Helping Unemployed People Get Employed

Catherine Rampell of the New York Times wrote an article that, unfortunately, reports on an all-too-common problem, the increase in the long-term unemployed population, on December 2, in a story entitled “Dwindling Prospects.” I know people who fit her description. In fact, I have spoken to a local support group of individuals who are part of the long-term unemployed population, in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, Darien Connecticut.

I was effectively unemployed once in my life, for about a 4-month period (January, 1979, through May, 1979) between my second law firm job and my hiring by Pitney Bowes. I was told in October, 1978, that I would not be offered a partnership, was given a few months to look for a job while on the payroll, and then was put in an “of counsel” status, meaning that I would be hired only for hourly project work. I had a little work, but nowhere near enough to support my family. It was initially scary, and I felt all the self-doubt that Ms. Rampell described in the people she profiled. When I became unemployed, despite a Harvard Law degree, I did not know when I would be hired to work again.

The economy was not in as bad a shape as it is today, but we were dealing with the second Arab oil boycott, so the economy was troubled, and unemployment rates were relatively high. We were in a studio apartment and were living very frugally, even though my wife had a full-time job.

There was a turning point in my search for work and my redefinition of my approach to getting reemployed. I went to New York City for a full day of interviews in January, 1979, and was treated extremely rudely by just about every one of the six firms with which I interviewed. I even had the senior partner of the last firm with which I interviewed tell me that my firm was “not a household name” in New York, that I might go to work for a corporation, which was a job for people who “could not make it in a law firm world,” and that living in Chicago was “living in Queens,” which, to him, was an insult. I was insulted in every way a person can be insulted during that day, including being told that my experience was “thin” and “did not qualify me for any meaningful law firm job.”

I came back to Chicago and had the insight that I was addressing the problem completely the wrong way. I was looking for existing jobs in firms for which there was ferocious competition. Many other people wanted the same jobs, and, therefore, the partners could afford to be nasty because they could still get candidates. I remembered all my life that people were often nasty when they had maximum leverage over someone else. When they needed someone’s help, they did not tend to be nasty.

I realized then and there that I had to look for work in places where there were more jobs than people to do them. The alternative I chose was the corporate legal department. I began doing research and discovered a list of companies at which I might want to work, and had Pitney Bowes on the list. Through a chance conversation with a legal recruiter, I found that Pitney Bowes was looking for a lawyer, and I was willing to work within their budget parameters, something they could not find in the New York law firm candidates they had previously interviewed. I was eventually hired.

What lessons can we draw from my experience?

We need to train people to look for work that needs to be done, not to find a “job.”

A “job” is the bundling of a group of tasks by an employer to help it identify what needs to be done, who might be qualified to do it, and how much it should pay to secure a candidate. “Work” consists of tasks which one person either cannot perform himself or herself, or would prefer to hire someone else to perform. By the time “work” is organized into a posted job, the supply of applicants exceeds available jobs. When “work” has yet to morph into a “job,” demand for workers exceeds supply.

There are two sets of tasks for which my wife and I hire people:

  • Tasks that require skills we do not have, such as the troubleshooting of problems with our in-house wireless router system or our Mobile Me software; or
  • Tasks we could do ourselves, but that require a great deal of time to perform, such as lawn care.

There are other tasks that arguably fit into both categories, such as tailoring and weaving: we could learn to perform them, but it would take time to develop the skills to do so. We pay people to shorten or lengthen pants, to let out or take in waists, or to repair a hole in a pair of pants.

We do not create a “job posting” for these tasks, but we are willing to pay competent people to do them. In fact, there is a large quantity of work tasks people perform every day that have not ripened into posted “jobs” and may never ripen into “jobs” because they are tasks that change over time. Some fit into the category of what we would call “handymen” tasks, that is, tasks assigned to someone who is ready, willing, available, and trusted to perform whatever tasks are needed.

Instead of treating unemployed people as “victims” of unemployment who need benefits, retraining, or “jobs,” we should train them to identify tasks that need people to do them, and to make themselves able to perform those tasks. Marketers call these needs “pain points.” We need to train unemployed people to find out other people’s “pain points” and to figure out which ones they can address with the skills they have.

We should train people to think about tasks where there is a shortage of people to do the work, and to learn how to perform those tasks.

The best evidence of skills shortage is what we are prepared to pay per hour for someone to do a job. Today, computer support people at the Geek Squad charge $120 per hour, with a minimum of one hour commitment, for telephonic or onsite computer-related support. This is clearly an area of opportunity for an unemployed person. Someone can work for someone else for $60 an hour, and, if reliable and competent, can get repeat business until the Geek Squad and its competitors reduce their prices to a much lower figure.

My experience with these technicians is that technical skills are less important than following trial-and-error processes which anyone can learn. More important than knowledge of technology, which can be learned easily, is the ability to go to someone’s home or place of business and do the laborious work of diagnosing a problem. Fixing it is usually the easy part once it is diagnosed.

It is not difficult to figure out where there are skills shortages in any community. Auto mechanics are in short supply almost everywhere. Tailors and weavers are in short supply. Shoe repair people are in short supply. While auto mechanic activity requires several months of training and an 8th grade level of technical education, tailoring, weaving, and shoe repairing do not.

Back in the early 1960’s, my dad saw a need for TV repair people in Rochester, New York, tool a course, and started taking in work. For several years, we never had to fight about who would watch which program, because we had multiple TVs, only one of which was ours. My dad would repair a TV in one day, and keep it for one additional day, which gave us opportunity to watch the extra TV. Those kinds of opportunities exist today, probably in the computer and consumer electronics markets.

We should train people to think about a broader geographic market for their goods and services.

My younger son worked as an online seller of used items he secured from people’s basements and attics. During the depths of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, there was a huge market for one group of people to convert unused possessions into needed cash, and another group to buy used, but perfectly good items, at a significant discount to stretch their cash. He was finding global markets for these unused items, and matching buyers who could go beyond their local retailers to buy something they wanted.

One of my startling discoveries is that one of my son’s friends was buying discounted video games at local computer and game stores and finding markets around the United States that did not access to those games in their local retail stores. There are many parts of the United States with spotty retail capability, and many individuals who do not know where to shop online for goods they want to buy. My son’s friend identified a market, and both of them made good money working no more than one hour a day.

Final Observations

I deeply empathize with those people who have lost a good-paying job, especially after a long and distinguished career at a large organization. I also recognize that securing another position often requires individuals to find a job with medical and dental benefits, as opposed to one that simply pays a good salary or hourly wage. However, there are many strategies individuals can employ to keep themselves sharp, to develop new skills, to meet new people who can help them, and to market themselves without sitting at a computer and sending out resumes to hundreds of companies.

The most important lesson from my brief, but scary and instructive period of unemployment, is that individuals who succeed in getting reemployed are those who take charge of their life and their career, and internalize the perspective that they are marketing a valuable product, themselves.