing everything on social media doesn’t mean your boss wants his or her stuff used as if it were yours. It’s not!

What have I left out?

Talent Is Not Enough!

In blogging, books, business, work on January 27, 2012 at 12:11 am
Labour law concerns the inequality of bargaini...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a book that someone gave me, by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, with the fateful and inaccurate (if deeply optimistic) inscription: “All it takes is talent.”

I wish!

A recent op-ed by New York Times writer Tom Friedman makes the point even more strongly:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Scared yet?

Unless you have amazing skills or a white-hot degree (engineering or computer science, to name two), you might be.

I work in a field — journalism/publishing/online media — changing at warp speed. In one year, 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs. That’s a lot of people shoved hard out of work they had done well and enjoyed for decades into….who the hell knows.

I took a retail job in 2007, seeing how crummy things were getting, and it brought in gas-and-grocery money, for which I was damn grateful, for 27 months. I’d never had a low-wage job and it was often hard and exhausting, physically and emotionally.

Fortunately, it led to a book that’s been well-reviewed, television rights option (additional income) and paid speaking engagements — none of which were a guarantee and all of which might never have happened. It’s a life, like that of a polar bear in the melting ice cap, of leaping from one moving slab of income to another.

Talent, i.e. being really good at what you do, is the least of it!

You need:

A way with words. Can you write a compelling and persuasive pitch letter or email? Can you describe what you do best in two or three sentences, tops?

Charm. No kidding. You can call it “people skills” but if you’re witty, fun, funny and simply an interesting person to engage with, your odds quickly improve of finding paid work. People hire those they find companionable and sympathetic, not just grunts with a resume. I got my retail job with zero experience because I was able, easily, to engage the two men doing the hiring in lively conversation focused on their needs. That’s what salespeople do.

Stamina. I’ve been an athlete since childhood, and competed in sailing, swimming and even fencing at the national level. If you’re going to work for yourself, or compete for a good job, you need stamina — physically and emotionally. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in many endeavors and those able to best withstand pain will move past those who easily crumple, then whine in the corner.

Learn something new all the time. If your technical skills are weak, you’re falling behind. If you can pick up a new skill every few months, or yearly at least, you’ve got something added to offer beyond the basics. I speak fluent French, decent Spanish and can take excellent photos that have been nationally published. On a few occasions, that combination has been more than my nearest competitor…

Hustle! I grew up in Toronto and was out on my own at 19. I learned to hustle hard, often and relentlessly to earn a living freelance. I wasn’t scared, even then, to offer my skills and services to top editors and my confidence grew with my portfolio. One of my photos was published in Time when I was an undergrad. I never ever take a contact, job or assignment for granted. Too many people are chasing the same dreams.

Know your industry and what matters within it right now. Read trade magazines and websites and blogs and know who’s who and what they need. Go to conferences and attend meetings and read the smart thought leaders in your field so you know what they’re saying. Join as many professional groups as you can and be as generous with your time, talent and skills as possible. People refer people they know, like and trust to their colleagues — not some random needy person on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Go to the places you can meet some of the players face to face. Not a job fair! Think like a reporter and find out where you might run into a few of the decision-makers you need to meet: conferences, public events, a political rally, a school sports match.

Travel. Even if it’s an hour or two outside your usual routines. Fresh ideas and insights are harder to acquire if you keep treading familiar ground.

Meta matters. If you’re blogging or maintaining a social media presence, make sure every post, tweet, message, photo and idea you leave permanently out there conveys the underlying meta message you intend.

Apple products are cool not just because they’re Apple, per se…they’re very deliberately hyper-designed to feel good, sound good, look good. And we like to show them off as metaphors for how cool and put-together we are.

What meta messages are your clients and audience picking up about you? Are they consistent, memorable and compelling? Every single aspect of your presentation, from your handshake to your tone of voice to the shoes you choose to the colors on your website is sending (unspoken, immediate and indelible) messages about you!

Consume a wide array of media and information. If you’re politically liberal, read what the right-wingers have to say, and vice versa. Read media in your language from far beyond your region — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Scotland (and South Africa) will offer ideas and points of view that your local, regional or national press may well be ignoring. Trends bubble up worldwide in a global economy.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Once you find some clients who value you, treasure them and give them your very best. I frequently turn in material ahead of my deadlines. In 30 years I think I’ve missed two.

Read smart business publications/websites/blogs consistently. If you really want to understand where jobs are going (or coming from) and why you’ve got to understand the movement of capital, investment trends and global markets. It’s not terribly complicated and might help you see what’s happening before it hits you personally. ( If you’re got a secure government or academic job, lucky you!)

What advice would you offer?

Trying On A Career — For $40

In behavior, business, travel on July 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm
The Wannado City "sign" logo.

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s one way to spend your vacation — checking out a career. A new amusement park in Sunrise, Florida, Wannado University, offers kids ages two to 14 the chance to live out their work fantasies:

Step 1. Start young. How about two years old? That’s exactly what the creators of Wannado City in Sunrise, Fla., (just 25 kilometres west from Fort Lauderdale) have in mind. This unplugged theme park-cum-job training centre for squirts is an antidote to Florida’s pricier, flashy, family-thrill-ride hot spots. At Wannado City, kids from two to 14 years old can try on grown-up professions for size (and the costumes that go with them) from detective to doctor, firefighter to fashion designer.

Wannado – the size of three football fields – is laid out to look like a town, albeit a town that is blessed with only attractive businesses. There are no dry cleaners, notary offices or accounting firms. Among the 60 storefronts, there is a circus, flight-training centre, high-end fashion house and movie studio. For $40 (U.S.), kids can come in search of any one of more than 250 different jobs (and they go door to door on their own, but parents can watch over them in the “Eagles Nest” lounge). Once they settle in at the hospital, fire station or airport, they slip into uniforms and get some on-the-job training before they embark on removing a kidney stone, fighting a fire or flying a 747. Yes, there is an actual flight simulator.

A company called VocationVacations has been doing this for adults for years now. It’s an interesting idea, this, of trying on a new job or industry before the drama of actually doing it. In a recession where millions can’t find work they know how to do, and wonder what on earth — if anything — they’ll do next or instead, it’s a question many of us are facing.

About 15 years ago, I planned to move into interior design and went to study it full-time, but only after interviewing three highly successful women who had been working in various segments of the industry for a while. I learned a lot, and some of which really surprised me — one designer told me that being nice (!) was key to her success as so many of her competitors were hand-flapping divas who terrified their clients. Who knew?

What other job or career would you like to try and why? Have you made major career changes along the way? How did they work out?

Are We 'Entrepreneurs' Or Unemployed?

In business on June 3, 2010 at 8:41 am
A typical flea market shop, in Germany

Sell, baby, sell! Image via Wikipedia

Great op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Reich:

LAST year was a fabulous one for entrepreneurs, at least according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released last month by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “Rather than making history for its deep recession and record unemployment,” the foundation reported, “2009 might instead be remembered as the year business startups reached their highest level in 14 years — even exceeding the number of startups during the peak 1999-2000 technology boom.”

Another surprise is the age of these new entrepreneurs. According to the report, most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20’s. It’s the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy. And if you thought minorities had been hit particularly hard by this awful recession, think again. According to the report, entrepreneurship increased more among African-Americans than among whites.

At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?

In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for “entrepreneur” is “self-employed.”

The True/Slant model has been that of “entrepreneurial” journalist. Sounds so sexy. You’re in charge! Buying a big shiny desk! Minions! Interns!

Not so much. I photocopied my tax return from 2009 today because I’m asking my local YMCA for financial assistance to use their gym and pool, as I did (and received) last year as well. I lost my last staff job in June 2006, from the Daily News, where I was a feature writer. My income last year was 25 per cent of my staff salary. Yeah, I feel really entrepreneurial.

I am grateful for my partner’s staff job and his health insurance that covers me.

I’m forming a company this month, $1,200, as I finalize my book manuscript; I’ve been told to buy libel insurance as well. Those pesky little details of self-employment can add up to serious coin; I had to write my accountant a check for $395 for filing my 2009 taxes before we could start the next round of expenditures. He will allow me to pay that $1,200 over a few months, and I appreciate his kindness. Right now, my income from T/S ends in 28 days and I have no work lined up.

I’ll find something. It’s what we do. You get good at bush-beating when it’s your only source of income. I’m one of millions of U6ers — the Bureau of Labor term for those who don’t even bother looking for a full-time job anymore.

But I’ve freelanced for years and have some good relationships, editors I’ve been writing for for years, sometimes decades. Millions of “entrepreneurs”, as Reich so eloquently points out, are toast. They didn’t choose that role and they don’t want it.

There is some bitter irony that while some workers get government-paid subsidy and retraining, most of us don’t. We have to re-tool on the fly, stitching our parachutes as we plummet.

Yesterday’s Times profiled a number of New Yorkers now making and selling food or drink at local flea markets — people who once had well-paid full-time jobs that had nothing to do with food or drink, like Fabiana Lee — a former interior designer — who now makes and sells empanadas and cake pops:

“This is my investment in the future right now,” said Fabiana Lee, 26, an interior designer who lost her job in 2009. She has been selling at the Greenpoint market since its inception in October. After experimenting with cookies (too much competition), she has pared her offerings down to two: gorgeously browned empanadas and irresistibly twee “cake pops,” golf-ball-size rounds of cake perched on lollipop sticks. At the moment, they are her main source of income.

Young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, unemployed and hoping to find a place in the food world outside the traditional route, she is typical of the city’s dozens of new food entrepreneurs. As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

My single largest check this year is likely (I hope) to be a windfall, something I discovered through a lucky accident, and a helpful friend, over coffee at Christmas in Toronto with a former editor — a copyright lawsuit settlement in Canada. I hired (and paid) a researcher there to sniff out all my qualifying pieces, 132 in all. The maximum payout any one of us can get is $55,000. I doubt I’ll get anything like that, but it’s going to be a very welcome check.

We all, certainly the T/S crowd, know how difficult journalism has become as a primary source of income — I am struck, and saddened when I read emails or blog posts from young writers barely a few years into their careers who have already been canned, sometimes more than once; Michael Hastings, no graybeard, bemoans the sale of Newsweek, where he (precociously) has already worked.

What was once called, with chilling literalness, a hand-to-mouth existence has — ta-dah! — been reframed as ‘entrepreneurial.’ Sort of like calling a used car “pre-owned.” We were “pre-employed.”

Many of us now are “entrepreneurs”, whether we want to be or not.

Wary Workers Now Prefer Self-Employment, Stats Say

In business, work on April 21, 2010 at 7:07 pm
Interior of an Office

Image by Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons via Flickr

Interesting story in The New York Times about people who have been so burned by the recession, the vicious not-so-merry-go-round of hiring and firing they prefer not to have a full-time job:

What is known as “contingent work,” or “flexible” and “alternative” staffing arrangements, has proliferated, although exact figures are hard to come by because of difficulties in tracking such workers. Many people are apparently looking at multiple temporary jobs as the equivalent of a diversified investment portfolio.

The notion that the nature of work is changing — becoming more temporary and project-based, with workers increasingly functioning as free agents and no longer being governed by traditional long-term employer-employee relationships — first gained momentum in the 1990s. But it has acquired new currency in this recession, especially among white-collar job seekers, as they cast about for work of any kind and companies remain cautious about permanent hiring.

In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists who study flexible work arrangements believe that the increase has been driven in large part by independent contractors like Mr. Sinclair and other contingent workers, struggling to cobble together whatever work they can find.

As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers’ confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.

I recently spoke to a class of journalism students at Emerson College in Boston. The night’s final question, technically off the topic of my visit (ethics) was striking: “Aren’t you freaked out by not having a job? Being freelance all the time?”

No.

Like these people in the Times piece, I’ve been laid off from a few jobs, instantly and, a few times without clear warning, severed from well-paid work I enjoyed in my field. For me to sign up again, willingly and with a real sense of excitement, I’m not sure which employer would be The One. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Seniority, nope. Multiple graduate degrees? Not those either. The only protection against being canned, and falling deep into poverty, is saving the biggest amount of cash you possibly can and keeping your overhead as low as you and your loved ones can tolerate.

I was lucky in growing up in a household where no one ever had a “real” job — i.e. a steady, solid paycheck, a pension, paid sick days or vacation. Everyone worked as a creative freelancer: film, journalism, television. You live check to check. You get to know a really good accountant and try very hard not to get behind on your tax payments since it’s pay as you go. We drove (good) used cars, bought art and cashmere and plane tickets overseas in better years and enjoyed them in lean ones.

I learned young that even the best ideas you try to sell freelance can be ignored or stolen or shot down by people collecting paychecks because…they feel like it. They owed us no allegiance and we all knew the deal. It’s a painful and expensive lesson to learn instead mid-life and mid-career, as millions now have in the recession. Like a wave of bitter divorce(e)s, some of us aren’t eager to trot back up to the altar of full-time work. It’s too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.

Are you still in a full-time job? How secure — if at all — do you feel?

If you work for yourself, how’s that going? Do you feel more secure knowing it’s all up to you?

33,000 Lost Their Jobs Last Month — Read This Book If You're One (Or Have Already Been Canned)

In behavior, business on March 5, 2010 at 10:12 am
Circuit City

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

I finished this book, The Disposable American, by Louis Uchitelle, a former, long-time New York Times economics reporter, yesterday and did something I’ve never done before — called the writer to ask him to meet me. While writing my own book on work, I’m finding very few writers who truly dig beneath the surface of our “business as usual” perspectives.

If you’re unemployed, today or for the past few years, get it from the library and read it.

It’s not a new book, published in 2006, therefore likely researched in 2004 and 2005. It pre-dates this terrible moment of 10 percent+ unemployment.

Reading it won’t get you an interview, a sexy resume, a part-time or temp job. It will, smartly, compassionately and compellingly, speak to the toxic mix of emotion, greed, commerce, lax regulation, union weakness and profit-making pressure that have separated you — and millions of us — from jobs we loved, needed, relied on, may have held for decades — or a few months.

From Bookslut:

Louis Uchitelle’s book, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, is another one of those great books that none of the right people will read.

It will of course be read; it’s published by Knopf and Uchitelle is an award-winning journalist with the New York Times. He’s been writing business and economics news for more than three decades, and he clearly knows his stuff. But a book in which the author demands that both the easy “myths” of layoffs and the true achievability of the American dream be carefully considered may not be particularly appealing to your typical “buy low, sell high” business readers.

Uchitelle wastes no time enumerating what he feels are the three primary myths that have lead to layoffs becoming accepted as a normal consequence of doing business: that they offer a payoff in the form of a “revitalized corporate America;” that those employees in danger of being laid off can and should save themselves through education and training; and that layoffs are a purely financial proposition, rather than personally traumatic experiences that damage both employees and companies by “undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.”

For every bouncy best-selling business book filled with peppy little bromides — Uchitelle singles out “Who Moved My Cheese” as one egregious blame-the-victim example — there are precious few that honestly and compassionately recognize the trauma, short and long-term, that job loss inflicts and is currently inflicting. When he went looking for those who study this, and are willing to talk about it on the record, this persistent, talented veteran found almost no one.

Dr. Alexandra K. Rolde, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Boston and  clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told him:

“It is a trauma to the entire family. You have a parent working at a prestigious full-time job. All of a sudden, the parent sits at home and can’t find a job and is depressed. And suddenly the child’s role model sort of crumbles. Instead of feeling admiration for the parent, the child eventually begins to feel disrespect. Because the children identify with the parents, they begin to doubt that they can accomplish anything. They feel they won’t be successful in life and their self-esteem plummets. This of course is a long-term thing. We call it transgenerational trauma; it is similar to what we used to see with Holocaust survivors and their children. The children feel as damaged as their parents, even though they did not experience the trauma directly themselves.”

But, in this recession, there is a trans-generational piece we’re not talking about. I know many younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who have already lost several good jobs, been unemployed for many long months, have, perhaps found a new job. At a time in their lives once filled with excitement, hope and anticipation — pay off those student loans! get a car! get married! buy a home! — they face anxiety.

I’ve recently been advising a  new young friend, a woman of 23 about to graduate journalism school. I wish I had truly helpful, practical things to tell her about what will be her wisest career choices right now. She is not someone who wants to slack off or hang out, whose family is willing or able to pay her bills for years. I lost my own staff newspaper job in June 2006. I was well-paid and enjoyed the work tremendously.

Like millions of others, certainly those considered (illegally) too old and expensive, I eventually gave up looking for another one. Will I look again? I’m not sure.

Am I someone she can trust? I don’t want my pessimism to infect or burden her, but neither no do I wish to blow smoke and lies at someone who’s entering the world of work.

Get a job, cool. How long will it last? How about the next one?

The damage has been done.

It is a deeply held American myth that we are solely and individually responsible for our successes and failures, that when you’re canned/axed/terminated/off-shored/out-sourced, it’s your fault. You, loser, screwed up. Not your handsomely compensated CEOs or the multiple layers of management they have chosen to hire and keep.

The language of job loss, used unthinkingly and carelessly, remains insultingly infantile and euphemistic.

Every day, in many news reports, we’re blandly informed: “XY,000 jobs were shed.”

Shed? Like a snake’s skin? Like a bird’s feathers?

More like a vicious virus, deeply, persistently painful.

Read Uchitelle. His passion and intellience won’t help you in any practical way. But he  — luckily, safely retired — gets it.

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