Friday, July 25, 2014

The Latest on Interviews and Resumes: New, Old, and Overrated

Three new books, one on job interviews, one on resumes, and one with sections on each, have been published.  All are highly regarded by Amazon readers.  What new ideas do they have on these two old cornerstones of job seeking?

Some trends in resumes have gone back and forth over the decades, and, according to these books, are still oscillating.  On length, one (Resumes That Stand Out!, by L. Xavier Cano) firmly advocated a one-page maximum for anyone with career time of ten years or less.  Another is the return of a career objectives section, popular in the 1990s but discouraged the decade after.  Grade-point averages, if over 3.0, and hobbies and interests, at least for new college graduates, have made modest comebacks after decades of banishment.  Both Cano and Martin Yate, author of Knock ‘em Dead:  The Ultimate Job Search Guide 2014, recommended modifying the resume itself, instead of only the cover letter, for different targeted jobs - in fact, the book more geared to mid-life career changers suggested custom documents, often extensively different, for each position applied for.  Two new resume features advocated are inclusion of a LinkedIn URL, if the page itself is complete and professional, and an International Travel section, if the countries involved pertain to what’s being applied for.

On job interviews, a few things have changed in what candidates face.  Per Yate, unusual settings, such as a restaurant or even a hotel lobby, are becoming more common.  The third author, London Porter, in Rockstar Your Job Interview, wrote that the range of questions has widened, with such old saws as “sell me this pen” joined by the likes of “how many gas stations are in the United States?”  Military service now draws its own questions, involving application of service work to corporate life and ability to handle an environment with few firm orders.  As for follow-ups, Porter recommended not only thank-you emails but multiple contact attempts, their timing and frequency dependent on the hiring timeline.

So how much is new in interviews and resumes?  Considering the differences in jobs themselves, their roles, contents, and significances are remarkably unchanged.  A good resume layout from 1980 would still be acceptable today, though, as these books’ authors point out, formatting should accommodate electronic transmission.  The role and structure of cover letters is essentially the same as when Ronald Reagan was elected.  On interviews, whatever the question, job, or venue, the guiding philosophy of being responsible, unruffled, clear-thinking, respectful, of course well-dressed and well-groomed, and more than anything else comprehensively suitable for the position, remains.

And so it is with interviews and resumes.  Ability at them is critically important, but is far from sufficient for being hired.  In interviews the first 90 seconds will usually tell the person across from you whether you have a chance, and resumes are viewed for less time than that by manager and keyword-scanning program combined.  Sometimes it is necessary to “rockstar” them or make them stand out, but in other situations they just need to be reasonable. 
Overall, interviews and resumes are overemphasized.  As valuable as they remain, getting to the point where skill at either comes into play is still the most important thing for jobseekers to address.        

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wal-Mart Benefits America

What can we say about Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., of Bentonville, Arkansas?

First, it is enormous.  The world’s largest public corporation, it has over 11,000 retail outlets in 27 countries – hardly the most of anyone, but their average size makes the company unique.  Its 1.4 million workers make it the largest private United States employer, with over four times as many as second-place IBM.  Ninety percent of Americans live within a 15-minute drive of a Wal-Mart store, they receive more than one-thirteenth of every dollar spent in this country, and the firm’s annual world sales approach half a trillion dollars.  As well as being the country’s, and the world’s, largest retailer overall, it sells more groceries in America than any other.

Second, vast numbers of people not working there benefit from it.  About 100 million people buy from Wal-Mart each week.  A 2005 Washington Post study concluded that the chain’s prices on food alone saved American consumers $50 billion per year, and the company has added many stores since then.  Forty-two percent of Wal-Mart’s sales are made to people with family incomes below $40,000, and one fifth of their customers, double the national average, do not have bank accounts.  Accordingly, many of their shoppers have a special need for savings.

Third, the same sales have caused a steamroller effect on other businesses.  Other research has shown that the negative effect new Wal-Mart stores have on receipts at others, strongest in smaller towns, could be as much as 40 percent, with businesses closer to the company’s locations suffering the most.  A Penn State study concluded that Wal-Mart outlets increased poverty.

Fourth, 80% of the chain’s suppliers are in China, which other studies concluded cost 200,000 American jobs.  Many of its products, though, are not price-competitive or even available when manufactured here, and earlier this month, Wal-Mart officially launched an effort to sell more American-made products, with its “Made in USA Open Call” event. 

So what can we conclude about this gargantuan chain? 

One, if prosperity and poverty measures included and quantified the effect of lower prices, Wal-Mart would attract less controversy.  In 2006, columnist George Will wrote that the chain and “its effects,” including forcing prices elsewhere lower, saved American consumers more than $200 billion per year, more than three times the benefits from food stamps and the earned income credit combined.  Yet poverty statistics do not account for this boon. 

Two, there is little documented reason to show that Wal-Mart stores cost a net number of jobs.  Although many other businesses are often forced out when one arrives, the total amount of retail sales frequently increases to the point where more workers, overall, are needed. 

Three, while Wal-Mart jobs have indeed tended to pay less than those at other retailers, those employers have had much more risk of going out of business.  Although many have criticized the chain for its pay rates and working conditions, demand for its positions, especially at new locations, remains high.  Eight years ago, before the Great Recession, a new Wal-Mart store opening near Chicago received 25,000 applications for its 325 new jobs – bad reputation, low pay, and all – when the city had an official 5.4% unemployment rate.

Four, positions at a large retail chain cannot be compared with those at large information-related companies such as Microsoft, Google, or AT&T.  The corporation’s 2013 $476 billion revenue works out to less than $217,000 per employee, compared with Microsoft’s and Google’s 2008 figures of $664,000 and over $1 million respectively.  Wal-Mart may be even larger and more profitable than either, but with such labor intensity its pay rates can never approximate theirs.

Five, the chain has indeed caused jobs at other retailers to go away.  Yet, with big-box competitors and online opportunities now commonplace, the great majority of the failed local stores would have been in trouble anyway.  As the survivors were well-suited to withstand lower Wal-Mart prices through customization and better customer service, they rated to do the best whether that company was involved or not. 

Other concerns, with doubtful merit, have been raised about the Bentonville company.  Its founder Sam Walton never made a lot of charitable contributions, yet the business now gives close to $1 billion per year.  Its jobs are often physically difficult, but no more than the industry norm.  A 2007 lawsuit charging the chain with sex discriminations in promotions and pay, though many thought it had considerable validity, was unsuccessful, with the judge not allowing it class-action status.  Recently, many commentators have compared Wal-Mart employees with those of Costco, another big-box retailer, who generally earn much more and have better benefits, including health insurance at the lowest levels.  Yet Costco stores, with typically 1/35th as many different items on offer and lots of them sold stacked on pallets, have sales per employee almost three times higher.

Meanwhile, the preponderance of evidence says that this enterprise, even if fearsomely gigantic, is strongly positive.  No company has saved low-income people so much money, and few if any have offered employment to so many.  From bananas to ipads, and in the tradition of the Sears catalogue which it in a sense superseded, Wal-Mart has made it possible for Americans, especially those in need, to consistently, year in and year out, get more for their money. 

The idyllically-remembered Main Streets with “little guy” retailers are gone forever, Wal-Mart or not.  The world is profoundly different now.  We may or may not successfully negotiate the jobs crisis, but for now there is not enough work, and no company has helped the unemployed and underemployed more, whether or not they have had jobs there.  The judgment is not close – the chain is good for America.  That is what we should understand, more than anything else, about Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.            

Friday, July 11, 2014

How a New WPA Program Might Work

From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration provided many American jobs.  Its workers, who reached 3.3 million in 1938, mostly constructed buildings, many of which are still in use today, and roads, all over the country.  The program ended in 1943, when the war effort had greatly reduced unemployment. 

There are two excellent reasons why a WPA-style effort would be good today.   At the top of the list are persistent unemployment, still at 9.9 million officially despite years of improvement, and a massive need for infrastructure work, with a $3.6 trillion cost estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers through 2020.   Beyond that is the stimulus value of the money, as workers would receive paychecks which, unlike those received by people with very high incomes today, would overwhelmingly be spent on goods and services.   Yet times are different now than they were 80 years ago, so some aspects of the program and even its overall charter might best be changed.  So what features could this new infrastructure and jobs effort have?

First, in contrast to the original WPA the new one’s emphasis could be on needed projects first and jobs second.  In order to get conservative support in Washington, it should put better American infrastructure first.  It might start out relatively small, as the highest priority ventures are approved and the results assessed.  It would not be designed to guarantee work for everyone, rather to assure that the public works improvements necessary in any event are completed.

Second, there should be no eligibility restrictions for new WPA jobs.  Requiring, for example, that workers be unemployed would, at a time when 7.5 million Americans work part-time but want full-time positions, be inappropriate.  Those employed only seasonally, in fields they do not want to be in, or at levels well below their education and proven skill levels should also not be penalized for making adaptive choices. 

Third, pay for new WPA jobs would not match industry standards.  The great majority of these positions, even if skilled, could have salaries of $20,000 to $35,000 per year.  The idea of promising middle class prosperity for workers, long held by many on the left and continuing to shape discussions about the minimum wage, would not be able to come into play.

Fourth, the positions would include health care coverage and modest benefits such as holidays off and two weeks of annual paid vacation.  As with pay ranges, these extras would not match those in private industry or even those part of existing government jobs.

Fifth, the overall new WPA goal would be to restore America’s standing of first worldwide in infrastructure, which it had most recently in the 1990s but has fallen to 14th as of last year.  That would provide an objective for all to work towards.

Sixth, construction of new bridges, dams, levees, hazardous waste sites, ports, airports, schools, microwave towers, and railroads, as well as roads and buildings, should also be included.  With a new WPA, a lack of state government funding, which in New Jersey killed one more needed tunnel to Manhattan last year, would not be the object – the merits of new construction could be assessed nationally.            

Seventh, non-infrastructure needs could also be assessed and possibly included.  Teaching opportunities, housing for the homeless and in areas with shortages, putting out underground fires, various scientific endeavors, and a wide range of historical and research projects, all with ample merit but short on funding, are only a few areas worthy of debate.

In all, there is plenty of work needed in the United States, and plenty of people available to do it.  Creaky bridges, overcrowded highways, and insufficient airports will not fix themselves, nor will any kind of technological advance make them unneeded.  The choices are to correct these things expensively later, to complete projects now when workers and materials are relatively cheap, or to allow America to further deteriorate.  If conservatives value resisting even bipartisan proposals to the point where the latter happens, they will have only themselves to blame when businesses, and their country, fail.   

Thursday, July 3, 2014

AJSN Up 200,000 As 19.7 Million More American Jobs Could Be Easily Filled

Here we go again.  Official seasonally adjusted unemployment dropped to 6.1 percent in June, the lowest since the Great Recession kicked off in 2008.  Payrolls gained 288,000, or about double the number needed to cover population growth.  Yet the number of jobs Americans could quickly absorb went up again.  Why?

The reason is that the raw number of unemployed actually increased.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ reported figure, which is seasonally adjusted, dropped 325,000, but that takes into account a lot of jobs ending when school years end.  The unadjusted number was plus 450,000   775,000 worse.

Other employment numbers were mixed.  The left-over group of non-civilian, institutionalized, and unaccounted for was almost unchanged, up 5,000, so we can easily compare the others.  The number of people working rose over 700,000, which combines with the gain in the unemployed for a 1.15 million labor force increase.  The number of people saying they did not want a job at all shrunk 600,000, and the counts of those not looking in the previous year and temporarily not available to work now lost about 100,000 apiece.  Seasonally unadjusted unemployment went the opposite of the more commonly reported one, going up from 6.1% to 6.3%.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, gained 212,000, as follows:


While the labor force participation rate and the employment to population ratio essentially treaded water at 62.8% and 59.0%, the most disturbing figure was the count of people working part-time for economic reasons, up 275,000 to 7.5 million.  That is almost the same increase as the number of jobs gained, meaning that June’s 288,000 rise was nearly equivalent to adding only that many part-time positions.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is almost 1.9 million lower.  In June 2013 there were 2.35 million more officially jobless and over 350,000 more officially discouraged, but 2.8 million fewer claiming no interest in work and only half as many in the service, in institutions, off the grid, or otherwise lost to the numbers.  Accordingly, while a lot of people have found work in the past year, many more have decided they don’t want it, or have disappeared completely. 

So how good was June?  The gain of 288,000 net jobs, even if seasonally adjusted, is positive.  The 600,000-plus increase in Americans deciding they might like to work after all can be accounted for by the official unemployment rate drop, attracting them back into the market.  Yet the jump in those working part-time not by choice is disturbing.  

Overall, we’ll call this morning’s employment data slightly positive.  The turtle is crawling forward again.  Yet a turtle, still, is only a turtle.      

Friday, June 27, 2014

See You on Thursday

There will be no Work's New Age blog post this week.

Be here Thursday morning, for June's jobs data and American Job Shortage Number (AJSN).

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New College Graduates, the Group Hardest Hit by the Permanent Jobs Crisis – II

Last week, I outlined the severe problems of young adults completing bachelor’s degrees.  They included high unemployment, a 25% rate of working in positions requiring their education, skyrocketing tuition, massive related debt, and the detrimental effects of starting good jobs later.  The solutions most have implemented so far, such as living with parents, working part-time when possible, going off the grid, or doing other things instead, have achieved inadequate results for most.  So what would help?

First, along with nebulous college rankings, we need to create a measure of career-job placement.  For a given university, what share of traditionally-aged bachelor’s degree recipients are working in a position requiring that credential within one year?  This metric could be adjusted, but not much – it should not, for example, exclude those in graduate school or taking time off, choices often influenced by perception of low hiring chances.  Schools that refuse to publish this statistic, or will not share data used for it, should have that held against them by possible applicants.

Second, students in about the bottom 60% of their high school classes should generally not go to four-year schools right away.  At this level, many go to college but don’t finish it.  The routine track for average high school students with university aspirations should be to first go to a community college, live at home, and work part-time if they can find it.  If they complete their two-year degrees, they should go on to a regular college or university, where, if they graduate, their diplomas will be the same as if they spent all four years there. 

Third, everyone in a degree program at a four-year school should commit to getting it.  That should be the specific, barely negotiable goal for everyone at that level.  Nobody in doubt as to whether they can, or will, do that should be there.

Fourth, we need to reduce some expectations about college.  The options above will hurt many students’ social lives, but with tuition and jobs being what they are, much of that is a luxury far fewer can afford.  Those in college as well as the rest of us need to spend less, save money when it is available, and, if they have the time and need the income, work when possible.

Fifth, attending a high-tuition private university instead of a lower-cost state one should generally be, except for those in the top 10% of their high school classes or with similar family wealth, out of the question. 

Sixth, young single people having trouble finding a good job should consider moving to a relatively cheap area, at least temporarily.  There are great cost-of-living differences across the nation, with pay rates generally not making up for the highest ones.  Plans of being in, say, New York City, Hawaii, or San Francisco sometimes just need to wait.

Seventh, but how about South Korea?  That is one of the few places in the world where young Americans with four-year degrees are almost assured of being hired.  Almost any can be an English teacher, paid enough to save significant money, with an apartment and health care part of the deal.  The same goes, to a lesser extent, for China, Japan, and Hong Kong. 

Eighth, we cannot wait for external change.  The chances are far greater for another recession than for jobs for young college graduates suddenly getting much better or more plentiful.

Ninth, we all need to realize the employment crisis is permanent.  Last week I saw yet another prime columnist – Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post, this time – express mystification on what is happening with work, labor and wages in this country.  Automation, globalization, efficiency, and a string of smaller factors explain it well enough.  When we understand that, we can at least partially unite to deal with it, and that will benefit young college graduates more than anything else listed here.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

New College Graduates, the Group Hardest Hit by the Permanent Jobs Crisis – I

In the past six years, during which the Great Recession came and went and our perception that the economy is doing well has vanished, people in some categories have been more likely to suffer than others.  

People in their 50s have often found themselves out of their careers, with poor or no working options.  A variety of Americans have seen their incomes plunge, as their good jobs were lost and replaced by lower-paying ones most commonly now created, or none at all.  Parents of younger college graduates have seen their offspring, instead of being monetary assets able to contribute some income to them, turning into liabilities.  Yet it is the graduates themselves who have taken it the worst.

Even those who don’t know the statistics can at least sense that.  Official unemployment for college graduates aged 21 to 24 has improved, but only to 8.5%.  Another 8.3% want to be working but don’t qualify as technically jobless, or are working part-time but wanting full-time.  Another 44% are in positions not requiring their degrees, which, as a New York Times editorial on Sunday put it, are less and less likely to be “well-paid professions” such as electricians or dental hygienists, but are instead “waiters, bartenders, or cashiers.”  After subtracting out people unemployed in spirit but not among the 60% above, such as those off the grid, many getting more schooling, and others following their essentially second-choice paths, we get only about one-quarter of recent, young bachelor’s degree recipients working in paid jobs where that education is needed. 

At the same time, college tuition costs average a staggering 13 times what they were in 1984.  The total amount of education-related debt reached $1 trillion last year (over $3,000 per American), amazingly passing the amount owed on credit cards.  As would logically be the case when combined with the poor jobs situation, loan default rates, now 15% in the first three years alone, are ever higher.  High school seniors, who have heard for decades that college graduates average double the income of others, often do whatever it takes to attend, which, in times of lower income across the board and university financial aid leaving large gaps, usually means borrowing the money.  In the meantime, 46% of people starting college in 2006 failed to get a degree by 2012, meaning that, while they benefited in other ways, they did not even qualify to try to join that 25%.

As time passes, many graduates do get good jobs.  I have written for years about how typical working years start closer to age 30 than to 22, so that’s nothing new.  However, the effect of the delay is devastating.  Financial advisors say that, when careers start at 22, savings plan contributions made at a given percentage of income made in a worker’s 20s rate to be worth more at retirement than those from ages 30 through 65.  Careers dependent on time of service, still most of them, do less well, meaning lower income, with later starts.  As an indication of younger peoples’ lower prosperity, fewer are buying houses;  according to one pre-recession 2008 study, the average age of first-time buyers was 33, with a mean family income just over $64,000.  As the second number has become more challenging, the first is almost certainly higher now.  Since home equity is a major form of household wealth, that means younger graduates are falling behind in that way as well.

How have those finishing bachelor’s degrees coped with the employment situation?  As above, many are doing what they can, with part-time positions or more humble full-time ones.  Many others live with their parents, extending their times of “premature affluence” or having richer lifestyles than their own incomes can support.  Fewer than ever are relocating for work, often a wise decision as more and more good jobs turn out to be temporary.  They have used often-free electronic media frequently and comprehensively, helping them spend less and leave home less, as shown by the share of 18-year-olds with driver’s licenses dropping from 80% to 61% from 1983 to 2010.

Progress on the jobs crisis, never strong, has stalled almost completely.  The Obama administration has moved from even talking about needing more positions to concentrating on raising the minimum wage, sure to achieve the opposite.  Republicans in Washington have offered nothing, other than weak and vague references to taxing the real or imagined job providers less and cutting unspecified federal employment-reducing regulations.  College tuition continues going up. 

The problems of new graduates cannot be allowed to stand as they are.  So what can they, and the rest of us, do?  That will be the subject of next week’s post.