What are your skills really worth?

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In a time when American CEOs now, unapologetically, take home 354 times the wage of their average worker, what we earn is finally becoming a larger part of the national conversation.

From this week’s New York Times, an op-ed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).

Many assume that fast-food workers are mostly teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. On the contrary, 73 percent are women, 70 percent are over the age of 20, and more than two-thirds are raising a child and are the primary wage earners in their family.

I spent 2.5 years — part-time, one shift a week except for holidays — as a retail sales associate for The North Face, selling $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, CT headed out to Aspen for their vacation. I made, from 2007 to 2009, $11/hour, a wage some in the U.S. — whose federal minimum is still a paltry $7.25/hour — consider munificent.

I did it because I needed a steady income, even a small one, in the depths of the Great Recession. It was, to say the least, eye-opening, to work for low wages and see how little they bought.

I wrote my last book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, about this life, including many interviews with other such workers across the U.S.

malled cover HIGH

Many customer-facing jobs, often in retail, food service and hospitality, are deemed “low skill.”

Which — as anyone who’s done one of them — knows is utter bullshit.

Some of the many skills you need to do this work include:

— patience

— excellent listener

— empathy for/with your customer and their needs

— the ability to quickly pick up, retain and use information

calm under pressure

— multi-tasking gracefully and competently

— physical stamina

— emotional stamina

— how to initiate and close a sale

Have you heard the phrase “emotional labor”?

It’s the expectation of customers and management that, even if your feet are swollen and painful from eight hours standing/running/walking without a break, even if you feel ill or nauseated or had to re-open the store barely hours after you closed it (and cleaned the toilets) — you’re happy. Smiling. Perky.

Riiiiiiiight.

One of the least amusing aspects of working through the holiday season, when wealthy shoppers in our affluent suburban New York mall entered the store already laden with pontoons of loaded shopping bags, was being told to be nice(r.)

All the time.

This, as you face long lines of shoppers who, by the time you can help them — (stores cut labor costs by under-staffing, even during busy periods), are pissed off and taking it out on you — not the staffing/scheduling software your company paid millions for.

That’s emotional labor.

Malled's Chinese version
Malled’s Chinese version

There’s a current trend in the U.S. — where labor union participation remains at an all-time low despite record corporate profits and stagnant wages — called Fight for 15.

The movement wants a wage of $15/hour for low-wage work; a day or week’s wages for workers in places like India, China, Nicaragua — where they make most of the clothes we sell and wear.

But it’s still very little income if you live in a large American city.

I’m forever fascinated by what people are paid and how they — and others — value their skills. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and many of us will do so for decades. Most of our lives will be spent earning an income for the skills we have acquired.

Time is money!
Time is money!

As a fulltime freelancer, knowing how to negotiate is one of my top skills.

It’s also a skill many women fail to acquire or practice — women offered a salary far too often say “Thanks!”, grab it and begin.

Men, statistically, have been shown to negotiate for more. They also get it.

You don’t ask — you don’t get.

One of my favorite books on this issue is called Women Don’t Ask, and I highly recommend it.

I grew up in a family of freelancers and have also spent much of my journalism career without a paycheck.

I know that negotiating is every bit as essential to my income as knowing how to write well and meet a deadline.

One example: a major magazine assigns me a story, the fee $2,400. The “kill fee”, i.e. if the story cannot be used, was $600 — a loss of three-quarters of my income. Nope, I said. They raised it to $1,000. The story, for reasons completely beyond my control, couldn’t be used; they offered me more than the agreed-upon fee.

But what if I hadn’t asked for more in the first place?

I also network, every single day, with other writers at my level; only by sharing information, candidly, can we know what people are actually paying — and not just jump at the first lowball offer.

You also need to be extremely honest with yourself and know what the current marketplace most values in your industry; if your skills are weak or out-of-date, you’re not going to be able to effectively compete and negotiate for more.

It’s scary to operate without a safety net, the security of a paycheck and paid sick days. But I thrive on the freedom to set my own hours, to work when and where and for whom and for how long I deem necessary. I set my own hourly rate — $225/hour with a one-hour minimum for coaching and consulting — and work only with clients I know will help me meet my goals, both intellectual and financial.

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It’s a sadly American mindset, in a nation addicted to freedom and liberty, to see how dismissively many workers are treated and how little they’re paid.

And how many put up with it.

10 ways to rock your first job/internship

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.

If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!

As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:

 

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Listen carefully

No, really.

Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.

Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.

Take notes

Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.

Ask lots of questions

Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!

Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.

Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.

Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”

And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?
Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake

Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.

Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)

And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)

Check in with your boss(es)

If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.

Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise

Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.

They are in no mood to coddle you as well.

Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically

If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!
It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!

That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.

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Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier

Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…

Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.

Good luck!

 

We’re Actually Not All Entrepreneurs

Horatio Alger, Jr., Harvard Class of 1852
Horatio Alger, a Harvard man...Image via Wikipedia

I weary of this trope, that — because there are so few new jobs available in the ongoing American recession — we’re all entrepreneurs now!

Guess what?

We’re not.

Saying so flies in the face of a pile o’ American myths:

the rugged individualist; the Ipad-toting Paul Bunyan; the bootstrapper; Horatio Alger; the endless, seductive, oooooooh-can-I do-that-too? allure of reinventing yourself over and over and over and over because….

It works really well for employers who don’t want to invest their money in tedious things like a stable workforce, health benefits or pensions.

Have you gone out to price market-rate health insurance lately?

That’ll send you right back to your miserable little cubicle in gratitude, missy!

Working for yourself, as those of us who do know, means paying our own FICA and, unless we can get health insurance through a spouse or domestic partner, paying through the nose for the privilege of not ever being able to file for unemployment benefits or sick pay.

Better not fail, kids!

I simply don’t buy this shiny new paradigm, that we’ll all meant to job-hop on a second’s notice, with whatever shiny new skills we’ve just acquired (at our own expense, natch!), while corporate fat-cats suck up increasingly huge salaries and the middle class and below, often those without the shiny skills and degrees to do the job-tap-dance, falls deeper into debt and despair.

Some people are really lousy at running their own business!

They’re lazy or undisciplined or not very well educated or have a million distractions or (imagine this!) other interests beyond working 24/7…so a job that is defined and waiting for them on Monday mornings (or Sunday afternoons, whatever) is just the ticket.

Millions of people are simply not at all suited to waking up alone in their home, figuring out exactly what is necessary to:

find clients; please clients; complete excellent work on schedule, never missing a deadline (hello, people and their families get sick!); revising the project as needed; invoicing it; getting paid promptly; finding new clients….Rinse and repeat!

I grew up in a family where no one ever had a paycheck, pension, sick days, paid vacation days. We were all freelance creatives, working in print, film and television. So I’ve lived for decades the life of the self-employed (but entrepreneur sounds so much sexier, doesn’t it?) and it is really not nearly as cool or free or carefree as the cube-bound fantasize.

This, from Tom Friedman in The New York Times:

This is precisely why LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley…has a book coming out after New Year called “The Start-Up of You,” co-authored with Ben Casnocha. Its subtitle could easily be: “Hey, recent graduates! Hey, 35-year-old midcareer professional! Here’s how you build your career today.”

Hoffman argues that professionals need an entirely new mind-set and skill set to compete. “The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

To begin with, Hoffman says, that means ditching a grand life plan. Entrepreneurs don’t write a 100-page business plan and execute it one time; they’re always experimenting and adapting based on what they learn.

It also means using your network to pull in information and intelligence about where the growth opportunities are — and then investing in yourself to build skills that will allow you to take advantage of those opportunities. Hoffman adds: “You can’t just say, ‘I have a college degree, I have a right to a job, now someone else should figure out how to hire and train me.’ ” You have to know which industries are working and what is happening inside them and then “find a way to add value in a way no one else can. For entrepreneurs it’s differentiate or die — that now goes for all of us.”

Finally, you have to strengthen the muscles of resilience. “You may have seen the news that [the] online radio service Pandora went public the other week,” Hoffman said. “What’s lesser known is that in the early days [the founder] pitched his idea more than 300 times to V.C.’s with no luck.”

Don’t get me wrong.

I am all for independence and self-reliance. I have zero tolerance for people unable, on a decent income, to save money, who have no idea of their finances.

But, you know, there’s no VC out there funding my work. Ever. “The muscles of resilience” are meaningless without, say, six months’ living expenses sitting in your bank account at all times, because many of us will need months, if not years, to find a new full-time job or get the cool new gig we’ve invented into the black. Not everyone has the financial resources to boot-strap.

What if (we have no kids or dependent family members) you are already saddled by the multiple financial needs of others? There’s no one-size-fits-all here.

This growing demand — sanctioned here by a columnist with a six-figure income — that every worker be all-nimble-all-the-time — with zero help or investment on the part of those whose corporate profits will only grow as a result? This doesn’t work for me.