Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Helpful Hints for Hidden Hoops

Over the past week, I've heard three separate discussions of invisible hoops in the job market that disfavor folks who are already disfavored. Since that describes the majority of cc students, it seems relevant here.

The first, which I've seen before, was the recent kerfuffle over unpaid internships. The law stipulates that unpaid internships should be for the benefit of the student, not of the 'employer,' and that the intern can't do things that people are normally paid to do. It seems to be increasingly the case that students who have internships in their background have a leg up in the job market over students who don't.

This is a class trap. On a really basic level, who can afford to work unpaid? Generally, that would be “those who don't need the money.” Second, community college students who do internships frequently find that the academic credits for the internships don't transfer; the four-year schools generally prefer to offer those themselves. So an ambitious and serious student finds herself paying twice for the privilege of working unpaid.

Then there's the educational value, or not, of the internship itself. I admit that my own summer internship in college was useful; it dissuaded me from going to law school. I learned that I don't want to do what lawyers do. That's good information to have at age 20. But too many internships seem to amount to free photocopying.

The second hoop was a confessed bias against the unemployed. I had a conversation with a local business owner who sometimes employs our grads. He was congenial, and supportive of the college's efforts to prepare students for the work world. In discussion, though, he noted without hesitation that part of the reason he likes young graduates is that they haven't crapped out elsewhere. By his reasoning, companies don't lay off their top performers, and top performers at dying companies bail before the collapse; therefore, if someone over twenty-five is unemployed, it's because there's something wrong with them. I was too shocked to ask about older returning students.

As regular readers know, I'm profoundly opposed to characterizing the job market as any sort of meritocracy. It gravely underestimates the importance of luck and timing, and it leads to ungracious attitudes among those who caught breaks. But this version surprised me. If enough people held this position, it would effectively rule second chances out of bounds. To equate “loss of job” with “loss of virtue” strikes me as a category mistake of the highest order, and as likely to do real harm.

It's also based on a factual mistake. Some of the best hires we've made have been people who were out of jobs. In this market, some very good people are without work. Ruling them out, sight unseen, is both inaccurate and inhumane.

Finally, in a presentation by a big muckety-muck from the Federal government, in which he discussed hiring needs in the area of national defense and homeland security – a phrase that still sounds faintly German to me – he mentioned that most of the more lucrative jobs require a security clearance, and a security clearance requires a good credit rating.

To which I thought, huh?

I imagined an argument having to do with susceptibility to bribery: someone in financial trouble is presumably easier to sway with money that someone who isn't. Whether it actually plays out that way, I don't know, but there's a surface plausibility to it. But his argument wasn't about vulnerability; it was about “integrity.” He equated a low credit rating with low personal integrity.

Though he didn't spell it out, one major contributor to low credit ratings is trouble paying back student loans.

Putting the three together, I came away with a roadmap for success.

1. Try to pick parents wealthy enough to support you doing unpaid internships.
2. Try to pick parents wealthy enough that you don't have to borrow much for college.
3. Never lose a job, or go without one, after you graduate. One way to do that is to pick parents who own their own lucrative business, so you always have a job to fall back on.

I hope that helps. Meanwhile, for those who chose the wrong parents...

I live in DC, at play among the wonks. Clearances are a big deal in my world. Getting a security clearance is a huge help when looking for government jobs, but it's a strange, difficult process.

For one, a person can't just apply for one. You have to already be employed for a government agency or contractor, and one that handles sensitive material. The process is expensive, so employers don't put the wheels in motion unless it's important. So setting a clearance isn't a way to get a job. You have to get a job first. It's a way to improve a career in FedLand, not a way to start one.

Then there are the hurdles. Financial problems are a big fat red flag, as are foreign ties. Yes, if you have relatives in other countries, especially non-Western European countries, that's gonna slow things down and possibly tank the application. Other things can tank it too, of course.

The feds and federal-contracting-land have two sets of jobs: those that require clearances and those that don't. It's dang impressive how many jobs fall into the former category. Way more than you'd think.

Which has hosed me several times. Argh.
I live in DC too, but the agency of the federal government that my company contracts for doesn't handle sensitive material, so no real clearance for me :(

But, many moons ago I did apply for a secret service position (requires top secret clearance), and at the time, my credit rating was poor. Believe it or not, although a poor credit rating will warrant "further review" it's not an automatic tank.

There's a website around somewhere that publishes the adjudication of appealed clearance denials. It's actually a fascinating read -- it really does appear that the government tries to give a fair shake to those who appeal denials. Specifically with respect to credit ratings, if one's poor credit is an isolated incident (say follows a job loss) they can probably squeak by. But if one carries tons of debt or the problems are recurring, it's probably a no-go.

Yes, when foreign agents look for spies, (and this goes both ways) they look for ways that they can leverage the potential target into spying for them. Having buckets of debt and a meager GS salary to pay for it is one way that a foreign agency can convince the person to "help" them.
I'm surprised you chose that item 2 rather than

2. Pick a college you can afford

It can also help to choose a major where internships are paid at least the minimum wage.

Regarding clearances, one thing Brother of DD didn't mention is keeping records of every one of your addresses and jobs, no matter how minor. Write them down now while you still remember them. Some clearances expect a record more complete than a typical CV.
DD, you've mentioned your "the workforce is not a meritocracy" position several times. On the whole I agree with you. So how do we help students who are struggling with this reality? Realizing a degree doesn't guarantee you a job is a major blow to any college student (ask all the unemployed Law School grads,) but it could be an (educationally) fatal blow to students who are already at risk of dropping out. It reasonable for a lot of these students to ask "what's the point of classes & student loans if I still can't get a job?"

I know I'm not being very articulate about this. I guess my question is, what can educators do to help our students cope with a job market that may be stacked against them?
CCPhysicist is right - not only addresses and jobs, but people. They like to talk to people who knew you through all phases of your life. For someone who has moved around a lot, it can be a considerable challenge. Facebook actually helps.
i think your take on this being a "class trap" is a bit much. what about those people who have done great and succeeded without having any perks on your 'roadmap for success'? yeah, there's some luck, but i attribute "luck" to a pay level, not basic employment. your list dismisses that aspect of life.

some of my friends have lost their job in this economy, but the hardest working ones found employment sooner than the others, and they were always "better" jobs.

hard work and good decisions will take you far. i think you need to add "try to pick parents who tell their children to never give up, and that what goes around comes around." to the list.

in regards to what CCPhysicist said, this may be taboo in this circle of readers, but maybe "Pick a degree that employers are seeking" should be added to the list. my buddy with a history undergrad and an MBA can't find a good job to save his life, because he chose 2 degrees that are worthless to most employers. that degree has to be relevant, and it has to be in demand. a certain profession may not be someone's ideal path (my job isn't my 'dream job'), but kids need to make the decision of whether to choose ideology and personal preference vs employment and stability.
There's nothing new about the advantage that internships give people in getting jobs - it's just harder to get a job now so it's more noticeable. The layoff prejudice is rooted in a rather harsh reality - two years ago, most of the people being laid off were usually poor performers. Now, that's not as much the case. When you have 250 people applying for a clerical position, it's hard to really dig down and look into each one - that employers are taking mental shortcuts is no surprise.

This same prejudice comes through in applications to professional schools - students from Master's granting institutions with lower admissions standards (as opposed to R1s) are at a disadvantage - their GPAs, no matter how high, are discounted. Students from traditionally black colleges face a similar prejudice. So yes, there are hidden hurdles. But if you are at a school with a large population of students who don't know about them, you have to build trust with your students and convince them to do the stuff that doesn't make sense to them (because their parents didn't need to do it for their non-bachelor's requiring jobs) but will eventually help them find a job. In my department, we did this through intensive advising and through a “intro to the professions” course in which we brought in employers and had them talk to students about what they were looking for in future employees. This led some of our students to make better choices about internships and jobs and allowed students to form nascent networks in industries that interested them.
I like how "choosing a less expensive college" is presented as sound good advice and "dropping out" is taken as a negative. Keep in mind that dropping out, even if unemployed, could be a better financial move than staying in school and accruing more student debt. These days that's nothing to sneeze at.

One thing that would greatly increase job prospects: build a fully-function website. Learn and build the back-end (SQL database, scripting languages like JavaScript and PHP, web development) and the front end (basic graphic design, some CSS and of course, HTML). It doesn't matter what you put on there as long as it looks good and functions well. This can be done in three months or less if you're dedicated, and will open doors to web development and software development jobs all over, if not other possibilities. Building a a great mobile app can open even more and bigger doors.

Not a techy person? Learn a trade, like carpentry, plumbing or welding. This might take some formal training and money, but you can start by fixing up your home with the basics. Pick a task (eg drywalling a part of a wall, re-tiling a floor) and learn as you go. Again, if you're good, you can grow a profitable business in a few years with plenty of perks.

Note similarities between these two tracks: 1) They lead to "in-demand" career prospects, 2) they require little to no university education, 3) the jobs are relatively recession- and outsourcing-proof and 4) they help develop both hard and soft skills. Plus the turn around is fast; a four-year nursing degree might almost guarantee a job under today's job market, but it takes at least three or four years to complete. The website training, by contrast, can happen in much less than a year.

One major problem for postsecondary is irrelevance. Tuition fees are rising quickly, there's saturation of individuals with advanced degrees and the value of a Bachelor's degree is being questioned both in theory and practice (and possibly by the market). If enough smart, motivated individuals stop going to postsecondary, employers will stop looking for diplomas/degrees/credentials. Academics would be smart to take notice of this.
Academic credit for internships? That seems like a bad idea. Do schools really do that?
Kind of a threadjack. There is a list of 10 tips for better health that circulates in response to a version put out by the British - but echos what many health departments across the U.S. use as their own roadmap to community health - government in 1999. Several are very close to yours, so I thought you might be interested. See
"a phrase that still sounds faintly German to me"

And this wording means exactly what? What makes it sounds "German"?
I remember reading that one elite school--Georgetown, I believe--actually offers an internship in DC that is not only unpaid, but requires the student to pay for it. Apparently, this internship is so prestigious that students are willing to pay for it. I can't help but to think demanding pay is also a form of socio-economic screening.
"Homeland security" sounds like a direct translation of a Nazi department which was handling some particularly heinous aspect of their regime. It hasn't grown on me.
"Homeland security" sounds like some sort of Nazi bureau because "homeland" is a deliberately archaic word chosen for its emotional connotations. The many organizations and agencies promoting the "voelkisch" ideology in the 3d Reich did the same thing.

American agencies don't do that; they tend have bland, descriptive titles ("Food and Drug Administration"; "Federal Aviation Administration"). And when they need to refer to the country as a whole, they either use the term "National," "Federal," or, occasionally, "United States."

(It is, of course, a mistake to conflate Nazi Germany with modern Germany - and modern German agencies tend to follow the bland American model, most commonly using "Bundes-" ("Federal") as part of an agency's name.
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