Posts Tagged ‘jobs’

Why there’s no such thing as a low-skilled job

In behavior, books, business, culture, journalism, life, U.S., work on October 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Great op-ed recently in The New York Times:

Most people walking through casino employee hallways — janitors, housekeepers, retail workers — are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.

Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to…

Like an athlete, a worker completing the same task for the thousandth time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But in the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritizing of tasks or how a more meticulous approach can mean the difference between a chaotic shift and a seamless one.

Instead, the routine, repetitive nature of these jobs is perceived to define workers’ limitations, rather than their capabilities. And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.

This is a subject I feel passionate about, selfishly, because I lived this experience when I moved, after losing my well-paid professional reporting job at the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest daily, into a part-time $11/hour retail sales associate position.

malled cover LOW

The recession hit journalism hard and early; by 2008, 24,000 of us had lost our jobs and many fled — into other industries, to teaching. Lucky ones retired early and many of us, like me, went freelance; huge drop in income but complete control of my workload and schedule.

I hadn’t earned so little since I was a teenager, a lifeguard in high school in Toronto. But it was the stunning lack of respect I felt behind the counter, wearing my plastic name badge, that stung more.

Working retail was like entering a whole other world, as I wrote in this New York Times essay:

Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we’ll make it.

The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.

In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang

In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I’ve had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I’m managed by a man who served in the United States Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice.

What became obvious to me within a few weeks of working retail was how difficult and physically grueling it is. (Like food service in any capacity as well.)


But that’s not a big surprise, right?

What was striking to me was how crucial people skills — aka EQ — were to selling successfully and getting along with a team of 14 co-workers, a very mixed bag.

Hardly a low-skill job!

Nor is food service, waitressing or bar-tending. Any job that’s deemed “customer-facing” — and which adds the exhausting component of bending, stretching, carrying, reaching and standing for hours plus staying calm and pleasant (aka emotional labor) is not low-skill.

My retail job pushed me to my outer limits, physically and emotionally, while being intellectually deadening. Not a pretty combination.

But I saw how many unrewarded skills it took:

There’s no college degree in patience

There’s no MBA in compassion

There’s no Phd in common sense

There’s no MA in stamina

I saw much less common sense and EQ among some of the college students I taught, teenagers paying $60,000 for a year of formal education at a fancy private school, than among the young people I worked retail with — almost all of whom had a college degree or were working toward one.

The “low-skilled.”

Demeaning and financially undervaluing these skills — the same ones that keep the U.S. economy humming as much as any Wall Street billionaire — completely misses the essential contributions that millions of low-paid, hard-working people make every day.

Have you worked a low-wage, “low skill” job?

How did it — or does it — affect you?

What does work mean to you?

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, US, work on September 5, 2015 at 12:13 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

These are the tools of an artist. That's work, too!

These are the tools of an artist. That’s work, too!

It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.

It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:

  • Daily expenses
  • Retirement savings
  • To fund higher education, for self and/or others
  • Short-term emergency savings
  • Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
  • Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
  • Challenge
  • Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
  • The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
  • Learning and mastering new skills
  • To support the financial needs of family and others
  • A place to feel welcomed, to belong
  • Building self-confidence
  • Ambition
  • Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry,  the law
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.

All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.

No wonder I, too, work for myself as a full-time freelance writer, editor, writing teacher and writing coach.

Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.

I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.

Since my high school days I’ve worked as:

  • a lifeguard
  • a waitress
  • a busboy
  • a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
  • a magazine editor (four national magazines)
  • a writing teacher (four colleges)
  • a writing coach (multiple private clients)
  • a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
  • an author (of two works of non-fiction)
  • a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
  • a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
  • a retail employee at $11/hour
I covered the unity march in Paris -- I love breaking news!

I covered the unity march in Paris — I love breaking news!

Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.

At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.

I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.

In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.

I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.

I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.

I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work),  a page-turner.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.

But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)

Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.


What sort of work do you do?

Do you enjoy it?

What would you change about it if you could?

What are your skills really worth?

In behavior, business, culture, food, life, news, work on May 7, 2015 at 12:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


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.


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.


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.

After 31 years, life begins outside the NYT newsroom…

In aging, behavior, business, journalism, life, photography, work on March 31, 2015 at 2:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round

Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round

My husband, Jose Lopez, has had a career few can match — eight years in the White House press corps, photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown on Air Force One and been in the Oval Office.

He covered the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping in an unheated shipping container, unable to shower for six weeks, his Christmas “dinner” a packet of chicken soup.

Our amazing local bakery, Riverside Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake -- on 2 days' notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)

Our amazing local bakery, Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake — on 2 days’ notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)

He traveled to Rekjavik to cover a summit with Gorbachev.

For a decade, he also chose and mentored young photographers through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, creating a new generation of talent — some of whom now work at the Times.

His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all

His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all

His own blog, Frame 36A, is here.

And here is his story on the Times’ Lens blog.

He covered two Olympics and five Superbowls and then worked for 15 years as a photo editor in sports, Foreign/National, real estate, business and — lastly — as photo editor of the NYT Now app, working with men and women half his age.

He leaves the newsroom today — 31 years after arriving from his first few newspaper jobs in Texas and Colorado, a cocky young guy with a thick head of hair.

The great "Grey Lady" has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague...

The great “Grey Lady” has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague…


It was a very difficult decision for him to leave — he loves his work and his colleagues — and one we did not make lightly; great journalism jobs within great organizations have become unicorns.

But this buyout offer was munificent, and he still has excellent skills and boatloads of energy he’s bringing to his job search.

It was an emotional afternoon and evening as staff and freelance photographers, editors and reporters lined up to hug him fiercely and to wish him well. I was so touched, although not at all surprised — having written freelance for the paper for decades and knowing many of these people as well — to see how well-loved and deeply respected he is.

There were staffers barely out of college and retirees who came back to the newsroom — and a nearby bar after work — to congratulate him.

I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived

I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and photos…here are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived

Jose blends the unusual and terrific mix of tough-as-nails under pressure and diplomatic, gentle manners. (Very Timesian!)

More essential to a job search in 2015 — he combines the gravitas and deep wisdom of a career news photojournalist with the most up-to-date digital skills he used selecting images for the NYTNow app.

On to the next adventure!

The freelance life: hustle or die!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, US, work on July 29, 2014 at 1:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly

My story in July 2014 Cosmo!

My story in July 2014 Cosmo!

A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.

How do we know? Our new report we’re releasing today, “How to Live the Freelance Life — Lessons from 1,000 Independents (PDF)” surveyed more than 1,100 freelancers nationwide about their work, money, lifestyle, and values.

The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.

The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.

With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.

Here’s a useful 11-point checklist for those hoping to try the freelance life, by writer Laura Shin.

One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.

The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.

But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!

We only get what we  negotiate.

I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:

— My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.

— I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)

— I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.

It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.

The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow  — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.

Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)

Here’s a powerful and depressing story from The Wall Street Journal (aka capitalism’s cheerleader) about why Americans are unhappy with work/life balance — as they have so little of it!

And another story about why so many employers are choosing to hire freelancers.

Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.

And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!

This New York Times piece — about how much freelance writers really make —  got a lot of traction:

That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”

I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.

And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.

But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.

And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.

Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.

I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.

I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.

But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.

Would you prefer to be freelance?

Or do you like working for someone more?

Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!

Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!


Can you describe your job in five words?

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, life, work on July 6, 2014 at 12:12 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This is what we do!

This is what we do!

One of my favorite radio shows is Marketplace, a 30-minute program on American Public Media, focused on business, in the broadest sense. (Sidenote: I’ve been interviewed several times on the show, an experience both terrifying and thrilling! Both of my non-fiction books were about business, in some measure: my last one was about working a low-wage retail job and my first about women and gun use in the U.S.)

The show’s host, the dishy Kai Ryssdal, recently interviewed President Barack Obama — known to the in-crowd as POTUS (President of the United States) — and asked him to describe his job in five words.

He took nineteen:

“My job is to keep the American people safe and to create a platform for hardworking people to succeed.”

I decided to play along and, maybe not surprising, was easily able to do it in five words without hesitation:

Finding and telling powerful stories




I keep trying to leave journalism behind — an industry writhing in “disruption”, with appalling pay rates and rapacious behavior — but I am, it appears, addicted to my vocation.

I was very fortunate and deeply grateful, in March this year, to be hired by WaterAid, a global aid group, to travel to rural Nicaragua to report on their work there and produce three stories for them. It felt wonderful to have the chance to tell their stories, not just the usual journalistic fodder, transferring my skills into another realm for a welcome change.

How about you?

Can you describe your job or work in five words?


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 (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, 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?

In your first post-grad job? Read this!

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, work on July 26, 2013 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful, no-bullshit list written by Jason Nazar, founder and CEO of Docstoc, who is 34. In his blog post for Forbes, an American business magazine, he offers 20 tips for people in their 20s, like:

Congratulations, you may be the most capable, creative, knowledgeable
& multi-tasking generation yet.  As my father says, “I’ll Give You a
Sh-t Medal.”  Unrefined raw materials (no matter how valuable) are
simply wasted potential.  There’s no prize for talent, just results.
Even the most seemingly gifted folks methodically and painfully worked
their way to success.

I like a lot of what he says.

When you’re looking for your first, or second or third, job, it’s easy to forget or not even realize how utterly different the world of work is from school, which is why internships can be a useful glimpse into the “real world.”

In school, you have very clearly defined parameters of success and failure.Whoever else is attending your college or university appear to be your primary or exclusive competition, for grades, for profs’ attention, for campus resources.

But if your classmates are not economically or racially or politically or religiously diverse, you’re in for one hell of a shock if you relocate to a different place, or several, to earn your living.

Who are these people and why do I have to do what they tell me?

In school, if you attain a fantastic GPA and some awards, you’re the bomb.

In school, yes you are.

But in school, short of wasting tuition money and/or flunking out, there are no terrible consequences to failing or missing deadlines or getting wasted or showing up to class late and/or hungover or high.

The real world is much less forgiving of stupidity and a lack of preparation.

In school, most students hang out with their peers, i.e. people within their age group. Adults end up being annoying things to please (profs) or placate (parents) but not people you may spend much time trying to understand, cooperate with or relate to as a fellow professional.

If you’ve never worked with (or managed) someone 10, 20 or 30 years your senior, how’s that going to feel?

All these new adults — not your parents or their friends or professors or people who are inherently interested in (or deeply invested in) seeing that you succeed — don’t care. And they expect a lot. All the time. OMG!

As Nazar also writes:

You Should Be Getting Your Butt Kicked – Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” would be the most valuable boss you could possibly have.  This is the most impressionable, malleable and formative stage of your professional career.  Working for someone that demands excellence and pushes your limits every day will build the most solid foundation for your ongoing professional success.

The Devil Wears Prada is one of my favorite films ever.

I’ve seen it so many times I can recite dialogue from it, like Priestly’s hissed dismissal: “That’s all.”

It’s about an ambitious young journalist in New York, (so I can identify with that bit) but is also about the price of being ambitious and what it means to sacrifice your friendships (or not) or your sweetie (or not) or your ethics (or not.)

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)

The boss in the film, Miranda Priestly, is insanely and insatiably demanding, but I get it and know why. And having a boss like that is basically boot camp for the rest of your career.

If you freak out and cry and think you can’t do it — whatever it is — you’re pretty much useless. Find someone to help you. Read a book. Watch a video. Take a class, or three. Find a mentor.

Resourcefulness will probably be your most valuable skill, no matter what sort of work you do.

The truly useful/valuable employee memorizes a two-word phrase — “On it!”

I also really like this tip:

Your Reputation is Priceless, Don’t Damage It – Over time, your reputation is the most valuable currency you have in business.  It’s the invisible key that either opens or closes doors of
professional opportunity.  Especially in an age where everything is forever recorded and accessible, your reputation has to be guarded like the most sacred treasure.  It’s the one item that, once lost, you can never get back.

It’s temptingly easy to think: “I’m young. It doesn’t matter. No one will notice or care or remember.”

Not true!

Take every opportunity to leave an impression as a chance to make it lasting and positive. That doesn’t mean sucking up or being a phony.

My current part-time assistant, C., has been stellar for the six months or so we’ve been working together. She never whines or complains, gets on with things and I routinely throw her into all sorts of situations for which she has zero training or experience. I know she can do it well — and she does.


In return, she knows she can count on me for a kickass reference to anyone she needs.

One of the things I most enjoy about this relationship is that, on some levels, we’re very different — different religions, 30 years apart in age. But she’s fun, funny, worldly. That goes a long way in my book.

My husband and I both started working freelance — while full-time undergrads — for national media, he as a photographer for the Associated Press, I as a writer for magazines and newspapers. Paid.

We put ourselves in harm’s way by competing, as very young people, with those who had decades of experience and awards and real jobs. But that’s how you learn to compete and cooperate effectively at the highest levels.

If you’re just starting out, or have been working for a while, what advice would you offer to someone just joined the work world?

Is working at home your Holy Grail?

In behavior, books, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, news, parenting, women, work on July 10, 2013 at 2:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For millions of weary workers, the notion of being able to work from home — in comfy clothes, saving the time, money and energy of a long commute to the office — remains a fever dream.

In a recent front-page New York Times story, one mid-western mother describes how terrified she was to ask to work from home — one day a week — which she was granted:

Ms. Uttech, like many working mothers, is a married college graduate, and her job running member communications for an agricultural association helps put her family near the middle of the nation’s income curve. And like dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, she finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours. The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.

“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide. (This attendance record is even more impressive when you realize that her children play in upward of six a week.)

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.

It’s a sad fact that many educated American workers are incredibly cowed. Few get more than two weeks’ vacation a year, if that. Many do not get paid sick days.

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Image via CrunchBase

Because the country is ruled by a corporate mindset, because most employers hire you, legally, “at will” and can fire you the next day with no warning or severance or even a reason, because unions are at their lowest membership — 11 percent — since the Depression, few workers dare ask their boss for much of anything.

I’ve been working alone at home, as a freelance writer, since 2006, when I lost my last job, at 3pm on  Wednesday, at the New York Daily News, the country’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I’d had the “wood” — the entire front page of the newspaper — only two weeks earlier with a national exclusive. No matter. I was out the door and into a recession — in 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, too.

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided, having worked freelance for many years at several points in my career, to just stay home and once more make my living that way. I would probably earn 30 to 50 percent more, possibly double, my income if I went to work for someone else. But we do not have children or other huge costs to manage, so this arrangement suits me and my husband.

I’d rather set my own hours and schedule, find my own work and do it without a manager or several breathing down my neck. I’ve had many full-time office jobs, some of which I enjoyed and several of which paid me close to six figures, which was indeed pleasant!

Working alone at home all day is, for many people, a dream come true. While it can get lonely and isolating, it is, in many ways. I play music if or when I wish. I wear shorts and a T-shirt when I’m not meeting someone. I set my own hours — not much different from those in an office — typically 9 or 10:00 a.m. to 4 or 5:00 p.m.

The two+ hours I save every day by not traveling to someone else’s office to do the same quality work at the same speed I produce alone at home? I can go to a movie or take a long walk or make soup at noon.

The Times piece — catnip for comments — quickly gathered 470 answers from readers, many of whom found the story’s focus on a woman and a mother misguided.

A few key issues are rarely addressed in these stories about the unabated lust for working at home:

1) We all — parents or not — juggle other people’s needs against those of our employer(s). Including our own needs, for rest, study, exercise. Endlessly focusing on parents’ needs wilfully ignores the industrial mindset that still rules many workplaces,

2) Others people’s needs are rarely neatly scheduled. The dog/baby/husband is projectile vomiting just as you’re expected to make a meeting or attend a conference. Your father/brother/son has a heart attack or stroke just when you’re gearing up for a new client meeting. So even if you get every Friday to work at home, shit will probably happen on every other day instead.

3) Given the insane amount of time we all waste spend every day on social media or communicating on-line, why can’t more employers allow more work to be done remotely, i.e. from home? Yes, some people are total slackers, but you know who they are already. Conference calls and Skype make meetings easy.

4) The Times story also gathered 439 comments within hours of publication, (many of them scathing), like:

a) mothers are not solely or exclusively responsible for their children’s care and house-chores; b) men are equally hungry for flex-time; c) children will not wither and die if their parents fail to attend and cheer every possible sports match or event.

In my case, I wondered why this woman is unable or unwilling to delegate at least some of the housework? She has sons 8 and 10 and a 15-year-old step-daughter. Teaching them to share responsibility seems a lot more essential to me than watching them play six baseball games a week.

5) If the United States (insert long loud bitter laugh) actually make it a legal requirement to offer subsidize/affordable daycare, flex-time, paid sick days or paid maternity leave, some of these concerns would abate.

Do you work from home right now?

Have you?

Do you wish you could?


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