Work It

Why LinkedIn needs to adapt to user needs

Wow. Here I am again, writing about my old friend LinkedIn.

I wrote about LinkedIn when I was a staff writer at CareerBuilder (when I wasn’t writing about CB’s own network, BrightFuse), and again when I was pounding the cold, unfriendly pavement in a long, post-layoff hell.

In 2014, after taking a few years to return to the halls of higher education, I’m a few months into a new job search. And while LinkedIn still has some amazing networking components and a healthy database of job listings, I don’t think it’s evolved to be all that it could be.

I’m talking about two main points here: industry, and location.

INDUSTRY: It’s been drilled into many of us that we must respond to the job skills market, that we should be agile and flexible in terms of our skill set, our experience and our interests. And many of us are starting second or even third careers, in clusters of competency that don’t always obviously relate to one another, or that may speak to different strengths we have.

This is certainly true for me. I’ve long had a dual career path. I have amazing organizational and administrative skills, and I’ve been really good at leading projects and processes in my corporate jobs. I seldom learn a job by repetition, preferring instead to be analytical and to understand how different parts of a system interact and relate to one another.

I also have years of experience in a distinctly different area, as a writer and journalist, working in both social media and print. I’ve written feature stories, annual reports and PR content. I’d say that’s pretty flexible.

linkedin_logoAnd yet, LinkedIn has a limited number of industry labels, of which you can only pick one. Have a “slash” career with multiple clusters of experience? Too bad.

LOCATION: The days of working the same job for 40 or 50 years is a thing of the past. For many of us, it also means that living in the same area for 40 or 50 years is also an outdated concept. Since 2000, the launch of my professional career, I’ve lived in three different cities.

I wasn’t being flighty or undependable – each job lasted for several years and I achieved a lot in each one of them. But I responded to opportunity, as well as changes in my personal life, when I moved to a new town.

In a tight job market, it would be a godsend to be able to indicate more than one potential location on your LinkedIn profile.

Yes, there are ways to work around this; joining a LinkedIn group in cities of interest is a obvious way to build visibility. But it seems like having multiple choices for city/region would help us job seekers be more visible to potential employers — or at least tell a clearer story about our long term intentions.

PLAN OF ACTION: I do understand LinkedIn’s perspective, and the perspective of the companies who are searching for candidates. The system should be straightforward and simple.

And clearly, opening these fields to a free-for-all would be an absolute nightmare.

For all the benefits of CareerBuilder and Monster, its ease of use invites a lot of candidates who, despite good intentions, are just not qualified for the jobs for which they are applying. It becomes very easy in the dark pit of a long, arduous job search to just apply for every damn thing you see. I’ve been there, wrote the book and saw the movie — it’s sorely tempting to start flinging your resume at as many walls as you can in the hopes that it will stick.

One idea would be that LinkedIn industry and location fields would still requires a single primary selection, but allows a secondary selection field where additional industries and/or additional cities could be entered — a searchable field, of course, that hiring managers and HR people could see in a search for candidates. (Obviously, one that would also be visible and easy to understand if the job seeker used LinkedIn to apply online.)

I would be completely OK with LinkedIn including these benefits as part of their Premium package. I think that would minimize the risk of the free-for-all scenario playing out, but would still allow people who really need to use those fields the capability to add them to their profiles.

Regardless of my own personal preferences as a user, it seems to me that LinkedIn needs to become more agile and flexible, and respond to the needs of its users. It’s the 21st century workforce marketplace, after all. Time to get on board!

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The great Madison debate

Don’t you have the feeling sometimes that all the fun stuff happens after you leave a party? I swear, my timing is off.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for five years. It was peaceful and tranquil – but once I leave? All hell broke loose!

First, the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent political controversy shakes Madison to its core and brings thousands of people to the Capitol grounds for months. I’m not sure it that was really “fun,” but it was certainly eventful.

More recently, there’s been a spirited debate happening about the pros and cons of life in Madison.

The catalyst was an article in a newly launched magazine (with a primary focus on Minneapolis and the surrounding region). Writer Frank Bures, a Madison expat, wrote an article for the magazine Thirty Two, about Professor Richard Florida’s ideas about the “creative class” and how that new cultural class is reshaping our economy and our cities.

Before I go any farther, let me be clear about a few things: Madison is an acquired taste, and I definitely acquired it in my time there. There is much I like about the city. The people can be ridiculously kind and polite to each other. Clerks in the grocery stores and shops were so warm and friendly I was half-convinced they were flirting with me. The outdoor spaces in the area are magnificent.

Professor Florida included Madison in his list of creative class strongholds. And that’s what much of Bures’ article is about – that while conceptually Madison should have had a vibrant economic and artistic culture, attracting new people and new energy, the reality of Madison was quite different.

A new flow of students and newly elected politicians may bring energy to the polar ends of State Street, but much of the rest of Madison is a very traditional town and a very insular one. Many of the people I worked with had grown up in and around Madison, attended high school and college there, met and married their spouses there, and were raising children there – and so had their parents and grandparents. Those are great things, but substantially different than what Bures expected – and what I’d expected, too.

How insular of a town? Hell, I’m a self-confessed introvert and I had connections to almost everyone mentioned in Bures’ article. Including Bures himself.

  • I was in a class Bures taught about how to market your freelance work. (It was part of the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education class offerings and ran for two weeks.)
  • One of the first people I ever interviewed as a freelance writer in Madison? Penelope Trunk. I talked to her by phone on an article about Madison. My editor killed her comments as she was, at that time, a contributing writer to a competitor’s site. She was a memorable interview.
  • I’d even – for a whole two seconds – met Jamie Peck, the former UW professor mentioned in the article. (A friend of mine was a professor as well and had a neighboring office in the science hall.)
  • Look to the left of this post – see the blogroll? You’ll see two names – Bures and Trunk – that have been part of this blogroll pretty much since I launched this back in 2009 (though I haven’t spoken with or corresponded with either in years).

One of the best things about Madison – the Farmer’s Market

Those are not unusual connections in Madison. It’s a tightly knit community and that’s true for all professions.

All the artists and writers know each other. Before a lot of outside money and outside influence came into Wisconsin politics, those folks also  had known each other for years.

I never felt unwelcome in Madison, but I was also never part of the inner circle, and never spoke the shorthand that everyone already knew. And that does make a difference. It made it very challenging to make friends. Bures’ descriptions of some of the people he met in Madison are very accurate.

Madison claims to appreciate diversity on paper, but in many cases it’s less a true appreciation of differences and more of a celebration (but not necessarily acceptance) of eccentricity. There are many colorful street people and musicians in Madison and people acknowledge them – but they’re not quite welcoming them into their homes, or breaking bread with, say, the Piccolo Man.

And for a town that celebrates diversity on paper, it’s unwelcoming to many African-Americans; I’ve seen the body language of people on State Street when an African-American is present and it speaks volumes. The segregation in Madison is just as vivid as it is in Chicago.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I lived there was that Madison was not a very fun place to be single. As a member of the LGBT community, it was even more challenging, but the reasons that Madison’s single scene was such an uphill battle are pretty universal – the dating pool is remarkably small and many good candidates in any age range are usually married and raising a family. Those strong family ties also meant that many people are caring for – and living with – their parents, which doesn’t always make for a positive in the dating world!

Bures makes a number of points in his essay (worth a read at the link above) but in essence, he says Florida’s theory about cause and effect of the creative class being the economic engine of any city (including Madison) just isn’t so.

I’m just starting to explore urban studies as a field, so I can’t speak to theory with any authority. And I found a great deal of thought provoking content when I read Professor Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class several years ago. I look forward to exploring these ideas much more in my studies this years. (NOTE: Florida responded to this article in an in-depth letter, which prompted a counter response by Bures.)

Yeah…I don’t quite get it, either.

There’s a whole other realm of discussion about Madison in the context of urban studies – and I could fill a whole separate blog post with that debate.

There’s much to discuss about Madison’s growing suburban sprawl, as well as the lack of sensible public transit options and the utter failure that happened when previous attempts were made to have a discussion about those options.

Transit planning isn’t happening when a major artery in and out of the city still has an active and busy rail crossing running on it, blocking traffic for up to a half an hour some mornings. (They’ve redone and rebuilt the road a number of times but apparently never thought to put a bridge or tunnel on the road or the tracks so that the east side didn’t come to a complete halt.)

And while the height limit for buildings close to the Capitol is appreciated to maintain a view of the Square, density is desperately needed, particularly as the east side of Madison starts to evolve.

But I will say that I believe Bures’ essay is spot on in many ways. One of his more stinging comments is that Madison is a “giant suburb with a university in the middle.” I’d say that Madison’s biggest strength is State Street, bordered by Capitol Square to the east and the university to the west.

Both the university and the state jobs bring in college-educated workers, many with PhD’s, and an economic engine that attracts new infusions of capital – monetary capital and human capital – all the time. The influx of students and their energy and enthusiasm in pursuing a degree and a profession add fuel to that formula. Much of the rest of Madison is, in many ways, a cluster of suburbs sprouting up around the isthmus.

The reaction to Bures’ essay has been mixed. I never saw it as an indictment of Madison as a place or of its people – more as a critique of Florida’s theory vs. the reality of the city – but nonetheless some Madisonians are taking it personally.

When I first read the response of Brennan Nardi, an editor at Madison Magazine, I felt that her narrative came across as patronizing, and her knee-jerk response was utterly predictable, topped off by the dismissive comment, “Unless you are extraordinary, you have to actively pursue the good life, not passively expect it to find you.” Thanks, Mom!

But Nardi makes some solid points in her rebuttal, and the main one is one that has been overlooked by just about everyone: Madison isn’t that flush economically. It’s still a mid-sized town in a state that, like every other state, is facing budget shortfalls. Madison is an affordable place, but many of the best neighborhoods to live in thrive on their offbeat charm and old housing stock. Fresh financial investment is more rare than people think in Madison.

Overestimating the wealth, the need and the growth potential of Madison is a pitfall that the city’s fallen into twice now, with the building of Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. They’re great buildings in great spaces, but questions exist about their sustainability and whether Madison will ever have enough need to fill the cavernous space of those halls – or enough business to sustain them for the long run.

And the local job market can, at times, be as tranquil and sedate as the city itself. Nardi notes (correctly) that many in cultural fields can max out on opportunities or salary. Jobs are just not that plentiful in Madison, for any industry. State jobs and university jobs are rare and it’s a super-competitive process to land one. And if a professor is hired at UW, their spouse has to find a job in Madison too, and so on.

Madison is an interesting, unique space, and I still cherish my time living there. But it’s not Nirvana. Then again, there are pros and cons about every city I’ve ever lived in. Textbook theory may be a useful tool, but in the end you have to dig deeper to find out what place works for you.

EDITED TO ADD: Bures wrote another related essay here. To me, this relates in many ways to much of what I’ve posted about recently, including the career and job searching posts I’ve written and the recent debate about the value of music and downloading, and how musicians make a sustainable living. There’s a definite change and evolution happening in how we look at where we live and how we make a living.

The geography of jobs

I’ve been a feature writer for almost a decade, and for a brief blink of an eye, I wrote for a Web site about jobs and careers.

I still find it an interesting field and one that connects in some way to everyone.

This fall, I’m taking classes in urban studies, and jobs are definitely a key element in understanding why people live in cities and suburbs.

When I was a staff writer for that Web site, I worked with a great manager/editor and really talented writers, and although the content was accessible (and easy to read), we put a lot of hard work into what we wrote.

But even with that research and all our great intentions, many of our articles carried an unintended but obvious bias: we were writing for white-collar readers who lived and worked in larger cities and larger job markets.

Yes, we wrote about blue collar jobs, jobs that didn’t require a degree and work for people who were beginners, part-time workers, older workers and interns. But our demographic was primarily young white-collar college grads, and we delivered.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years now, and I admit to some collective amnesia about some of the other places I’ve lived and other jobs I’ve had. But a recent trip reminded me of how different the job market – and the art of establishing and sustaining a career – really is in other areas.

Perhaps the most vivid example for me was a recent visit my partner and I made to a lakeside community. The town had a bustling boardwalk area – fun and frentic, with a mixture of shops and little ramshackle restaurants where people could eat dinner or have some candy or ice cream.

We walked by one of the more famous places on the stroll, and I sat outside as we waited for food. From my vantage point, I could see the staff working. And their segregation – and interactions – were in some ways very chilling to me, even on a hundred-degree day.

The workers, all college age or younger, were grouped together. The female employees were all up front, essentially there to wordlessly deliver food to the customers with a smile. They were not allowed to take orders.

The young men gathered around the grill and clearly had an ‘alpha male’ attitude. In the short time that I sat and waited, their body language – and the rude, unflattering things they said to the young women working – told me all I needed to know about the hierarchy there.

And then, off to the side, ignored by both groups, was the sole “diverse” face in the group, a young African-American girl.

I realize I’m making a judgement about a place I saw for maybe five minutes. But something about this haunted me. The place had been open for 60 years and something told me that very little had changed in that time.

It reminded me that in small towns, there aren’t always multiple career options. Sometimes you are dealing with outdated ideas about gender and race at a workplace. These are issues that no resume tweak and no interview tactic will fix.

During that same trip, I visited a few friends in northwestern Pennsylvania. One is an amazing writer who just recently finished a business degree. He was valedictorian of his class and went searching for a new “career” job – and promptly found offers that were no better than the part time work he’d sought before he was in school.

He eventually found a job with fair wages, but soon learned he was working for a boss who was homophobic. No matter how efficient my friend was at his job, the boss  created an unfriendly work environment for him. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave that job.

Another friend is a very talented interior designer, and has established a name for himself and for his eye for design. But the opportunities for him to practice his craft in his own backyard, so to speak, have significantly diminished in the last several years. The company he’d worked for closed up shop. There simply weren’t other options in the community he loved and where his parents and family were anchored.

When his job at home ended, he had to go where the action was, so to speak. As a result, he’s had to live “a tale of two cities” for years, living part of the week in his home in Pennsylvania and part of the week in the Ohio town he works in a couple of hours away.

I don’t think any of the career posts and article I wrote are any less true or real. I’m just beginning to believe that too often, white collar bias and urban career bias slipped into those articles and blog posts.

And this IS the part of the job creation puzzle that I think has been widely ignored by all political parties. We can talk about big scale projects in urban areas, or big energy and manufacturing plants that are booming in the Southeast and Southwest.

But what are the choices on Main Street? If you’re in a small or medium size city, is relocation the only resolution to a career crisis? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I know the disappearance of small local businesses (and the advent of big corporate ventures like Wal-mart settling in those areas) has changed the job landscape in small American towns forever.

Changing the channel, career edition

A week ago, I did something really, really crazy. 

I gave notice at my job.

And you know what? It was EXHILARATING. It’s also insane, and a little scary. OK, a LOT scary. But it was also exciting and empowering.

For anyone who knows me, or has read my blog for a while, you know that just a little over two years ago, I was in a tailspin because I’d just been laid off.

Then? Just landing a job was such a focus for me. I discovered that having someone take your job from you really shakes your professional identity (and your personal one too).

But getting to change the channel on your own and take a new pathway? Is a really amazing feeling.

The job I’m leaving is a fine job with a company that I’ll forever be grateful to for giving me an opportunity and for letting me get back on the horse, so to speak. I’ve met great people and learned a lot.

But I want to explore other things. And the focus of those things? Is education. This fall, I’ll be returning to school full-time.

It’s exciting, and scary. I still have to worry about the basics, my savings, health insurance. I can’t completely give up on making money, but will have to think of different ways to do it (hello, freelancing!)

And it’s been….well, let’s just say it’s been a while since I’ve been in college. (I think Clinton was in office when I was last in a true classroom!) It’s going to be a challenge and a whole new way of looking at things for me.

And I can’t wait.

Food carts in Chicago

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Chicago-specific post. I’ll spare you any discussion of the mayoral election or the performance of our sports teams, and talk about a controversy that’s been building for a while – street food carts in Chicago.

What’s the big deal? Well, a lot of people want food carts. Many entrepreneurs and restauranteurs would love to have a food cart.

But just as many people have concerns and objections. They worry about the safety of food prepared on carts, about the competition for space between dueling cart owners, about the mobile kitchens stealing business from existing brick and mortar restaurants.

Carts on Library Mall (near University of Wisconsin) in Madison

And those are all valid concerns, to be sure. Many true “food carts” in the city now are illegal and are cooking food on the premises, which isn’t permitted. That food isn’t regulated, and neither are the people running them. No one is checking whether food is being refrigerated or heated at the appropriate temperatures, which can result in serious health issues.

There are a limited number of regulated food carts in the city right now, but they are featuring food that was prepared in a regulated restaurant or shop and is being sold cold or at room temperature.

I’ve heard lots of pros and cons, but few people have mentioned my old hometown of Madison, Wisconsin when they talk about this issue. They should, because Madison has one of the best organized, best run, and plain yummiest selection of food carts. And somehow, no one has died and people have made money. Imagine!

What Madison does that works well:

Carts are assigned spots. The whole will-someone-poach-my-spot issue never comes into play. (Then again, this is a town that seems to always be in the midst of a dibs war, so who knows if other cart owners would respect someone’s spot?) They’re mainly in public areas near the state capitol and the university.

Carts are generally limited in the hours they sell food. Most of the carts were open during the day and during weekdays. And many of them were within 500 feet of existing restaurants. But they didn’t seem to poach each other’s business. In fact, the concentration of healthy, delicious food brings more people to that area. The only thing carts competed with in Madison – and affected – was fast food. Because who wants to go to stale ol’ Subway if a tasty taco cart or falafel wagon is nearby?

Hey, look: A cart for Illinois residents! (FIB = notorious acronym that Skonnies use to describe people from Illinois.)

There are 40 to 50 carts in the downtown Madison area, and they’re some of the most popular places to go.

But Madison is a quarter of a million people. Could it work in a city of three million plus?

Sure. There would need to be adjustments. Assigning spaces in public areas would be a start, but allowing some carts to be mobile and stop in several areas – as some of the current carts do (hello, cupcake wagon) should be allowed.

Madison is a town of mostly small business owners, and Chicago’s carts should be populated to talented local chefs and bakers making great food with sustainable materials. We shouldn’t have giant Lettuce Entertain You carts all over Chicago. (They can park that one at Navy Pier.)

There would have to be a real effort to regulate carts not just in the Loop but everywhere. And that would require a very multicultural approach to this project, since so many neighborhoods have their own cultural culinary strengths. Neighborhood organizations should be able to decide where carts can sell, so it doesn’t impact their homes, neighborhoods or businesses.

I think the weakest part of this idea is not the carts themselves, but the ability of the city government to inspect and regulate them. They barely sustain the restaurant inspections they’re required to do now, and they’ve shown a lack of respect in the past for new food communities and entrepreneurs (they’ve tossed out months of work in raw food establishments).

I really hope Chicago can pull it together, though. Food carts are a great experience, a great combination of old and new ideas.

The biggest mistake you’re making at work right now

It’s been a few years since I consistently wrote about jobs and careers, but occasionally, people will still ask me for advice.

They’re almost always asking me about a problem at work, and it’s always a variation on one of these issues: They hate their job, their boss, or a coworker.

I’m always happy to listen and to share anything that I’ve learned, so I’ll ask them to tell me what happened. They’re always a breaking point – boundaries broken, too heavy of a workload, total breakdown of sanity in their environment.

In almost every situation, I’ve asked, “Why haven’t you said anything about this? Why aren’t you confronting the people who are making you feel this way, or letting your boss know how this makes you feel?”

(more…)

Snapshot of America: Ted Williams

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about Ted Williams. His story has been in an intense spotlight for the last week all over the Internet and in traditional media.

Ted’s story, if you don’t know, goes like this: Ted is out of work and homeless, panhandling in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch tells his story and posts a video of him on YouTube revealing an astonishing talent: Ted has the perfect, golden “announcer” voice.

Within hours, Ted’s got a ton of job offers (and a haircut), and is on all the major morning talk shows.

It’s a pretty captivating story. But beyond that, I’ve been thinking about how perfectly this story is a “snapshot” of who we are and how we report on people in the media these days.

Here’s why I think this story is really resonating with people.:

Everyone loves a second chance. We have a lot of people in this country right now who have lost a great deal – a job, their home, all of their retirement savings. A lot of those folks dream about having a second chance – pressing the “reset” button and getting a big, fat do-over.

Ted just did, and that’s an intoxicating idea. After months and years of the news being filled with stories of terrorism, politicians battering each other and unemployment, this is a welcome antidote. Triumph over adversity is always a trending topic. (See: Captain Sullenberger, Susan Boyle, et al.)

People have to jump through hoops to get a job. It’s a tough market out there, folks. And the old toss-the-resume-in-the-pile process died a violent death a few years ago. People have to jump through hoops of fire AND do cartwheels to get noticed.

When I was laid off a few years ago by That Website I Was a Writer For (yes, the one who Laid Me Off Right Before Christmas), I knew I was going to have to step out of my comfort zone and ring the bell for attention. I was writing for a career Web site, folks. I’d just had an intense education about what works and what didn’t in job searching, and simply clicking the “submit” button on a resume wasn’t going to get me far.

As a writer, I used the tools I had: I became a source for other media outlets doing stories about layoffs. I talked to ABC News about feeling disconnected from my former coworkers. (Dudes, it totally wasn’t you, but….they were asking me for a comment! My story! In print!) I also talked to CNN Money about losing my unemployment benefits.

This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that it’s going to take to get noticed in this market. The Dispatch helped Ted do the same, and lo and behold, it worked for him.

We love to tear people down. It’s been only a few days since Ted’s inspirational story, but the most predictable thing about any inspirational story is the backlash.

People have already started to tear down Williams, primarily picking him apart over his past drug and alcohol battles that led to his homelessness. Most negative comments all fall along one of two parallel lines: (a) Who the hell is this guy that he deserves all this when so many others are in pain, and (b) Why doesn’t anything fantastic like this ever happen to me?

The media’s packaging of a human interest story into a commodity is hardly a new idea or even a new complaint – it was 25 years ago that the Don Henley song Dirty Laundry featured the refrain, “Kick ’em when they’re up / Kick ’em when they’re down.” It’s just a bit stunning to see how accelerated the building up (and tearing down) process has become.

FOOTNOTE: From a media/social media standpoint, I’m wondering when Christian churches will embrace this story and use it in sermons and narratives. Redemption and second chances…hmm, where have I heard those themes before?

Men at work

It’s not easy for anyone to find a job these days. But the recession and the shrinking job market has been especially challenging for men.

An April 2009 article in the Financial Times laid out the brutal truth. At that time, more than 5 million jobs had been lost. Men represented a whopping 80% of that number.

Part of the reasoning is that men were the bulk of the industries hardest hit, like construction and manufacturing. There’s also the (unfortunately still true) fact that women make less than men in the workplace. It stands to reason that if you’re trying to cut costs, the most expensive employee (the man) goes first.

But I also think there’s a bigger shift in the workplace that hit a lot of men, particularly men who were over 40. It’s a more subtle shift – a shift in perceptions, if you will.

Men have had to cope with the days of the “salaryman” disappearing. It used to be when a guy found his career, he’d be as loyal to the company as he was to his wife and kids,  staying there for twenty or thirty years, if not more. My father spent over 30 years working for the same company.

It still happens these days, but in far fewer numbers. The perception has changed: what used to be seen as a mark of stability is now viewed in some corners as a mark of inflexibility and an unwillingness to change.

I just read a comment on another blog where someone said that men can wear the same clothes and shoes every day and no one would notice. That may have been true decades ago, but again, perceptions have shifted. A guy who’s worn the same shirt every Tuesday for the last 5 years might have have been thought of before as a consistent team player. Now? He’s seen as a person who’s stuck in a rut, a guy who’s totally out of it.

It sucks that the recession hit so many men, and that these paradigm changes have made it harder for them to find new jobs. These guys have been hard workers who have sunk a lot of time and effort into their work and their careers. At a time where companies should be showing their appreciation, these guys are getting the boot instead. It sucks.

Of course, we all want to be viewed for our skills and our capabilities. And it seems shallow and stupid to be judged on something as superficial as appearance, or have something as commendable as consistency held against us.

But today’s workplace is in a constant, violent change of flux. Traditional business are shrinking and slaughtering sacred cows to stay alive. New businesses operate without a flight plan to try and forge new territory (and earn new dollars).

They need nimble, flexible warriors who have stayed in the game to do whatever it takes to win. A guy who hasn’t been inside of a classroom since Reagan’s second term, a guy who wears his Tuesday socks and brings his Tuesday lunch to work every Tuesday? Not the first guy to make you think “flexible.”

This is not a new idea (the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” touches on this in a much larger context). But it’s one that’s disproportionately affected a lot of guys in the last year. Guys who have a lot to offer. Breadwinners, family men, guys who are used to being in charge, carrying the load on their backs.

Guys who are greying a little around the edges.

Guys like me. I learned all of this firsthand when I was laid off. I was one of the millions who landed in that 80%.

What can a guy do? Well, he has to play the game. He has to emphasize flexibility in his past career, and maybe take some new classes or seminars to show he’s still exercising his mind.

Nobody expects a guy to look like he’s got a personal stylist, but it might be time to throw out some of those washed out old white work shirts and get a new pair of pants or two. If he’s the kind of guy who’s bought the same thing (or had his wife buy it for him) since he was 16, it’s time to ask for help and advice. He’s gotta spend a few bucks on grooming and tailoring.

Learning never ends, and change never stops. These are good things to keep in mind in general, but they’re also essential ideas to understand how the workplace is today.  If you’re in a job, those ideas might keep you there. If you’re looking for a job, they’re tools that may help you get there.

A workplace wake-up call

I’m an avid reader of Laurie Ruettimann’s blog Punk Rock HR. She talks about the workplace from both sides of the fence (the HR/management world and the employee’s cubisphere) and does so in a really refreshing, BS-free way.  (She also has great taste in music and blogs about cats and bacon, but I digress.)

A few months ago, when the West Virginia mining disaster happened, she talked about it in her blog, and I made a comment or two on that post. I mentioned that I’d had at least one relative who worked in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. I knew several more had worked in the steel mills – not just generations ago, but in my father’s generation and also in mine.

In the time since Laurie made that post, I’ve immersed myself in researching my family tree. And wow, did I ever underestimate the head count on family members of mine working in the mines and mills.

Of course, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mining and mill work was a huge sector of our economy, so it completely makes sense that so many of my ancestors would have been in this line of work.

I found this information in my research, though, and it blows my mind. It also has forever changed my perspective on what constitutes a “bad day at work” or a “bad job.”  It’s an obituary for an ancestor of mine and was published in the Daily Courier, a newspaper in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1913.

Lewis Daniel Cobaugh, youngest son of the late Charles P. Cobaugh, the veteran Baltimore & Ohio engineer, and Rebella Parks Cobaugh, was almost instantly killed about noon yesterday at the Western Maryland railroad coaling station at Rockwood. The cable on the hoist used in lifting the coal to the chutes parted, and a bucket containing a ton or more of coal descended, and pinned the unfortunate man between the timbers and the bucket, crushing him in a horrible manner. The remains were taken to a local undertaking establishment and prepared for burial, and later were taken to the home of his mother.

The deceased is survived by his aged mother, who for the past year or more has been rendered almost helpless by reason of a stroke of apoplexy. His widow, who was Miss Ella Williams, and two children, Grace and Annabel, age six and three years respectively, survive. He is also survived by one brother and three sisters.

About 22 years ago the father of the deceased, the old engineer, “Dad” Cobaugh, as he was so familiarly known, was blown up in a locomotive explosion, and the injuries received resulted in his death. Prior to death of the father, the oldest son, William, while making a coupling in the Rockwood yards, had his head crushed by projecting rails on two loaded hot cars, dying in a few weeks after that accident. Next, Charles, a younger son, while working in the B. & O. shops at Connellsville, was stricken with malignant typhoid fever, expiring in a few weeks. A few years ago, another son, a flagman on the B & O, was pinioned by a sideswipe wreck in his caboose, directly alongside of a demolished engine, and was scalded to death.

I’m not sure what to be sad or shocked about more. The way Lewis died? The fact that he left two little girls behind? Or the fact that nearly everyone in his immediate family tried to do honorable work and paid for it with their lives?

I’d been planning a post here to talk about my ambivalence towards labor unions – at least, some of the unions in existence today. I’ve had bad experiences with some of them in my own career, and in Chicago, unions get in the way of employees and their well-being more often than they help.

But we’re living during a time when we turn on the TV and see the horrifying BP mess every night. And that drives home a message that corporations don’t, as a default setting, put people first. I’m reminded why unions came to be in the first place, and why safety and security have to be part of any workplace.

And the next time I’m having a bad Monday morning, with an inbox full of mail and a dull nagging headache, I’m going to think of these guys, and be damn glad I’ve got a job – and a safe one.

6 ways to screw up your job search

"Savage Chickens" by Doug Savage

We’re over a year into a nasty recession that generated millions of layoffs (including mine) and created a whole new wave of people seeking jobs.

It’s the story du jour on many media channels and platforms to cover the unemployment issue and talk to people that the recession affected (as one major outlet did with me last summer).

But many of the job seekers that are interviewed are missing a lot of opportunities, and making a lot of mistakes. It’s frustrating, because I know what it takes to fight through the job search clutter and I see people making the same mistakes over and over again.

If you’re looking, here are six common ways you could be failing at job search (even if you don’t know it):

(1) Attitude. Believe me, I’ve been there. It sucks to lose your job. It’s an incredibly hard market. But you HAVE to go into it with confidence and a sense of calm.

I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve seen completely FAIL at having the right attitude. These people have every chance to get on TV, or radio, or a Web film, and talk about their job search. And what do they do? They don’t use that golden opportunity to talk about their resume, or their skills, or even how challenging the market is right now.

90% of the people I’ve seen have complained. They say, “Damn, searching for a job is, like, a full-time job!” And that makes any hiring manager who might have been watching that interview – and who may have been interested in hiring you- change the channel.

Have confidence and be excited about the search. And treat it as your full time job. Structure your day – resume submission in the morning, follow-up calls and networking in the afternoon. After all, you have a lot of free time!

(2) Diversity in your search. I’ve also seen a number of interviews with someone who can’t find a job. They’re so frustrated and exasperated, which I completely get.

And when asked what they’ve been doing, they say: “Well, I put my resume on (pick one) CareerBuilder/Monster.” End of story.

Now, it’s probably the worst-kept secret that I worked for one of those companies – and that company was also the one that laid me off. But this is NOT a case of sour grapes.

Do big job boards like CareerBuilder and Monster have value? Absolutely. I’ve found the last two jobs I’ve had on those boards.

But it would be foolish to depend completely on those boards as the only outlet to search. (And incredibly foolish to think that simply posting your resume on one of these sites will make companies come knocking at your door.)  It would be like shopping at Target…..and only buying from the impulse items in the checkout lines.

Use as many sources as you can. Start with search engines like SimplyHired or Indeed (search aggregators who pull from many job boards). LinkedIn is a great source for postings. Local boards are great. If your industry has a Website where you can follow trends and news, chances are there is a job posting area or job board there. Alumni sites are great. Use ALL the resources at your fingertips.

(3) Wasting the recruiter’s time. I know it’s scary to be unemployed, and you want to be as flexible as you can. It’s great that you’re not being a diva and waiting for THE perfect job. But many people are applying for jobs that they simply aren’t even close to being qualified for.

Quite frankly, that never gets you an interview. It means that the HR person or the recruiter is going to curse your name as they hit the “Delete” button.

If you really, really believe you have the mad skillz that the company needs, be eloquent (concise, but eloquent) about what you’re bringing to the table, how it differs from what they’ve asked for, and why your skill set is one they should consider. If you can’t make a compelling argument, chances are you shouldn’t be applying for that job.

(4) Bad interviewing skills and lack of preparedness. U.S. News and World Report just had a great list of 50 common mistakes people make during interviews. Take a look and see if you recognize any of these.

The one piece of sage advice someone gave me years ago, and that I always keep in mind, is this: Don’t worry about being 100% correct or sounding like an expert at the interview.

The interviewer understands you’re at the beginning with that company. The important thing is to think through answers. If they ask a complex question, you may even want to think aloud a bit. This is their objective: to see and understand how you think and how you respond.

(5) Networking (or lack thereof). Networking can be a challenge – it’s my biggest vulnerability and most people approach it with all of the joy they usually feel for a visit to the dentist.

But an effective job seeker HAS to network. Social media networking on LinkedIn (and even Facebook) is important, and a great way to make the most of LinkedIn. But job seekers can’t rely on online networking alone.

Yep, you’ve gotta bathe, turn off the Xbox or Wii, and interact with people. Have your business cards ready and your elevator speech. Be fun, be relaxed, be yourself. The more that people know who you are and what you can do, the more likely they’ll be to keep you in mind for a job.

(6) Casting too narrow of a net. Of course, if you’ve got an MBA and a decade of experience under your belt, you don’t want to toss that aside to be head cashier at Trader Joe’s. (Note: Trader Joe’s is a great store, and working these seems like fun!)

But too many people have very rigid ideas about their career paths. You can’t always be that picky, especially in this economy.

The best approach to casting a wider net is to brainstorm about what other areas might relate to what you’ve already done. Experience in, say, an accounting job could segue into any number of financial or compliance roles at a bank, insurance company or into a role at any number of corporations.

A laid-off librarian might find a suitable role organizing documents or publications for a company, or using those skills to catalog and organize…well, just about anything. Non-profits and government agencies need those kind of organized, focused people who can dot their i’s and cross their t’s.