Monday, October 12, 2009

How New and Recent Graduates Can Get Jobs

The cover story of the October 19, 2009 issue of BusinessWeek is about the so-called new “Lost Generation”: new and recent graduates of college and graduate school who cannot find jobs.

Here’s the problem. To get jobs, new grads must show experience in solving business-relevant problems. In a normal economy, this is done by internships that students work at during the summer, sometimes winter or spring break, and sometimes right after graduation. Jobs like these, as well as entry-level positions, allow students and new grads to show their stuff and build their resumes.

The problem, of course, is that we left a normal economy behind sometime in the early winter of 2007. Now students are having a hard time getting internships and entry-level positions, because firms have eliminated them (along with millions of other, regular jobs). Therefore students and new graduates can’t demonstrate the kind of experience that they need to get regular paid employment. It’s the Catch-22 of our economic system: you need to have had a job to get a job.

As bad as this news is, it gets worse. When the recovery comes, recent grads will be at a real disadvantage even in relation to brand-new grads: recent grads will have a period of unemployment after graduation on their résumés, a disadvantage that brand-new grads won’t have. (Crazy, I know, but we can all reform the corporate world from the inside once we get jobs there.)

There’s no doubt that the news in this article is especially grim. The danger, as the artice points out, is that we are growing a ‘Lost Generation,’ like Japan did in the 1990s, of young people who are perpetually behind the curve when it comes to income and career advancement. This would be bad news for everyone: the graduates themselves, of course; also, corporate America, who will be missing youthful exuberance (on the employee side) and lower sales (on the customer side); and finally, the increasingly larger number of older people on Social Security (because there will be fewer young workers to pay into the system).

However, this bad news is not reason to curl up in the corner and sniffle. Yes, it would be good if the old system worked: get diploma, get job, go to work. But the old system doesn’t work anymore, for an increasingly and painfully large number of people. Recent grads can show that they are true (if young) adults by adapting to new circumstances. If conventional methods fail, new and recent graduates can get jobs through the use of more innovative approaches. Here are two paths to potential success:

Path #1: The Personal Showcase

I call the first path to success “The Personal Showcase.” The idea here is that you build your resume through volunteering your brilliance.

So here is what you do. If you can’t work for cash to get the experience you need to get a real job, you can work for free.

Here’s the process. Identify some not-for-profit organizations that address important problems in society: unemployment, homelessness, lack of economic development, environmental crisis, you name it. Here’s the kicker: You devise some way to solve part of those problems. You went to school; you’re bright and full of energy. Go to the library, read up on the problem, read what other people have done, and see what inspirations strike you. Then approach the appropriate not-for-profits and volunteer yourself to implement your vision, or extend theirs.

Yes, it’s a gutsy approach. However, you actually do have something of an advantage here. In the best of times, not-for-profit organizations operate in marginal terms. Now, although some are seeing an increase in volunteer labor, others are downright desperate. They may very well welcome your offer to work for them on what is called a “pro bono” basis. See if you can get them to agree not to mention that you are working on a pro bono basis to the other employees. Depending on the labor laws in your state, you may need to have a title like “Intern” or “Volunteer”; operate within the law.

Try to structure the job on your terms. You’re not doing this to spend all day stuffing envelopes (although you should be willing to do your share of scut work). From the beginning, you want to structure this job to get entry-level front-line, management, sales, manufacturing, accounting, and/or software development experience depending on the nature of the not-for-profit).

You may need to educate the not-for-profits you approach, to indicate that you are not trying to be a traditional “volunteer”; rather, you are a “pro bono worker.” At some agencies, a volunteer really is like a junior executive; at others, a volunteer sweeps the floor. As noble as either form of work is, you are doing this, in part, to build up a business resume, and your experience on the job needs to reflect that.

When you get the job, treat it like the “real” job it is: get to work on time or, preferably, early, and be prepared to work late. Dress up to the level of your manager. Just because you’re donating your effort does not mean they owe you anything: they’re doing you the favor, not the reverse.

After a year, if you’ve structured the experience appropriately, you should have a great resume and terrific references (also a necessity for future career development).

Budding actors do this all the time: it’s called a “showcase.” People get together, hire a theatre for an evening, and put on a show. The actors may make nothing (or perhaps a pittance), but they have documented experience on stage.

Will you need to live with your parents, essentially begging them for room and board? Probably. But unless they’ve just been hitting their heads into the wall repeatedly for recreation lately, they know that there’s a recession on. They may very well understand the need to operate like this, and they will probably respect you for your willingness to go to work, even pro bono, to give yourself a leg up the ladder later.

Path #2: The Pop-Up Start-Up,
or Showcase Firm

I call the second path to success “The Pop-Up Start-Up”; you could also call it, “The Showcase Firm.” This involves the formation of a time-limited partnership firm. You band together with other jobless grads to start a time-limited company; one year is a good period. During the lifetime of the firm, you all pledge to develop and market a product or service. You each commit to a year of daily work; flextime is okay, but 40 hours weekly is a minimum commitment. (People can be released from their commitment if a paying job comes along. People can also be fired!) You all beg your families and friends for resources (office space, legal advice) and raw materials if you are manufacturing a prototype. (I never fail to be amazed at the amount of raw materials simply thrown out every night on the streets of New York: lumber, metal, even file cabinets and office furniture.) And, of course, you beg your folks for free room and board.

Think about it. You guys are the best and brightest. The bookstores and libraries are bursting with books about unleashing your creativity. There are plenty of magazines about entrepreneuship and business. And, the world is full of problems to be solved, market niches to be filled, people who, even in a recession, will follow the Universal Rule of Sales: someone will buy something if it provides more value to them than the purchase price. (Looking for inspiration? Check out BusinessWeek's articles on Best Young Entrepreneurs of 2008 and 2009; the Yahoo! version of the latter includes some interesting profiles.)

You can do this.

Over the last month, two locations within walking distance of my residence in midtown Manhattan have sprouted something I’d never heard about before: the pop-up restaurant. One was a showcase for new chefs in the New York City area. Another was a showcase for a popular soft drink, and some magazines. At the end of a week, each restaurant disappeared, and the empty retail space went back to being empty. I thought this was a clever idea. It is the inspiration for the Pop-Up Start-Up Company idea.

At the end of a year in your Pop-Up Start-Up, at the very least, you will have a solid résumé. If you are fortunate, you will have a product or service that you can sell to another firm. At the very best—you will attract investors who back your pop-up firm and transform it into a continuing concern. You will have a paying job you love!

If you go this route, you will want some good business advice. Someone will need to arrange for liability insurance, in case of an accident at work. Everyone will need to sign contracts as pro bono professionals or interns. You should have policies about intellectual property. For all this advice, check with your contacts at your family, place of worship, and so forth; don’t forget to check with the retired executive corps in your community.

Response to an Objection

"Work for free? Work for free??"

Look at it this way, champ. You could not work, for the same period of time, and not have anything to show for it. Or you could work for free, and have a great deal to show for it. Your call.

Having the courage to take an unconventional path to career success is definitely On The Mark.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers are welcome to become what The Huffington Post calls “fans” of mine on HuffPost.)

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

[The photograph above shows doctoral academic regalia of different types being worn by people at the May 2008 graduation ceremonies of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The photo was taken by Alex Zozulya, who has placed it in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Part 1:) A Real Recipe for Financial Wealth

[Photo by PHGCOM. Details at the end of this post.]

Usually in the “On the Mark” blog, I consider issues of meaning, the higher values, good and evil, honor and duty.

But sometimes you just need cash.

Contrary to popular opinion, the scriptures do not say that ‘money is the root of all evil.’ Rather, as the ancient apostle Paul wrote, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10, emphasis added), and I agree. (Although there are certainly other roots to evil, I get his point.) But if one can transcend the selfish love of money and wealth, money can allow one to do great things. In the Latter-day Saint scriptures, one reads that certain believers “will seek [riches] for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (The Book of Mormon, Jacob 2:19). A comprehensive solution to any one of these problems would require billions of dollars. If those are your ambitions—how do you generate that kind of cash? Good question; one might want to look at what people with billions of dollars do.

Beyond that, even for the task of providing for oneself and one’s family, it is fair to wonder whether there is anything to be learned from the hyper-wealthy. If you’re looking for financial inspiration in these difficult times—why not dream big?

Consequently, today I will consider some advice that a major American financial magazine has given regarding financial wealth. I find their advice at best useless, and at worst quite harmful. In this series, I critique this article, point out some potential landmines, and make my own observations about wealth and its creation. I hope that readers will find something here that they can use to create wealth for themselves, and advice that they can pass on to their children and grandchildren.

If you find that what I have to share works for you, then, when your riches come in, I ask that you remember the poor, the naked, the homeless, the hungry, the captive, the sick and the afflicted. In a big way.

The online edition of Forbes magazine on September 30, 2009, published an article, “A Recipe for Riches,” regarding the characteristics of billionaires. (I read it first in a version of October 9 appearing on Yahoo! Finance.) The article opens by asking such questions as, “What are the common attributes among the über-wealthy? Are there any true secrets of the self-made?” Let’s consider what the article has to say—and what it fails to say.

The Basic Secret to Wealth: Create Value for Others

Somewhat stunningly, the article ignores the single most important common attribute among the very wealthy. A large proportion of them are involved in the creation of value for others. Many of them invented new ways to create value for others. This is clear for many of those on the Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples are in the areas of computer software (and, to a lesser extent, hardware). Bill Gates of Microsoft (#1 on the list), and Steve Jobs of Apple (#43), between them invented the desktop computing industry. Michael Dell of Dell Computers (#13) invented methods to get computers to people cheaper. Larry Ellison of Oracle (#3) invented an important software application for business. Sergey Brin and Larry Page (both tied for #11) created value for others through inventing Google, Jeffrey Bezos (#28) through inventing Amazon, Pierre Omidyar through inventing Ebay, David Filo (#tied for 296) and Jerry Yang (tied for #317) through inventing Web portal Yahoo, and 25-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (tied for #158) through inventing Facebook—all software applications that it would be difficult to imagine modern life without. Michael Bloomberg (#8) invented a way to get investment information to investors quickly. Charles Schwab (#50) invented a way to help people invest more easily.

However, it is not just in the area of software applications that wealth is to be made through creating value for others in innovative ways. The same principle applies in other industries, some very old indeed. Several of the Forbes 400 (starting at #4) are related to Sam Walton, who invented a different way to manage retail sales, one of the oldest businesses there is.

Few things are as basic to human life as food. One might think that there was not much room for wealth from innovation in this area—but one would be wrong. Several on the list (starting at #19) are members of the Mars family who inherited wealth generated by an innovator in candy and pet food, the latter also being the domain of Clayton Mathile’s success (tied for #204: Iams); William Wrigley, Jr. (tied for #154) is on the list for chewing gum, James Leprino (tied for #141) is there for cheese, and Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury (tied for #347) for salsa. People important in the Subway sandwich shop chain (Peter Buck and Fred DeLuca, both tied for #236) and S. Truett Cathy (ditto), the founder of the Chick-fil-A chain, are on the list.

Innovation in responding to other basic human needs has created billionaires, as well. Philip Knight (#24) and Jim Davis (tied for #204) made their fortunes from innovations in shoes—yes, Nike and New Balance, respectively, but still shoes. Ralph Lauren (#61) made his billions from innovations in clothing and its marketing. Ty Warner is on the list (#94) from one of the oldest types of consumer goods in history: toys. (He’s the Beanie Baby man. And anyone who does not think that “toys” are a basic human need has never been around four preschool children as the winter holidays approach.)

Bradley Wayne Hughes and his family are on the list (#85) for one of the most low-tech industries imaginable: he developed Public Storage. (And I’m glad he did: half my stuff is still in units in Orlando.)

Wealth can come through innovation in the creakiest and seemingly most boring of industries. Take package delivery. Frederick Smith (#212) wrote up his senior thesis in college on the subject of a system for delivering packages, efficiently and cheaply. Word is, he did not get a great grade on this paper. But Mr. Smith took his Yale thesis, built an integrated network of planes and trucks, and founded FedEx in 1971. Now he’s worth over $1.6 billion—personally. All this, through creating value for others.

I’ll tell you whom I do not see on this list: stage entertainers, musicians, and professional athletes. Yes, Oprah Winfrey is on the list (tied for #141), but Oprah is not really in the category of “stage entertainer.” Oprah is more “infotainment” than entertainment; in addition, she runs a slew of businesses: her show, a magazine, a TV production company, and, soon, her own cable network.

My point? Mega-wealth is developed by innovation in creating value for other people. Yet, our popular culture does not celebrate this kind of achievement. Instead, the culture lionizes stage entertainers and professional athletes. Those of us who do not consider ourselves stage or sports field material might benefit by realizing that we can still think outside the box, that we can still innovate, that we can create value for others in ways that have not been done before. In addition, we can encourage our children to think in innovative ways, to think about improving how things are done, to think in terms of how to create value for other people. They’re not going to be getting these thoughts from popular culture, to be sure.

Creating value for other people in innovative ways is most definitely On The Mark.

As always, your comments and "follower"-ship are welcome.

[The photo shows a 250 kg (about 550 lb) gold bar, reportedly the largest manufactured pure gold bar in the world, currently in the Toi Gold Museum in Toi, Shizuoka, Japan. The photo is dated 2007, and its author is PHGCOM. The photo was obtained from Wikipedia and appears here under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Does President Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

The awarding today of the Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Obama raises a simple question: What has he done to deserve it? This question has a very straightforward answer: He has changed the course of a nation, and, in a real sense, the world, for the better.

Within less than nine months as President, Obama has taken America out of the role of loose cannon, rolling about wildly on the deck of the global ship of state, and into the role of a leader among cooperating nations. He has advanced the cause of nuclear disarmament, which has languished for years, even as the threat of nuclear war has hung like the sword of Damocles over the world for nearly two-thirds of a century. (Read an earlier post about nuclear disarmament here.) He has reversed U.S. policy on the use of torture, a policy that had actually promoted terrorism. He has reversed the direction of the United States on global warming, which has the potential to incite war in the long term through its effect on population centers and agriculture.

The function of the Nobel Prize is not merely to reward someone, but to hold that someone up as an example for others to follow. Although some of Obama’s efforts have yet to bear fruit, the mere fact of his undertaking these efforts, and the very real results that have been obtained so far, are a much-needed inspiration for everyone from schoolchildren to statespersons. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama makes his message of hope, and the value of working hard in the cause of peace, that much stronger.

There are those who criticize the Nobel Peace Prize Committee because they have not, in this case, followed the example of the committees regarding awards in the sciences, where Nobel Prizes are awarded years after some achievement. This is a foolish comparison. We are living in a crucial moment of world history, when the potential for catastrophe—nuclear, environmental, biological—is very great. The time to act is now. Consequently, the time for inspiration is now.

It is written that a very small rudder can move a very large ship. The efforts of President Obama, although in some cases still in their early stages, are what the world needs to achieve peace now, on multiple fronts. It is not only that those efforts deserve this award, although they do. However, in addition to that, the people of America and the world need the inspiration to follow the President’s example. Faced with an unprecedented level of challenge and risk, the entire world needs to think, “Yes—we can! And the world needs to think this now, not twenty years from now.

In the matter of this award, the Nobel Committee, and especially President Barack Obama himself, are On The Mark.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers are welcome to become what The Huffington Post calls “fans” of mine on HuffPost.)

[The photo of the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize medal awarded to Norman Angell, on exhibit to the public at the Imperial War Museum in London, was taken on August 26, 2005 by Anubis3. The image was obtained through Wikipedia, and is in the public domain in the United States.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)