Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Internship is the New Entry-Level Job

New college graduates are finding that many entry-level jobs have disappeared or require a higher level of skill than used to be commonly needed. The high unemployment rate for people age 20–24—11.3 percent in July—reflects this environment. According to The Wall Street Journal, automation is a key factor contributing to this trend.

Automation has eliminated many entry-level jobs in several industries, such as finance and insurance. Credit analysts, loan officers, and especially insurance underwriters have seen demand tapering off. For example, employment of insurance underwriters has shrunk by 13% from 2003 to 2013. One finance industry insider estimates that it now takes 30 percent less staff time to complete valuation calculations, thanks to software that analyzes financial statements.

To be sure, automation has expanded entry-level jobs in other industries. For example, it is estimated that entry-level jobs for computer systems analysts have increased by 20 percent over the past decade. Automation also has created new occupations, such as social-media manager. This kind of work did not even exist 10 years ago, but now employs thousands of workers, especially young ones.

The onslaught of automation has happened for reasons beyond increases in computing power. The Great Recession has caused firms to seek ways to squeeze greater productivity from workers, especially new hires.

This trend has changed the nature of the work that recent graduates do in industries other than technology. Instead of crunching spreadsheets and preparing reports, entry-level workers may be expected to meet with clients, identify problems with entrenched procedures, or serve on teams for new product development. New hires therefore have greater need for skill at interpersonal relations, communication, and critical thinking.

Traditionally, college grads in entry-level jobs paid their dues in positions requiring technical skills commonly taught in the classroom. Only after some years at this level were these workers expected to have mastered the soft skills needed for more complex assignments. But now the model for career growth seems to be changing, and ironically this is happening just in time for the millennial generation, who are notorious for their impatience with the traditional model.

Young workers may be eager to take advantage of these new opportunities, but to succeed in this environment, they will need to have acquired skills that usually are not taught in the classroom. This is why internship is such an important adjunct to a college education these days. In effect, internship is the new entry-level job. And this implies that interns need to avoid placements in which they are locked away in a windowless room doing technical tasks. Their internships need to include experiences that will build their soft skills.

For more tips on getting a lot out of an internship, I recommend the guide developed by the University of Michigan, adapted from Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.: Making the Most of Your Internship (PDF).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How Bad-Mouthing Can Get You a Job

There are many ways to write a cover letter, but one caught my attention recently. A young man I know, son of a friend, got a job offer by using a cover-letter strategy that seems counterintuitive: He bad-mouthed an employer’s product.

First, let me give you a little background to set the scene, while protecting my young friend’s identity. I’ll call him Jack.

Jack has a bachelor’s in computer science, and at age 23 he has just earned a master’s degree in a field that makes a lot of use of computers. While doing the coursework (online) for his master’s, he held a full-time job in this field. He has worked part-time in this same field since high school. This means Jack already had a pretty strong resume to bring to the job search.

He also used a good strategy for uncovering jobs: Rather than look only for posted jobs, he wrote directly to the kinds of companies that employ people with his background. One obvious target was the company that publishes the specialized software that he uses every day on his job. By doing some online snooping, he was able to identify the head of HR and find that person’s e-mail address.

I generally advise against contacting HR and instead suggest writing directly to the head of the department where you want to work. But Jack got good results with his method.

And perhaps the key to his success was that he concluded his cover letter by writing, “I HATE your software. Let me help you make it better.”

The head of HR phoned Jack and talked about what Jack disliked (and liked) about the software. This gave Jack a great opportunity to demonstrate his command of the software package and his understanding of the features that contribute to a good user experience. The initial phone conversation led to a few Skype interviews, and eventually the company offered him a job doing software testing.

In the end, Jack decided not to take this job. One important reason for his decision was that the employer is in a very distant state, and Jack (who has lived at home until now) is presently interviewing for a job closer to home. He also was not certain he would like to do software testing.

But the lesson from his job-search experience is still valid, and it applies to interviews as well as to cover letters: Sometimes the best way to interest employers is not to tell them what they want to hear.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A New Skill is Identified: Shopping

Recently I read about a new business, called Instacart, that does your grocery shopping for you. This is different from well-established grocery services, such as Peapod and FreshDirect, because the company owns no food warehouses or trucks, and you don’t have to place your orders many hours in advance. Instead, mere minutes after you place your order on the Web, Instacart enlists someone in your community—an independent contractor, not an employee—to go to one or more existing food stores, buy what you ordered, and deliver it to you in the contractor’s own car.

The shoppers earn between $15 and $30 per hour, depending on how fast they deliver the goods. This is considerably better pay than most jobs at a supermarket, but (like so many work arrangements that the new economy is creating) the work offers no fringe benefits. It is also not likely to provide full-time work, although for some people that’s an advantage.

Instacart makes its profits by charging a flat delivery fee ($3.99 for most orders), plus a markup on the store’s prices. One estimate is that the markup averages about 20 percent.

In some ways, this work arrangement resembles the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, in that it uses the Web to match consumers of a service with fairly ordinary people who have that service to offer. One important difference is that the service that Instacart offers—shopping—is not regulated, as taxicab transportation is. Instacart also is unlikely to displace many existing workers, because there are very few professional grocery shoppers, certainly compared to cab drivers.

The work does not require any formal credentials, but it does require a skill that you will probably not find in any existing skill taxonomies: shopping skill. My shopping skill was tested recently when my mother was incapacitated by a hip fracture and I had to buy her groceries. Unlike an Instacart shopper, I was tasked with the additional goal of finding the best prices. As a child of the Depression, my mother knows the going prices of nearly every item she customarily buys at several markets in her Manhattan neighborhood, including the open-air green market in Union Square. Instacart clients don’t require this kind of accountability.

However, Instacart clients do expect speed. This means that the shoppers must know what stores stock a wide range of grocery items and have them in high quality, plus where the items are located in the store. Every year about this time, when summer berries and fruit come ripe, I wander helplessly through the aisles of my local supermarket, trying to find the Sure-Jell pectin for making jams. Is it in the aisle with cooking supplies? Gelatin? Seasonal items? I’m never sure, and even the clerks (if you can find one) sometimes send me to the wrong aisle.

It will be interesting to see whether this kind of work continues to expand beyond ride-sharing and grocery-shopping. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, sees the bright side of this trend: “When you ask what kind of niches we’ll see for people who used to be in traditional middle-class jobs, this is the kind of labor that could fit into that. I wouldn’t want to suggest people will become grocery-delivery millionaires, but if you don’t have a college education but you’re smart and responsible, could you make a living doing this and maybe piecing it together with some of these other kinds of jobs? Absolutely.”

I’m not so sanguine about this trend. It reminds me of the old joke that there will always be work because people can do each other’s laundry. That’s true, but as our economy relies more and more on imported manufactured goods, we need to find work that leads to exports.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Home Can Be More Stressful Than Work

Workplace stress has been a longtime interest of mine, but now there is research indicating that for most people, being at home is more stressful than being at work. Does this seem counterintuitive to you?

One study asked volunteers to collect saliva samples over the course of the day. When the samples were analyzed for the presence of a stress hormone, it turned out that levels were significantly higher when the volunteers were at home, compared to levels at work.

Consider some of the reasons for workplace stress that occupations are rated on in the O*NET database:

  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry people
  •  Competition
  • Time pressure
  • Needing to be exact or accurate
  • Consequences of errors
  • Dealing with physically aggressive people
  • Conflict situations
  • Decisions that have impact on co-workers or company results
  • Working at a pace determined by the speed of equipment

Now consider some of the reasons for stress at home:
  • Dealing with unpleasant or angry family members or neighbors
  • Time pressure to meet nonwork commitments (such as housekeeping chores)
  • Conflict situations with spouse, children, or neighbors
  • Illness or death of a loved one
  • Unruly pets
  • Malfunctioning appliances or furnishings
  • Decisions that have impact on family
  • Adjusting to suit family members’ schedules
What’s the difference between these two sets of stressors? Researchers speculate that people are better able to shrug off workplace stressors because they imagine (whether realistically or not) that they always have the option of quitting their job (or getting a reassignment), whereas it is much less common to imagine walking away from domestic woes. In addition, people are more able to vent about workplace stressors, because it is socially more acceptable to complain about your boss or your clients than it is to badmouth your spouse or your kids.

It’s interesting that one group among those in the saliva study were an exception to the general trend and found work more stressful than time at home: people with high incomes. I’m not surprised. I have run correlations between stress factors and income, using the O*NET ratings and the BLS figures for median incomes across the spectrum of occupations. I find a correlation of 0.33 for Impact of Decisions and 0.34 for Level of Competition, as well as 0.25 for the overall need for Stress Tolerance. It seems that when you’re earning the big bucks, your home can really be a refuge from stress—although technology (a cell phone or a networked computer) is now allowing work to intrude on your time at home more than ever before.

I remember what my life was like when I was working as a lowly and low-paid research assistant at Educational Testing Service and had just bought my first house. On my weekends, I had so much fixing-up work to do on that little Cape Cod house that I was happy when Monday morning rolled around. I used to say to my carpool, “I’m so glad to get back to work. Now I can relax!”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Learning from Silly Assessments

Sometimes, you can learn about a serious matter by contemplating something silly. I have gained insights into serious career-related assessments by looking at frivolous assessments.

Almost every day, one or another of my Facebook friends is likely to post the results of a quiz that reveals such important insights as “What character in The Wizard of Oz are you?” or “Which state should you have been born in?” One quiz that appeared a few months ago even tried to reveal “What career should you be pursuing?” Call me a killjoy, but I am almost never tempted to take these silly assessments. I guess I worked at Educational Testing Service too long to be able to regard any assessment as harmless fun.

But I did make an exception for an assessment on Clickhole.com that lampoons these silly assessments: “Are You An Introvert, An Extrovert, Or A Sea Monster?” It offers items such as “What’s your signature look? (a) Bright and flashy. (b) Muted and professional. (c) A rippling shadow below the surface.”

In addition to poking fun at the proliferation of personality quizzes, this one points out a common failing of assessments: that the scale each item loads on is painfully obvious. In this example, it’s unmistakable that (a) loads on extroversion, (b) loads on introversion, and (c) loads on…well, you can guess.

The result of this transparency is that it’s easy for all but the most naïve test-takers to rig the answers. The first time I took a career assessment was in eighth grade; I was given one of the Kuder interest inventories. When it asked questions such as “Do you like adding columns of figures?” even a tweenie like me could tell that it was getting at my interest (or, in my case, lack of interest) in math. I knew I didn’t like math, so it was easy for me to make sure that the assessment results voiced this dislike loud and clear.

If you take the Clickhole.com assessment, you’ll notice something else that causes some assessments to be overly transparent: All of the items load the responses to (a), (b), and (c) according to the exact the same pattern as in the “signature look” example I cited above. Paper-and-pencil assessments almost universally follow this fixed method of arranging the options—in columns—to enable the test-taker to compute the scores simply by going down each column, counting the number of selections.

When an assessment is this transparent to the user, it wastes that person’s time. In eighth grade, I could have saved a lot of time and effort by simply rating 10 or so academic fields on a scale of one to ten—or by rank-ordering them.

To be sure, some very naïve clients may feel they benefit from this kind of assessment. These would have to be people with such sparse insights into their preferences that the assessment items are opaque to them; the scales the items load on are not obvious to them.

But there’s another major way in which career assessments fail. It’s the opposite situation: when the item-to-scale relationship is not at all obvious. That is, the test-taker fails to understand how his or her responses produced the end results. This kind of assessment is a black box, a fortune cookie. A sophisticated test-taker, rightly or wrongly, may be skeptical of the results from such an assessment.
To be sure, naïve test-takers (again) may feel they are benefiting from the assessment, in this case because of their blind faith in the accuracy of the results. But I do wonder how secure that faith is. I wonder especially how these test-takers will process any new self-insights that contradict the assessment results. Should they believe what the test told them or what they are now discovering about themselves?

That’s why I believe that the most useful way of assessing work-related preferences is by using informal methods based on introspection, such as making lists of enjoyable past experiences and drawing inferences from them. These methods definitely take more time and are vulnerable to the many distractions that our always-wired world throws at us. They also may be more difficult for clients who are naïve about their likes and dislikes, or those with limited inferential ability.

Finally, I realize that many people seeking career advice are simply lazy. “Just tell me what I should do,” they plead, and therefore they prefer a quickie assessment to the hard work of introspection and inference.
Nevertheless, because introspective and inferential methods require clients to do the work of prioritizing and inference themselves—and do not get their answers from a black box—the decision-makers buy into the results. And they can reinforce or refine their insights by factoring in additional information, such as their reactions to new experiences (say, job shadowing) or input from friends and family.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Complacency About an Inadequate Recovery

We have officially emerged from the economic downturn that began at the end of 2007, but for many workers, it really doesn’t feel that way. Yes, employment has finally returned to prerecession levels, but many of the jobs that have come back are inferior to the jobs that were lost.

A report by the National Employment Law Project (PDF) finds that “lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of job losses during the recession but 44 percent of employment growth over the past four years. Today, lower-wage industries employ 1.85 million more workers than at the start of the recession.” The report finds the opposite is true for mid-wage and higher-wage industries, with greater losses and smaller gains.

Yet it’s surprising how often I encounter cavalier attitudes toward the economic plight of working Americans.

Sunday’s Review section of The New York Times featured an op ed piece called “Fear Not the Coming of the Robots,” by the investment advisor Steven Rattner. The article features a nifty graph that you really must view to appreciate. It shows one column with bars representing occupations that used to employ large numbers of workers but have been decimated by automation. These occupations include word processors, telephone operators, computer operators, proofreaders, travel agents, and switchboard operators, among others. For each occupation, the graph shows not only the number of jobs lost but also the median wage, which tends to be in the thirties. Bars in a second column represent occupations that have gained workers, including computer systems managers, physical therapists, financial analysts, registered nurses, financial managers, and accountants. The wages for these occupations are much higher, with the lowest (for accountants) at $63,550.

Rattner concedes that technology has changed the nature of work, making advanced training increasingly necessary, and resulting in a sharp rise in income inequality. But he argues that the main culprit is globalization, not technology, “particularly the ability of companies to substitute far less expensive and increasingly skilled labor in developing countries.”

So what is Rattner’s proposed solution? “To address these very real challenges, we should be embracing technology, not fearing it. That means educating and training Americans to perform the more skilled jobs that cannot yet be performed by workers in developing countries.” I’m all for that, too, but where is the funding for this education and training going to come from? Not from a Congress that is incapable of passing legislation that invests in human capital. And how much more can young people and displaced workers mortgage off their futures for tuition loans?

There’s also the problem of those people who lack the ability to learn advanced skills even if somehow a training program were available. Rattner breezily comments, “Of course, not every worker can be retrained, and so we must help those who aren’t suitable for the new jobs through more robust social welfare programs.” Do you see any indication that Congress is about to beef up support for jobless people? I see the exact opposite. Even the idea of creating jobs through a program such as the Civilian Conservation Corps is a nonstarter in the current political climate.

So, yes, I do fear the one-two punch of robots and global competition. Rattner is like the captain of a ship who tells the passengers, “Don’t worry that the ship is sinking, because you can go merrily sailing in the lifeboats”—but the lifeboats aren’t there.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

High Tech Also Spawns Small Businesses

Everyone is familiar with gigantic businesses such as Facebook and Amazon that are using Internet technology to create new business models—and therefore new jobs. Just this week, the transportation-alternative app Uber was valued at $18 billion, provoking a flurry of comments from business columnists, some of them thinking the valuation crazy and others thinking it appropriate.

But it’s important to pay attention to small businesses that are springing up as new technologies create opportunities for entrepreneurs who are able to think creatively.

This idea came home to me last week in New York City, as I was walking down 16th Street past the corner of Irving Place, opposite Washington Irving High School. I spotted a parked van with the logo, “Pure Loyalty Electronic Device Storage.” The van was about the size of a food truck and looked very much like this one:


I peeked inside and saw what looked like curtains with pouches sewn on, each labeled with a number. The worker at the window told me that students from the school are not allowed to bring cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, or other electronic devices into the school, so they check them with her each morning (as at a hat-check window) and retrieve them when school lets out. They are happy to pay the dollar-a-day fee rather than be without their devices for as long as it takes them to get to school from home in the morning and back again at day’s end.

According to the New York Daily News, the business was operating trucks in three New York boroughs in 2012 and was founded and owned by 40-year-old Vernon Alcoser, a former correctional officer. That same year, the New York Post estimated that the industry was bringing in $4.2 million per year. In addition to the trucks, some neighborhood grocery stores are offering the storage service as a sideline business.

The industry is not entirely carefree, however. In June 2012, a truck owned by Safe Mobile Storage, parked near Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, was attacked by armed bandits, who tied up the workers and took their money, plus 22 cell phones from storage.

Despite such setbacks, the industry seems likely to serve its niche role as long as high schools with metal detectors enforce the citywide ban on electronic devices in the classroom—or until schools provide lockers where students can leave them.

Now that electronic devices have become our constant companions, they are creating countless business opportunities for entrepreneurs who offer to create apps for them, accessorize them, repair them—and store them.