Friday, September 30, 2016

Gary Johnson for President

We, as quadrennially always, are faced with deciding who will lead our country in the next four years.
Primary voters for Democrats chose former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a rock-solid member of their establishment long expected to be nominated.  Those voting for Republicans collectively made a dissimilar decision.  They went with Donald Trump, a businessman who would not have made any commentator’s list of the 20 most likely nominees two years ago. 
Voters have real reasons to be discontented with these choices. 
The most common general objections to Clinton are not the problem.  Her use of private email servers for classified information, and her failure to admit it and work with instead of against investigators, was poorly judged, but minor.  Her lying after murders of Americans in Benghazi was bad behavior, but hardly heinous.  Her disposition, which often seems distasteful, is, for purposes of governance, a trivial matter.  However, because of her mainstream status, she is certain to be overly influenced by her party base, which has already come out in anti-jobs initiatives such as the $15-per-hour minimum wage she now backs.  Also, and more importantly, we are now finishing the second term of a president whose actions are similar to hers.  Barack Obama, when you factor out allegations and unjustified interpretations of his intentions, has governed as a slightly conservative Democrat; Clinton, as shown especially by her views on social issues and foreign policy, promises more of the same.  For a country stuck in legislative gridlock and apparently unable to address many of its worst problems, eight years of one philosophy is enough. 
As for Trump, he has disqualified himself over and over again.  I could write thousands of words recapping his reprehensible statements, but that has already been done well by others, so I only summarize that he has been bullying, undiplomatic, defamatory, hostile, violence-inciting, misogynistic, unapologetic, and much more.  The New York Times has maintained a list of different “people, places and things” he has insulted on Twitter alone, along with documentation – as of Thursday morning, it was up to 258.  He has shown little substance on issues, with almost nothing fleshed out or even consistent beyond immigration and trade policy.  He has shown that he is enamored with Vladimir Putin, Russian president and de facto dictator, to an extent certain to warp his international-relations judgment.  The amount and frequency of his lying has been almost unbelievably prolific, even for a politician.  His ability as a businessman, his claim to fame, is questionable at best, with thousands of lawsuits against him, at least four bankruptcies, a high rate of business failures, a documented record of employee abuse and supplier nonpayment, and, since he has singularly refused to release his tax returns, real doubts about how much he has actually earned.  He arrived shockingly unprepared for September’s debate.  He has repeatedly revealed a hair-trigger mentality totally unsuitable for anyone with the ability to launch nuclear weapons.  And, perhaps more disturbing than anything else about him, his inflammatory rhetoric and his lack of a clearly defined platform (he is no conservative) are unnervingly similar to Adolf Hitler’s; if you read Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about the rise of an American dictator through the political system, you will be stunned by the similarities between protagonist Buzz Windrip and Trump.  He contends only with 1908’s William Jennings Bryan as the worst major-party nominee in the latest two centuries, and in the privacy of the voting booth, nobody, except maybe his friends and family members, should choose him. 
Another candidate is worthy of mention.  Jill Stein of the Green Party offers a lot of ideas from the political left of Obama and Clinton.  She is earnest, well-spoken, and admirable in her own way, but is simply too extreme, with her plans such as eliminating all fossil-fuel use by 2030 not only unworkable but in the wrong direction for a country struggling with internal divisions and a permanent jobs crisis.  Against that, we could depend on Congress to keep her worst propositions in check.    
So what can we do?   
Into the gap, like a breath of fresh air, is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.  As befitting one with that ideology he chooses freedom over conservatism or liberality, and picks his positions accordingly.  There are weaknesses in this approach – for example, as I have written before, the jobs shortage causes critical damage to the practice and idea of free markets by causing too many people to have nothing to spend – but in general, it is successful.  On social issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization, it is clear that conservatives are on the wrong side of history.  Remembering how my sister was denied one at the White Sox baseball bat day 50 years ago because she was a girl seems bizarre to me now – when our grandchildren hit middle age, they will think the same about gay couples once being denied the right to marry.  On economic issues, our national debt doubled during the previous Republican administration and is on track to double again during this Democratic one, to about $20,000,000,000,000 – while if that were presented balance-sheet style, with federal assets such as 85% of the land in Nevada offsetting it, it would not seem so scary, but it still seems out of control.  Almost no liberals seem aware that making workers more expensive is certain to cut demand for them.  There are many financial luxuries, from farm subsidies to the National Endowment for the Arts, which we simply cannot afford to cover with taxpayer’s money.
Johnson’s platform, posted in detail on www.johnsonweld.com/issues, not only generally takes the best from the Democratic and Republican sides, but adds planks neither one has.  He advocates, and will work for, tax reform to reward “productivity, savings and investment.”  He stands for congressional term limits.  He wants to do what he and his running mate William Weld did in the states they governed, New Mexico and Massachusetts, to cut their unemployment, both absolutely and relative to others.  He would be better on one issue than any of the others, as “having served as a Governor of a border state” he knows that “solving immigration problems is not as easy as building a wall or simply offering amnesty.”  He would push for criminal justice reform, especially by reducing drug-related incarceration, and would turn a great federal expense into a large revenue source by “legalizing and regulating marijuana.”  He would keep abortion legal, and would not only allow more local discretion in school policy, but would eliminate the Department of Education.  He would avoid protectionism.  He has pledged to submit a balanced federal budget, as he and Weld did with their states.  More critical than any one of these stances is that, in order to succeed with them, he would be forced to be bipartisan by getting approval for his efforts from both sides.  It is clear to me that if Johnson had been nominated as a Republican, he would now be way ahead of Clinton and everyone else.              
We do have viable alternatives.  Of the four most prominent presidential candidates, three would not disgrace the office, and would, in the main, represent the country well.  It is reasonable to choose Clinton or Stein instead of Johnson.  As for opening up our choice to all four, if 2016 is not the year we should seriously consider those other than Democrats or Republicans, what one will be?  This time, it allows us to choose the best candidate, the choice of whom is clearer than it has been for several election cycles. 

Royal Flush Press endorses Gary Johnson for president.    

Friday, September 23, 2016

Robots Marching On, Adding to Efficiency, Offsetting Globalization, And, Yes, Cutting Jobs

These may be relatively good economic times, with official unemployment about as low as it can get during a permanent jobs crisis, but that hasn’t stopped advances in the implementation and theory of robotics.  What’s happened over the past five months?

In Financial Times on May 3rd, the title of Sam Fleming’s article, “Why robots are coming for US service jobs,” means it could contain only two words:  They’re cheaper.  Fleming addressed more than that, though, with a good rundown of positions susceptible to replacement by automatons, and correctly showed that the jobs now most at risk were white-collar and caregiving ones.  He also cited a McKinsey Global Institute study claiming that 40% of American workers had occupations in which half their hours went to tasks that could already, with current technology, be automated.  Another piece in the same publication that day, “Rise of the robots is sparking an investment boom,” showed that while venture capital investments there had to double in 2015 just to reach a still-puny $587 million, the entire market projects to reach $135 billion in three years.  That’s not as massive as it could be either, and both numbers are and will be exceeded by those for driverless vehicles.

Two days later, Financial Times continued its series by asking us to “meet the cobots,” automata designed to lighten loads for existing workers instead of replacing them.  Author Peggy Hollinger seemed to imply that, as a result, robots now won’t cost jobs.  This idea is nothing new; when I visited a Florida postal sorting center over 15 years ago, a large yellow one moved heavy packages around alongside dozens of human workers, and precipitated anything but hostile reactions, as our tour guide told us that “everyone likes Big Bird.”  When robots only assist, they serve as tools similar to computers, copiers, or even brooms, so there’s nothing special here on that count either.

On May 14th, Phil Torres weighed in in Salon with “Fear our new robot overlords:  This is why you need to take artificial intelligence seriously.”  He started with the Terminator movie series, which introduced me, for one, to the idea of autonomous goal-seeking devices automatically having potential problems, and showed how artificial general intelligence, or AGI, could, as happened in the first Terminator feature, destroy many or all humans if we fail at “making sure their values,” not just their objectives, “align with ours.”  This material is well worth reading, especially for those not yet familiar with it.

Another Financial Times article, May 16th’s “Legal firms unleash office automatons,” reported something old as if it were new.  Automated legal searches were contemporary enough for me to cite them five years ago in Work’s New Age, and while they are now getting better and more common, their changes seem only incremental.  The idea of “Uberisation,” or more work being done by lower-paid workers, is nothing fresh either, with at least a strong foothold in law long before that label would have been understood.

In Harvard Business Review, Vasant Dhar’s ambitious May 17th “When to Trust Robots with Decisions, and When Not To,” presented a grid of products and needs positioned by predictability (high = fighter drones and cataract surgery;  low = stock trading and effectiveness of online advertising) and cost per mistake (high = driverless cars and diabetes prediction; low = spam filtering and early education support).  Since the best areas for automated solutions are clearly those with high predictability and low cost per mistake, progress will move from those toward the other corner.  Dhar’s Decision Automation Map, showing this and more, is a fine tool, and he succeeded admirably at showing where we might best concentrate upcoming robotic and computer efforts.

On May 25th, Fox News published “Pizza Hut rolling out robot servers in Japan.”  They cost only $1,600 apiece, and offer “a more efficient dining experience” as well as paying for themselves remarkably quickly.  Such automata are also under consideration by Carls Jr. and McDonalds, to name only two fast-food chains, and will certainly spread widely, if they have as little as mediocre customer acceptance, as minimum wages increase.

The Economist, in June 4th’s “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” cited a Centre for European Economic Research working paper claiming that since relatively few entire jobs can be fully automated, we have “reasons to be less afraid about the march of the machines.”  The major flaw in this thinking is that great cost savings motivate employers to rearrange positions by concentrating hard-to-mechanize tasks in those jobs to be still held by humans.  It also makes the mistake of taking the past, where people in manufacturing positions easily found service jobs, as a proxy for the present, in which we know of no type of paid work capable of replacing them in turn.

Trevor Moss reported in the June 21st Wall Street Journal “Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs.”  Why not?  And it’s been happening for years – you see it when you call in with a problem and a robotic voice asks you several technical questions.  A decade or more ago, most companies moved what was called Tier 1 support, or preliminary and easy-to-fix problem-solving, to cheaper-labor countries, and now those responsibilities are increasingly being covered by machines.  There is no case that more and more sophisticated issues will not be handled, as time goes on, in the same way.

“Industrial robot sales hit record,” Financial Times pointed out June 22nd. Though worldwide sales reached only 248,000 last year, it is noteworthy that China, once known as a cheap-labor source, got a quarter of them.  The automotive, electrical, and electronics industries are the largest consumers, and we can safely bet that number will increase tenfold within as many years.  Robotic restaurant servers costing only the equivalent of $1,200 apiece are also arriving in that country, with high acceptance offsetting lower labor savings, as documented in The Wall Street Journal’s July 24th “In China, a Robot’s Place Is in the Kitchen.” 

Finally, Xerox released a list of 19 current and near-future robotic innovations.  They are robotic pharmacist, Japan’s robot hotel, digital nursing, robotic process automation, virtual customer service agents, self-flying planes, self-driving cars, driverless trains, digital barista, automated passport control, automatic translation, automatic report writing, legal work, Amazon’s “robot army,” robot security guard, the automated college professor, home automation, the robot bartender, and robot-assisted surgery.  You can read more about them at  https://www.xerox.com/en-us/insights/robotic-innovations?CMP=BAC_Repo2016&SECTN=IN_&SITE=TheAltantic_&SIZE=1x1.

After all this reporting of advancement, The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson again told us, on August 17th, that “our robot panic is overblown.”  He again fell into traps by saying “lost jobs and destroyed industries give way, over time, to new industries and jobs” (unless they don’t), and “if robots cut costs, the savings have to go somewhere” (into the massive, stagnant pools of money held by the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals).  He partially redeemed himself by stating that “government’s main role is to maintain the conditions that make hiring profitable,” which, though incomplete, should be a worthy goal for both political parties, but in general, Samuelson, who I am certain does not personally invest only in stocks which have gone up in the past, should know better.

That’s all for now.  There will be more, in this area contending only with self-driving cars for the most press and the greatest effect on American employment.  I will continue to keep you up to date.    

Friday, September 16, 2016

Uber and Lyft Beyond Austin, and Beyond Human-Controlled Cars

On May 8th, unlicensed taxi companies Lyft and Uber were firmly stopped from operating unregulated in this large, politically moderate Texas city.  Since then they haven’t been far from the news, which for these companies, since they reached a million de facto employees last year, automatically constitutes important information about jobs.  What has come out over the past four months?

Only three days after the Austin election result, a Los Angeles Times editorial took one of my long-ago posted points about Uber and Lyft, that while drivers may gross respectable amounts they do not net nearly as much as true cabdrivers, and used it as the basis for concern about exploitation, with author David Horsey saying that getting rides from them would cause him to “feel morally compromised.”  I’m not sure that logically follows, but it’s a good thing for a major newspaper to reveal how little such work can actually pay; Horsey described a freelance writer trying Uber driving spending eleven hours taking in $118 before car expenses and “rideshare insurance.” 

On May 24th, we got news of similar Israeli company Gett receiving a $300 million investment from Volkswagen.  That is one of several partnerships which have recently formed on driverless vehicles.  The day after that, Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, delayed voting on an ordinance to regulate Uber and Lyft – the same thing happened there the next month, leaving, per Baton Rouge’s Advocate, the companies’ operations in “legal limbo.”  At the same time, both firms threatened to stop serving the Chicago area if their drivers were subject to the same rules as those from taxi companies.  Such a measure there passed on June 17th, but Uber and Lyft have not left.

Next, from around the same time, a backed-up prediction, now seeming obsolete, “Why Uber and Lyft Will Have a Short Lifespan,” by Don Peppers in Inc.  That’s exactly what I thought, before those companies decided to join the looming self-driving trend instead of trying to lick it.  Yet he’s absolutely correct that they won’t have the corner on advantages such as easy hailing and computer dispatching forever. 

June 3rd brought a Wall Street Journal piece about Uber and Lyft piloting grocery delivery in Phoenix and Denver.  Although that’s hardly a new or innovative business idea, it may work, if several conditions are met.  Customers must be willing to pay the $7 to $10 fee the article mentions.  The companies cannot afford a dramatic initial promotion, such as waiving that charge, without being buried.  They will need supermarkets to pick and prepare the order, since they can’t do that for that amount.  Even then, if the effort is successful, other firms, including the store chains themselves, will be waiting to pounce.

A further consequence of the Austin vote, and a huge vulnerability in Uber and Lyft’s business model, hit the news June 10th.  All those drivers there, “thousands” of them, were correctly ruled employees instead of independent contractors, and so, when the two companies abruptly stopped doing business there, they ran afoul of a federal rule requiring firms with 100 or more on the payroll to give 60 days’ notice before large layoffs.  The former employees have filed two lawsuits, one against each, which rate to win and provide plenty of incentive for not skirting ethical business practice as well as the law.  The same effect has already come from another Uber setback, a San Francisco judgment penalizing them for firing drivers after obtaining unauthorized background reports.  Also, USA Today reported on August 18th that a rather larger lawsuit in the same city, brought by drivers in 2013 claiming that the company used their classification as contractors to deny them expense compensation, was still in litigation. 

That same firm has now lost another eastern European country, with a July 13th announcement that they were discontinuing business in Hungary, due to new laws they considered threatening to drivers’ safety.  On that continent it is already out of Bulgaria and is endangered in France, where they drew a June 800,000-euro fine for “operating an illegal car service.”

That brings us to veteran employment writer Rana Foroohar’s August 9th Financial Times piece, “Uberisation and the dangers of neo-serfdom.”  She pointed out that a stunning and depressing 35% of American workers now function as “freelancers, independent contractors or for multiple employers,” and described a growing pattern similar to Skid Row day-labor pools, “in which the lord shows up each day and says ‘I’ll take you, and you, and you.’”  As I mentioned in April, the vast majority of such working is an economic inferior good to usual careers, paying less than full-time minimum wage positions after considering irregularity and extra expenses.  However, the problem is not with these gig-economy arrangements, but with the permanent jobs crisis and the 18 million positions the United States is now short.

So where are Uber and Lyft going?  It is clear that their future is not in human-operated ridesharing, but in driverless vehicles.  They are as well positioned as any to put self-driving cars on normal roads – in fact, Uber’s Pittsburgh driverless-taxi trial started this week.  The chances are good that we will still be talking about Ubering from one place to another by mid-century.  However, that will not mean quite the same thing as now.  Between their emerging direction and their incessant, and usually justified, legal problems, they will not long have as many employees.  We will once again have more resources and fewer jobs.  For better or worse, that is what is still happening with, and to, America.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Self-Driving Cars Since The Famous Tesla Crash: A High-Speed Round-Up

As, per John Markoff of The New York Times, “in and around Silicon Valley, at least 19 commercial self-driving efforts are underway,” the topic of driverless vehicles continues to set publication proliferation records among jobs-related subjects.  I am looking at a stack of 29 articles from no fewer than 12 different publications, all within the past 73 days.  I won’t try to review all of them, which would be a waste of space for several reasons, but will summarize what has happened here, sorted into four major themes, since word of the first fatal self-driving mishap broke on June 30.

This crash took place May 7th in Williston, Florida, when a Tesla driver activated the car’s Autopilot feature, completely ignored what was happening on the road, and then died when his vehicle ran full speed into the side of an 18-wheel truck.  After almost three months of investigations (we’ll need to get faster here), and initially saying that the accident happened because the product did not correctly interpret “the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky,” the Tesla company determined that the problem was not that Autopilot failed to perceive that there was a large metal mass straight ahead, but that its braking system did not then stop the car.  In the meantime, Consumer Reports implored the company to block use of this feature while the drivers’ hands were off the wheel. 

A few observations here.  Apparently Autopilot, as well as being named aggressively enough to encourage drivers to, in the findings of another article, play Jenga, watch Harry Potter, and actually sleep, is in fact a beta release, meaning that it has not been fully tested.  If the linkage between its autonomous driving capability and its brakes is insufficient, it is in effect little more than cruise control, around since at least the 1960s and nothing any prudent driver would ever trust with full vehicle operation.  It is not, as I defined the levels in my July 1 post, a true Plane 2 feature, as drivers cannot disengage while it is operating.  Whether the actions above were reckless, appropriate given the name of the feature, or somewhere in between, and even though the cars’ manuals gave warnings, it is clear that Tesla dropped the ball here.  They will probably lose large lawsuits over the product, and will be required to back it off in some ways.  The broader ongoing issue will be to avoid excessively slowing down availability of automated driving products.  There will be more mishaps – in fact, on July 1 another Tesla crashed, rolling over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without fatal injuries – and their liability here does not mean the maximum acceptable rate of accidents should be zero.

The second subtopic here is about company alliances and consortiums, which I predicted July 1 would ultimately produce these vehicles.  Later that same date, German automaker BMS AG, American chipmaker Intel, and self-driving Israeli software company Mobileye NV announced that they, together, expected to be producing self-driving cars of some autonomy level by 2021.  About three weeks ago, American ridesharing company Uber and Swedish car manufacturer Volvo announced combining to offer automated taxis, which will be on Pittsburgh roads this fall.  In good deference to their necessarily incomplete quality, they will be free, and at Plane 2 or Plane 3 (a driver still inside, but rarely taking the controls).  How this aggressive and possibly premature but fascinating experiment works, or fails, will tell us a lot about what we need to stay on my projected track of 20% Plane 2 United States vehicles by 2021 and 20% Plane 3 ones by 2025.  Uber has also acquired American driverless truck technology maker Otto, which gives it two consortium pieces on that front in-house.  Ford, now with potent production plans of its own, is working with Israeli computer-vision company Saips, has bought 75% of American lidar (radar based on laser beams – expect to see this term more and more) sensor manufacturer Velodyne, and put undisclosed amounts of money into American digital chart firm Civil Maps and American machine-vision concern Nirenberg Neuroscience.

The third theme concerns announced availability dates for various vehicle automation products.  A July 4 article said that Google “hopes” to market what might be called self-driving bumper cars, with 25-mile-per-hour maximums, “a heavy later of foam” on their fronts, and plastic windshields, in 2019.  Those would go all the way to Plane 5, or vehicles without direct human control; although I projected they would not reach 20% of American rolling stock until 2030, we could still reasonably have 0.1% in three years.  General Motors now plans on a 2017 offering of Super Cruise, an apparent Tesla Autopilot competitor, designed as a true Plane 2 product but functional only on highways which the company has mapped in detail.  Ford announced on August 16th offering large numbers of fully driverless cars, at Plane 5 or at least Plane 4 (remote human supervision of vehicles or groups of vehicles; my prediction 20% in USA by 2028), through a ridesharing company to be named by 2021.  And in four miles of Singapore streets, American company nuTonomy has zoomed ahead of Uber and Volvo by offering free experimental semi-driverless taxi service now.

The fourth article concentration is on other updates to issues I raised in my November 20th post.  A July 7th piece proposed that, like 16-year-old humans, new driverless technology pieces should be licensed – a sensible idea, especially if the turnaround time is much shorter than those government often perpetrates.  A second, on July 8th, reinforced the special need for road and other infrastructure improvement.  A third, also out July 7th, again raised the behavior issue, with Plane 2 drivers averaging 17 seconds, or a quarter of a mile at only 53 MPH, to retake control after the vehicle’s command to do so.  An August 18th article addressed one I haven’t seen since bringing it up in November, the threat of hacking, with a graphic example of a researcher stopping a self-driving car by issuing commands on his laptop.


As far as jobs go, my July projections on those, as with the percentage implementation dates, are still current.  Uber seems to be insisting that driverless vehicles will slash the number of privately owned cars, which seems unlikely in small towns and low-density suburbs and absurd in rural areas.  I’m still expecting 20% of American vehicles at Plane 2 by 2021, privately owned or not, with the world’s self-driving leaders there by 2018.  And eventually our terminology will change.  Per Ben Zimmer on August 26th, we may come to know of self-driving cars as just “cars,” and the ones we have now as… “meatmobiles.”  I leave it to you to propose other names for what were once known as “horseless carriages” – in the meantime, enjoy watching the progress of what might, arguably of course, be the most exciting, and most promising, area of technical growth we have seen since Apollo.

Friday, September 2, 2016

AJSN: America Now 18 Million Jobs Short as August Employment Treads Water

Same.  Same.  Same.  Good, but hardly super.  Likewise.

These were some of my written notes next to numbers on my printout of this morning’s Employment Situation Summary, the document that certain economics reporters are given once a month around 8:00 AM Washington time after their phones are taken away, and the rest of us get to see soon after 8:30.  The other two were “Up 200,000” (next to the latest count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting full-time positions but only able to keep shorter ones, now at 6.1 million), and “Less than inflation this time,” next to the average wage gain of 3 cents per hour to $25.73.  The five Sames were next to the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, meaning the likelihood of Americans actually having jobs or counting as officially unemployed did not change, and the number of people technically jobless for 27 weeks or longer.  These figures remained at 62.8%, 59.7%, and 2.0 million.

As for the “good, but hardly super” outcomes, I think that well describes the net nonfarm payroll gain of 151,000, which is about 20,000 over what our monthly population gain absorbs, and the adjusted employment rate staying at 4.9 percent.  Unadjusted joblessness improved 0.1% to 5.0%, though, reflecting August typically having more employment than July. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, showing hidden as well as obvious demand for work, improved more than 400,000 as follows:


The largest changes to the AJSN were caused by a smaller actual number of unemployed (the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted), along with a fall of over 200,000 in those wanting work but not seeking it in the past year.  On the other side, the count of those claiming no interest whatever in being employed gained over 1.5 million, pushing up latent demand over 75,000 even at the AJSN’s conservative estimate that 5% of them would work if something suitable presented itself. 

The most noteworthy AJSN change was in its year-over-year comparison, which improved almost not at all.  Annual drops had been around 900,000 as recently as three months ago, then 700,000 in June and 531,000 last month, and now the difference is only 88,000.  That means that our latent job demand, and to a real extent our overall employment situation, has leveled off and is no longer getting better.  Even though those officially jobless would now absorb 149,000 fewer positions than in August 2015, the shares of people precluding their eligibility by not looking in the past year, those not wanting work at all, and our most current estimate of citizen expatriates combine to roughly offset that improvement. 


So are we better off than a month before?  No.  Worse off?  No.  We’re the same.  No recession.  No further recovery.  American employment went nowhere in August.  Even though preliminary August projections were not even approached, if we were happy with July, we have every reason to be content now.  If, as it seems, the Federal Reserve governors were itching to raise interest rates, they’ll do it.  Meanwhile, the turtle stayed right where it was.     

Friday, August 26, 2016

Recent Advice for Employment Interviewers and Interviewees: Some Good, Some Bad, All Worth Knowing

As always, there is new information out there on job interviews.  Some is pitched to job-seekers and some to hirers, but both should keep up with all.  Here is what the past seven months have offered.

Liz Ryan of Forbes might be the best current job-seeking-process writer going.  She frames her pieces as advice columns, taking questions about how to interpret and deal with situations her readers face while trying to find work.  She consistently lands between being too rude and too deferent. 

Earlier this week, Ryan fielded a sequence of events from an employment candidate who got negative reactions from questions they asked.  She assured them they had done the right thing, and suggested that the answers could even be posted on an enlightened company’s website.  However, many personnel people convey to jobseekers that it is they who have all the cards, and this was the case here.  When the applicant asked the first one, a reversal of a common interviewer’s query, “Why should I take this job, if you offer it to me, over other opportunities I’m considering?”, the evaluator said she would not discuss that unless they made an offer.  When this jobseeker actually did get one, he or she declined it in favor of one dealing better with that question.

The other three probes were equally incisive and appropriate.  The second, the least controversial, Ryan framed as “What is the story of this job – was there a person in this role before, or is it a new position?  If there was someone in the job, where are they now?  If it’s a new position, why was it created?”  That is only a more comprehensive version of something all career-job applicants should use.  Third, designed to head off problems caused by differences inherent to both employees and employers, was “What is your expectation regarding “a good day’s work?”  When does your workday start and end, and what are your expectations around communications or extra work outside of working hours?”  Fourth, especially valuable if the hired people need to relocate or have other opportunities, is “What is your company’s layoff history, if any?”  All are well worthwhile. 

Another Forbes article by Ryan, May 5th’s “No, I Will Not Show You My Pay Slip,” covered not only the issue of companies wanting current salary documentation but some related issues.  Her views on any “skills shortage” were the same as mine:  “If I go to T.J. Maxx hoping to find a vintage mother-of-pearl bracelet on sale for $29.95 and I don’t find one, there is no affordable-vintage-bracelet shortage.  There is only one deluded shopper who needs to snap out of it.”  She also urged job-seekers to refuse to fill out online applications and to work with hiring managers instead – a good idea when you have their names, which is not always the case.  Not offering income information, as she suggests, is powerful but risky, especially when human resources people manage the hiring process.  Since the main reason they request that to maintain chances of getting previously underpaid people for bargain rates, it may even be better for applicants to look cooperative while stacking the deck in their favor by tendering pay information after adding, maybe, 10% or 20%.     

Moving to other authors and publications, one problem jobseekers face happens when interviewers follow rigid patterns, which can lead to their subjective judgments winning out over any analysis of strengths and experience.  In July 14th’s Harvard Business Review piece “Why You Should Always Go Off-Script in a Job Interview,” Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson discussed how interviewees can not only avoid this issue but prevent themselves from coming off as rehearsed or even robotic by interrupting question sequences with such things as “let me tell you what’s not on my resume.”  Their other valuable suggestions were making a personal connection either through small talk about the likes of in-office photos or by asking interviewers how they felt about their own specific achievements, reversing an unfavorable conversation by discussing what they could do for this person and their company, and to “call out the elephant in the room” by directly addressing probable concerns both unmentioned and potentially detrimental. 

Two pieces from earlier this year, “7 Rules for Job Interview Questions That Result in Great Hires” (John Sullivan, Harvard Business Review, February 10) and “5 Interview Tips to Find the Long-Term Employee” (Tom Gimbel, The Wall Street Journal, May 5) provided opportunity for job-seekers to be forewarned and thus forearmed by learning what their adversaries may be planning.  Sullivan’s seven procedures, all good and fair, were “avoid easy-to-practice questions,” “be wary of historical questions” which may reveal successes irrelevant to current problems, “assess their ability to solve a problem” by asking for feedback on a current one, “evaluate whether they’re forward-looking” either in their jobs or in the industry as a whole, “assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, and innovate” by examining what methods the interviewee uses for those things, “avoid duplication” of content previously covered in the hiring process, and “allocate time for selling,” by asking the jobseeker how he or she would evaluate an offer and then responding to what they say. 

The five methods Gimbel put forth include, as I see it, four stinkers:  “try the airplane test” by accepting or rejecting someone on how much you enjoy their social company; “ask, “what do your best friends do for a living”” and seem snobbish while taking familiarity of this basic information as a proxy for knowing clients; “arrange random interruptions” to simulate client meetings, as if job interviews were not known by all to be inherently artificial; and “observe their emotional intelligence” by requesting personal insights into others the interviewee met at that company and assume such responses to be honest.  The author’s lone good idea, “ask, “When did you not get what you want?”” is worthwhile, but might be handled it well by a candidate’s simply not admitting to doing the equivalent of throwing a hissy fit. 


In any event, be prepared for all dozen of these if you are trying to be hired, and consider using eight of them if you are across the desk.  The opposite goes for Ryan’s suggestions.  As long as there are job interviews, they will be a game of cat-and-mouse – that means the more tactics you know, the better.              

Friday, August 19, 2016

Last Week’s Clinton and Trump Economic Speeches: On Jobs, Just a Little More Than Precious Little

On Monday, August 8th and Thursday, August 11th, major party presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton gave talks on their proposed financial policies.  Both were given in the Detroit area, which has been about the slowest and worst in the country at recovering from its mid-century manufacturing emphasis.  The speeches were just as rusty.

And remarkably similar.  Trump, as expected, spent most of his stage time criticizing Clinton and Obama, but Clinton went on almost as much about Trump.  Both speeches were short on positive ideas.  Both speakers seemed to advocate protectionism, to the point of asking for tariffs.  Perhaps influenced by their local audiences, both said they expected to increase manufacturing.  Each mentioned bolstering child care, with Hillary proposing making it “available” to everyone and Trump supporting tax deductions for it.  Both talked about cutting regulations for businesses in the same general and nonlogistical way we have heard from all Republican presidential candidates and most of the Democrats since Ronald Reagan’s time.  Both were also internally inconsistent.  Clinton said, after asking for tuition-free university attendance, that “we’ve got to reverse what has become a kind of commonplace view, which is everybody needs to go to college,” and “it doesn’t help anyone to be trained for a job that doesn’t exist.”  Trump said that “the rich will pay their fair share,” but spent several paragraphs asking for income and estate tax reductions benefiting primarily the wealthiest people.  The two each asked for things actually destructive to employment, Clinton for raising the minimum wage and Trump for repealing Obamacare.  And neither, most unfortunately, proposed enough to have a large positive effect on the number of American jobs.    

There were, though, two glimmers of light.  First, both Trump and Clinton said they wanted to comprehensively improve our infrastructure, paid for through a formal program for the latter and from regulation-cutting savings for the former.  Second, both discussed changing the tax code to reward companies with headquarters, and jobs, in this country.  They did not agree on exactly how to do that, but their ideas had great merit.  If Congress can, indeed, rediscover bipartisan legislation, our next president should ask for their agreement in principle on that idea, and then have them work out specific proposals.  To name just one more, if corporate income taxes included deductions for the number of American-based workers each company employed, we could raise the base rates while allowing labor-intensive firms to pay less than they do now. 


That across-the-aisle cooperation is what we need more than anything.  Even though I do not consider tax reform to be a comprehensive solution to our permanent jobs crisis, it would ease it more than anything Washington has produced these past seven-plus years.  Given the state of our current presidential campaign, I would call that a large victory.