People standing in line at Job and Training Fair
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images
By Marty Nemko
October 27, 2014
IDEAS
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

Most of us have heard of:

  • College graduates doing menial work. A caller to my radio program last week graduated a year ago from the University of California, Berkeley, and the best job he’s been able to land is pizza delivery person. Alas, according to a report in The Atlantic, he’s far from alone; 53.6% of college graduates under 25 are doing work they could have done without college or are unemployed.
  • Middle-age professionals are losing their job: It was offshored, automated or, if s/he was lucky, it was converted to a “consultant” position in which they’re hired only for a project and with minimal benefits after which they’re back pounding the pavement. According to an AARP report, three years after the recession, 45% of the 50- to 64-year-olds surveyed reported a decline in income.
  • Itinerant professors. Colleges tout the importance of treating labor fairly, yet they don’t practice what they preach. Increasingly, they replace tenure-track faculty with people hired, without benefits, to teach just one or two courses at pittance pay. As a result, countless highly and expensively educated Ph.D.s must drive from university to university to cobble together a living smaller than they could have made without any degree, let alone a Ph.D. An Inside Higher Ed/Gallup poll found 65% of college provosts said their institution relies “significantly on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction.”

America’s employers–for-profit, non-profit, and government alike–are eliminating, automating and offshoring as many jobs as possible. And the remaining jobs are, ever more often, converted into part-time or temp work. This is the dejobbing of America

The broader picture

It’s tempting to feel things are better because the unemployment rate is down, but that masks the fact that many people have stopped looking for work. Those people aren’t counted in the unemployment rate. Nor does the unemployment rate consider people who are working but earning less income.

These statistics are more revealing: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the labor participation rate, the percentage of adults 16 to 64 that are employed or actively looking for work, is 62.7%, the lowest since early 1978.

And those who are working are, on average, making less. An analysis of government data on income and poverty last month found that, “After adjusting for inflation, U.S. median household income is still 8 percent lower than it was before the recession, 9 percent lower than at its peak in 1999.”

The numbers hide the human toll. Work is key to people’s psychological as well as financial well-being. Without work, in addition to not being able to pay for food, shelter, transportation and health care, you can feel useless.

Solutions for the individual

Personally, I love the liberal arts. I enjoy reading novels, looking at paintings, listening to classical music and contemplating life’s Big Questions. Alas, we’re living in times in which those seem less valued than they used to be. A report this month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the four majors most in demand by employers at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level are business, engineering, computer and information sciences, and sciences, with liberal arts trailing badly—just above agriculture and natural resources. Another survey in that NACE report found that employers are demanding even more problem solving expertise and quantitative analysis skills.

So I bear the bad news that, to avoid long periods of un- and underemployment, you may have to ratchet up your game. And even if you do, you may need to use more aggressive techniques to land a job than not long ago. A pretty, hired-gun-written resume, LinkedIn profile and cover letter may not cut it any more. But these things might help:

  • In answering ads, include a job sample: a proposal for what you might do if hired, a white-paper on a topic of compelling interest to the boss and/or a portfolio of relevant work.
  • Try to get in through the back door. The front door (answering want ads) has a long line of wannabes. So try to connect with people with the power to hire you when they’re not advertising a job. Write an email asking for advice. They may create a job or at least foot-in-the-door project for you. Ask for a job, they’ll feel pressured and just give you advice or ignore your request.
  • Make an offer they can’t refuse. Offer to volunteer for a fixed amount of time. If after that, they like you, they agree to hire you. If not, they got free labor with no strings attached.
  • Not for the faint-of-heart: Walk in. For example, a client wanted the security of a federal job. So at 8:00 AM, when all the federal workers were arriving, she asked a friendly looking one if she might get her through security by saying, “She’s with me.” Two said no but the third said yes. She then schmoozed her way around the building and got useful inside information, which enabled her to write a great application for a position, which she then got.

Macro solutions

  • Assistance Army. Companies, nonprofits, and government should collaborate in creating an “Assistance Army.” Each sector would create societally beneficial jobs that even many low-skilled workers could do: for example, student mentor, community garden raised-bed builder, health-care system docent and mural creator to brighten gritty neighborhoods. Additionally, the three sectors would develop a campaign to encourage individuals to hire personal aides: tutors for their children, housekeeper, personal assistant and technology explainer for themselves, elder companion for their older relative, etc.
  • A world-class K-16 entrepreneurship curriculum. Permanent jobs get created mainly by starting and expanding private-sector businesses. Government jobs require tax dollars, which thus reduce private-sector jobs. To increase business creation, we must go beyond the born entrepreneurs, hence the proposed entrepreneurship curriculum. That should consist heavily of students creating and running businesses, plus online simulations, in which students get instant feedback on their business decisions.
  • Expanded apprenticeship programs. Despite the rampant un- and underemployment among college graduates and the relative shortage of skilled (and offshore-proof) blue-collar jobs, we’re sending young people a message that everyone should go to college, even students that struggled in high school. In fact, according to Clifford Adelman, senior statistician at the U.S. Department of Education, if you graduated in the bottom 40% of your high school class, your chance of graduating college is less than one in four, even if given 8 ½ years. And if you graduate, it’s likely to be from a third-tier college with a major that is likely to make employers yawn, thus setting you up to be one of the aforementioned 53.6% of college graduates doing work they could have done without college or who are unemployed.

Instead, we need to expand our system of apprenticeships so it’s a major initiative, like that in Germany and in England: a partnership between the schools and employers that creates a high-quality experience for high-schoolers whose track record indicates they’re more likely to succeed in a practical curriculum than by calculating calculus integrals, deciphering the intricacies of Shakespeare and interpreting stochastic processes.

A perhaps hyperbolic call to action.

Good jobs are at the heart of a satisfied citizenry and viable society. Our rapidly dejobbing America is prioritizing short-term profit over long-term survival. Many people consider climate change our most urgent threat. I believe dejobbing is an even greater one.

Marty Nemko is an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

Write to Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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