Tag Archives: jobs

Take The Right Work Survey

via Rivasolutionsinc.com

via Rivasolutionsinc.com

For a couple years now, I’ve been gathering stories and data for a book called The Right Work, about how you can serve your best interests as the job market and the very notion of careers evolve.

Right now I’m running a survey going out to a nationally representative sample of Americans, asking about factors affecting work and life/work synergy. I’d also love you to give me your two cents. You can do so here.

More soon… I’ll give an update on some of the findings.

Job Watch: Revive Your Spirits After Prolonged Under- or Unemployment

Prolonged joblessness, episodic employment, and undermployment have serious emotional and mental health impacts. (There’s there’s good perspective in this 2009 NYT article.) Of course, this isn’t new. But after what’s been called the “Great Recession” we are beginning to understand it better.

The “Great Recession” is officially over, but its effects linger. An article in the Atlantic, and the accompanying chart, put it this way:

You don’t have to be an economist to know that long-term unemployment is bad. But economists, of course, have their own lingo for just why it’s so bad. They call it hysteresis. The basic idea is that people who are unemployed for too long become unemployable. People lose skills the longer they are out of work, which, insidiously, makes employers less likely to hire them, which makes their loss of skills all the worse. Even when the economy is humming again, they remain in the shadows. Unemployment settles at a new, worse equilibrium. Of course, fewer people working means we produce less as a society, all else equal. We are collectively poorer.

This should terrify our policymakers. Here’s a chart of the average length of unemployment, going back to 1950.

What we need now is to focus not just on job creation and economic recovery, but also and immediately to focus on the emotional and psychological recovery of people who feel defeated by the job market. That aspect of our national recovery can take many forms.

1) Share Stories of Success

It’s important to read, watch, listen to and share stories of success.

One example is a woman I interviewed in Yuma, Arizona, who left her job to take care of her dying father in the South just as the economy was tanking. She had an impeccable work record in as an HR administrator, but by the time she finished caring for her father and returned home, Yuma had a 26% unemployment rate. She was jobless and eventually became homeless, moving into a shelter. But she also used all the skills she’d learned as an HR professional to turn her time in a shelter into a way to give back to others. She was so good at helping her fellow shelter dwellers that the organization eventually hired her. Now she’s back living independently, and continuing to help people in distress. It’s important to note that in addition to the tragedies of this economy, there are many people who are retraining, refocusing, and learning to live leaner and happier.

2) Get help if you find yourself overwhelmed by the jobs crisis.

There are many different support groups and training programs, ranging from Debtors Anonymous (useful for those hit hard by the financial aspects of the jobs crisis) to government and industry retraining programs (one option: Careeronestop.org) to local peer support groups that meet at coffee shops (check bulletin boards like Meetup.com)

3) Realize that you have more skills than you know

BigThink.com gives an example of a puzzle that forces people to think creatively about the tools they have at hand.

To overcome ingrained limitations in your thought, ask yourself the following questions for every object in your problem: 1. Can the object be broken down into more elementary parts? And the often over looked question: 2. Does my description of the part imply a use? By understanding the possible functions of the most elementary pieces to the puzzle, you can arrive at unconventional uses for problems that are constrained by conventional thinking.

The same thinking can be applied in a jobs context. Let’s say that you were a secretary in a high school, and that your job has been cut. Make a list of all the tasks that you did — talking to parents; keeping spreadsheets of students; checking in with teachers and security guards; answering phones — and think about what other fields could use that skillset.

4) Move down or across to move up

Sometimes, through no fault of our own, we find ourselves in a shrinking industry. For example, even as private employment is recovering, public employment in the last year has taken a hit. Sometimes you have to start a new career by making a lateral move, or even taking a cut in pay and title in order to move up. That’s not something to be ashamed of. It can be the first step on a new path to success and stability.

What Do You Do?: Reflections on The Future of Jobs

I’ve changed jobs several times since the cancellation of the NPR show I hosted, News and Notes, until early 2009. While my journeys haven’t been easy, they’ve been instructive and in many ways positive. I’ve begun to reverse a decade of weight gain, losing 35 pounds last year… many more to go. I learned more about what skills I have; which ones I don’t; and how to build teams for short- and long-term projects, like the award-winning set of radio documentaries I did about the 2010 midterm elections.

While doing a cable news hit yesterday about the elections, I had a powerful talk with a freelance staffer who told me she’d nearly lost her house — but had, unlike so many others, been able to take advantage of the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. The program has only served a fraction of the people who need it, but speaking to her was a great illustration of the ways in which government can help right this economy by addressing the needs of people whose income fluctuates, or plunges to zero.

One of the problems I see with the political discussion of the economy and jobs — including its refraction through Occupy — is that we have a symphony of different economic trends and we’re straining to hear each note.

  1. There’s the erosion of public employment. Private employment is rebounding but public sector continues to drop and to boost the unemployment figures.
  2. There are the ways technology is transforming the workplace, which is great for some (particularly skilled coders and entrepreneurs) but overall can exert a downward pressure on hiring in industries from manufacturing to healthcare.
  3. There’s the glut of college-educated people who find out the paper they’ve gotten is not going to win them a career or even a steady series of jobs.
  4. And then there’s the rise in people who are episodically employed, like the freelancer I met who nearly lost her home.

In the not so distant past, unless you had a catastrophic illness you could expect a certain consistency in employment once you’d reached a level of seniority in your field (i.e., past the “last hired, first fired” career years). With episodic employment, more people are building up debt or spending down their savings. Credit is harder to get, even for people who have good histories. Those factors make people more risk averse in the lives they build and institutions more averse to fund businesses and lend to homebuyers.

Then there’s the emotional aspect of work. In some countries, it’s impolite to begin a conversation with “what do you do?” In America, in many circles, it’s de-rigueur.

Perhaps in the near future, we’ll learn to turn that question around, and ask people what they are doing in their communities; in their families; in arts and culture rather than what industry they work in. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have work (and I certainly count myself in that number), the question “What do you do?” needs to be inverted, and our lives directed towards reflection about our larger purpose and goals.

What Tech Can and Can’t Do To Fight Unemployment

I’m doing a forum this Wednesday in New York on “The Real Cost of Unemployment” — it’s free and open to the public as long as you reserve tickets.

The forum is as much about the future of employment in America as it is unemployment in the right here and now. When it comes to unemployment, we’re facing a precipice where continued unemployment will drive more families into a spiral of debt; loss of homes; and diminishment of educational opportunities as property taxes fall. And then there’s the question of what will happen to people told that they could go to college and find steady, even fulfilling employment as a result; but who can find jobs every now and then, not careers.

So, as an alternative to bemoaning our fate and handwringing over the end of life as we know it, plenty of us are trying to figure out what will work to re-employ those who’ve slipped through the cracks (blue and white collar) and create new opportunities for the people graduating into a harsh job market.

For years, technology has been touted as a path to reviving the economy. Yet a recent piece in the Economist gave this little reality check: “Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon collectively employ just 113,000 people, a third of GM’s payroll in 1980.” The article adds:

Americans’ entrepreneurial self-esteem is now embodied by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These are indeed fabulously innovative companies with world-beating business models. Yet one wonders if they are increasingly the exception, not the rule, and if the passing of Mr Jobs is simply the most prominent example of a broader decline in American entrepreneurship. According to JPMorgan, in the late 1990s, employment at start-up companies regularly grew 1.2m per quarter. That has fallen to 700,000 since the current recovery began. John Haltiwanger, probably the leading economist on employment dynamics by firm size, finds similar trends. Entrepreneurship and innovation, of course, are not the same thing. Yet even if American innovation is fundamentally sound, there remains the more unsettling problem of how narrowly its fruits are shared.

There are a many different ways that technology can employ more people. One is the tech/manufacturing sector. An August New York Times article profiled a lithium ion battery factory in Michigan. As it examined this one company, it weighed tech and manufacturing, and said the future of tech-driven jobs could be one that “looks less like Google and more like Ford.” Writer John Gertner added:

One challenge to moving in this direction may be that our banks, hedge funds and venture capitalists are geared toward investing in financial instruments and software companies. In such endeavors, even modest investments can yield extraordinarily quick and large returns. Financing brick-and-mortar factories, by contrast, is expensive and painstaking and offers far less potential for speedy returns. Berger maintains that for the economy to get “full value” from our laboratories’ ideas in energy or biotech — not just new company headquarters but industrial jobs too — we must aspire to a different business model than the one we have come to admire.

A completely different way that tech is helping to solve the unemployment crisis is through crowd funding. Companies like Kickstarter (profiled here) and Indie Go Go are helping to fund a remarkably heterogeneous array of projects, from movies to housewares to toys. The Kickstarter model has been discussed at length. One question circling back to jobs is whether this could help create a cohort of people who, in what we once considered a normal job market, would work and maybe do projects on the side, but who instead choose a path of serial small-scale entrepreneurship enabled by crowd funding. Whether or not crowd funding can achieve a critical mass nationally will bear some longitudinal study of how people use it. A major factor will be whether the model expands in adoption beyond people who are tech early-adopters and risk-tolerant to people who might use some crowd funding engine (perhaps one not even in existence) to restructure their work lives entirely.

As these long-plays for a revived job market are being worked out, we’re looking for shorter term solutions. That’s one reason we’re hosting the forum. It’s time to put our collective brainpower together and see what we can make out of the job market, not just wait for anyone else to come up with solutions.


The forum “The Real Cost of Unemployment” starts with a reception at 6 and a program at 7. Our guests include investor Ryan Mack, personal finance commentator (Today Show, CNN) and author of “The Real Cost of Living” Carmen Wong Ulrich; and Columbia University Professor Dorian Ward, who studies labor markets. Join us if you’re in NYC.

You can also join the Public Insight Network, a group of individuals who offer their perspectives to public radio, by participating in our survey on the impact of unemployment on your friends, family, community, and perhaps yourself. Go to the survey here.

Thanks so much!

Hello from Camp Niggerhead: Or, The Politics of the Racial Absurd

Sometimes in politics, the punchlines all seem too obvious, or tasteless, or both.

Former Texas Governor and current GOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry, according to the Washington Post, leased a hunting camp called “Niggerhead.” The story involves debate over when a rock with the camp’s title was painted over and much discussion of the significance of the name itself. This is my favorite line from the Post piece on that score:

“It’s just a name,” said Haskell County Judge David Davis, sitting in his courtroom and looking at a window. “Like those are vertical blinds. It’s just what it was called. There was no significance other than as a hunting deal.”

On “This Week,” Herman Cain told Christiane Amanpour that the camp name was “insensitive.” “Insensitive” is a milquetoast response, designed to provoke the minimal controversy needed to remain a part of the story. Cain, mind you, recently made comments calling black voters victims of “brainwashing” if they didn’t take Republicans or conservatives seriously. Maybe Perry will end up making a PSA to target African-American swing voters. The tag line could be, “We didn’t mean it like that.” (Perry’s campaign has stated that the Post story was inaccurate — specifically arguing that the stone with N-word was painted over before Perry started leasing it with his father. Other accounts dispute that.)

Really, I know we should stop boggling over political kryptonite like this and start looking at the big picture. In a contracting job market, like the one we’ve had for the past few years, African-Americans have been buffeted by a number of forces. Black Americans tend not to have connections to the same good old boy networks that can get you considered in lean times. The market right now for successful job hunts is often based around inside connections. When I think about the implications of this moment in politics, I imagine the high-priced schmoozathons Perry apparently hosted at the hunting camp, and whether spaces like these are where we expect the multiracial future of GOP politics to emerge.

Goodbye, “Good Jobs”

I spoke this spring in Chicago at the convention for the NFBPA, or National Forum for Black Public Administrators, an organization with 2600 members in civil service at the local, state and Federal levels. I talked about something that’s been on my mind: whether African-Americans should exit professions like teaching at a local elementary school; serving in the military; or working at the Post Office.

Public employment is undergoing some of the sharpest cuts of any sector, and black families are feeling the hit. Public-sector employment is the #1 employer of black men and #2 of black women. As the public job pool shrinks rapidly, it constitutes a major mover of African-American unemployment. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, as I discussed with the NFBPA. Public-private partnerships may expand the constituency for public employment, but in this political atmosphere negotiations are fraught. (I spoke at the convention of black public administrators shortly after the showdown in Wisconsin over public labor.)

Public-sector jobs — military, civil service, public k-12 education, public colleges and universities — were a ladder to the middle class for many black families, including my own. (Grandparents: Post Office and Social Security. Mother and siblings: Post Office, US Army, US Marines, Social Security, Baltimore City (schools and water department), Baltimore County (schools). My generation: almost all private sector, save one.)

Good jobs used to come with a promise of stability, leading to a here-until-retirement mentality. No more, not in the private sector or the public. The drop in African-American employment has helped fuel a drop in African-American support for the President. A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll saw the number drop from 83 percent “strongly favorable” to 58 percent now. The Congressional Black Caucus is running a jobs initiative that has challenged the President on his approach to jobs, specifically not addressing the African-American employment crisis as a discrete thing-in-itself. To do so could be political suicide; but to not name the problem could cause widespread African-American voter attrition, particularly around first time voters and those who voted for the first time in 2008.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus summit on jobs. He’s also written about the global war for what people used to call “good jobs,” a battle with high stakes beyond money. Jobs have become synonymous, for many of us, with identity and personal happiness — not just in the US but across the world. There are few things people fight for as hard as their sense of self.

The Value of a Dollar: A Tale of Two Job-Seekers

This week I was struck by two very different tales about job-seekers.

One is Debra Dickerson, a writer who I respect and who I had the pleasure of having as a guest on News and Notes many times. Following a divorce, she has moved to Atlanta with her children and is broke: straight up, hardcore, broke. She is not hiding the fact and her writing is really wonderful, hard to read, and honest. From, “Brother, Can You Spare a Cone”:

I have the receipt from the returns in my hot little hands. My purchases total exactly $24.63. Tax included, thank you very much. Yet the clerk assures me that the card doesn’t contain enough money. How short am I? He can’t tell me. I should have told him I was using a store card. So the nightmare process of figuring out what to return begins. What good is bread without butter for the toast they consume by the loaf? Peanut butter or jelly? The claritin which allows me to breathe normally or…never mind.

It’s a recreation of that scene from Terms of Endearment when Debra Winger runs short at check-out, her kids are acting out and the cashier is New York City-rude. John Lithgow saves her but the kids and I are on our own.

Unemployment lines are shorter than the ones at Wal-Mart, with all it’s unmanned registers, and those snaked behind me are audibly angry at me and my unruly kids.

I want to cry. I want to give up. They kids won’t settle.

But I hold on. I hold on to moments of grace.

It is rare to see Americans write about struggles with money in this way, in part because of the way not having money is often framed as a moral sin. It is prosperity gospel turned inside out. If you are poor or broke, public policy and media debates often frame you as being deeply and inherently wrong in your behavior and perhaps in your being.

But in America today (as always) there are many people who are doing everything right… applying for jobs and working to save and still facing extreme hardship.

Then, there was a wonderful story by the New York Times’ Louis Uchitelle, who profiled a man who is floating, happily, on the bubble of his family’s money. Maybe a little too comfortably:

The daily routine seldom varied. Mr. Nicholson, 24, a graduate of Colgate University, winner of a dean’s award for academic excellence, spent his mornings searching corporate Web sites for suitable job openings. When he found one, he mailed off a résumé and cover letter — four or five a week, week after week.

Over the last five months, only one job materialized. After several interviews, the Hanover Insurance Group in nearby Worcester offered to hire him as an associate claims adjuster, at $40,000 a year. But even before the formal offer, Mr. Nicholson had decided not to take the job.

Rather than waste early years in dead-end work, he reasoned, he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder.

Future Darwin award winner? Maybe not, if his folks keep paying the bills.

I also think he does NOT represent his generation’s passion or common sense.

Like many people, I have had to make my own decisions in this economy. I chose to roll the dice and freelance while exploring new business opportunities. I have been lucky enough to find various ways to pay for what was essentially a year of learning to be an entrepreneur. In this past year I have done everything from earning money doing social media consulting for media companies and nonprofits; lecturing at universities on the future of journalism and the role of participatory culture and social media in journalism’s evolution; taking technology classes; moderating events of many shapes and sizes and constituents (including TedxOilSpill); and taking a LOT of meetings just to inform myself about the business environment and what role I might play in it. What I have not been doing a lot of is journalism. I found it was actually harder to support myself doing journalism than it was to admit that I could make more money in less time doing other things and to focus on raising the capital for my new project.

Our new media project is in process. I don’t want to jump the press release someone is probably generating but it will be in public radio and be very much multimedia, participatory, and social media-enabled.

The nonprofit which initiated the project is called Pop and Politics, the same name but not the same organization as the blog I started many years ago. This organization is focusing on covering a changing America, particularly issues of race, diversity, and community. Our content will reach people where they are, on multiple platforms, and we’ll encourage people to participate in how we select and report stories. We have raised money for the pilot phase; are working on the actual project; and are gearing up to raise more money. I have an amazing business partner; organizational partners in this work; advisors; and supporters. We are building the machine. (We will ask you for money, too, dear public media supporters! More information will be online soon about our project once the Top Seekret label comes off of the storage crates).

I look forward to being a working journalist again, but this decision to turn my full attention to business was deliberate. I realized after turning down a few jobs that I really wanted to create my own organization. Then I realized that doing that was going to take at least four times longer than I thought. I have no regrets and I’m really excited. But it is no joke! It takes focus (and savings!). For a time at least, I had to focus on the business side and not worry I was missing covering THE BIGGEST STORIES OF OUR LIFETIME like the oil spill. Okay, I did worry about that but I remained on-task.

It strikes me that we are in the middle of a huge landgrab in journalism, and who has the money to stick out the unpaid entrepreneur phase of both for and nonprofit company-building will have a huge influence in what journalism looks like, feels like, and how it serves us. I would like to see more support for non-traditional entrepreneurs in media, and not just for my own selfish reasons.

By the way, Debra Dickerson is both applying for jobs and looking for new ways to do her work. She is launching a drive to get her readers and fans (and new ones) to fund her next book. To wit:

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the internet has body-slammed traditional journalism and publishing into gibbering madness. No one knows anything about what’s going on, and in an atmosphere like this, my options are a) to continue writing for free (see: blogging/writing for websites none of which can pay a living wage), b) get a real job (believe me, I’ve tried), c) or hope that my DIY attempt to self-publish will succeed.

So, here’s my brilliant plan: raise $75,000 to support three or so months of reporting then six-nine months of writing, exploit a college kid as a part-time, minimum-wage research assistant (plus all the coffee he/she can drink), hire an editor to save me from myself before it’s too late and — TA DA — master the mysteries of self-publishing and the beast of technology.

You can read more about how she’s going about this and her hybrid free/paid distribution model in different media. I wish her good luck in all of it.

Top 5 Journalism Survival Skills

Today I got to talk to some of the students at Westchester Community College (thanks to Professor Carol Passariello, who is helping to grow and innovate their journalism program).

As we talked about opportunities and challenges in journalism, I was asked for recommendations about what to do and what to learn. Speaking off the cuff, I surprised myself with a few suggestions. So, in no particular order.

1. Keep Your Money Tight and Right
Journalism is a game for innovators and survivors, and that means even if you are smart and committed you may be unemployed at some point in your career. Keep your personal finances in order. No one’s trying to expand your credit card limit right now.
Continue reading »

Jobs, Race, and Reality

I hate the term “Post Racial.” It’s weasely. You might as well say that you’re post-reality.

To wit: a new report released today by Congress, revealing that 22% of Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more are African-American. The black population is 11.5 percent of the labor force.

I suspect, given the way unemployment figures are counted, that the figures are actually much starker.

The level of African-American joblessness is a profound opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to restructure the ways we think about social mobility, business ethics, and the impact of employment on issues from mental health to child-rearing. It’s a profound opportunity for us to look at how the demographic least likely to vote for President Obama share many of the same economic issues as African-Americans. I’m talking about white Southerners in economically challenged states like Mississippi and Alabama. (Those states ranked 50 and 42 in per capita income, and ranked the lowest on the percentage of white voters who chose Obama, 11 and 10 percent respectively.) It’s a profound opportunity for us to challenge categories like “African-American” and “white Southerner,” and figure out how we can develop language about groups and constituencies that is not too broad, but does not ignore reality.

Well, that’s a lot of opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do.

Give Us the Real Unemployment Numbers, Please

When the latest unemployment numbers came out, they sounded like a relative win for the U.S. economy. Given February’s battering storms, which closed businesses and roads for days at at a time, the unemployment rate was expected to go up. Instead, some people expressed relief that it stayed steady at 9.7 percent. But before we get too excited about essentially breaking even, we should check ourselves…or check our numbers. What we generally call the “unemployment rate” excludes many unemployed Americans, notably “discouraged workers” who have given up looking. Continue reading »

The Black President Trap

“For every factual attack, there are a thousand possibilities…and all of them strike down together.”

It’s a line from China Mieville’s speculative fiction novel The Scar, but it could easily describe today’s politics.

President Obama has been described as a socialist and tool of banks and big business; a “racist…who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and someone who “hasn’t done much for their [i.e., African-Americans’] bottom line” because “so-called black leaders are much more interested in invitations to the White House…than in raising any kind of ruckus that might benefit people in real trouble. Continue reading »