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Tag Archives: Workplace

Pulling Back The Curtain

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In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education

 

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Talking About A Revolution

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Flextime, telecommuting and consulting are no longer the new kids on the block. Twenty years or so ago they were exhibits a, b and c in the revolution of the workplace. Flexible time was to address the fact that few people live in social isolation. Telecommuting took advantage of technology and reduced overhead costs. Consulting was (in theory) to offer flexibility to workers and (in actuality) to save companies lots and lots of money. It was assumed, that work is work whether a boss (or colleagues) can see it being done or not. Ah how adorably naive we were.

Coincidence or not what is considered ‘productivity’ in the workplace has changed during the same period that these words became de rigueur. It’s difficult, and perhaps irrelevant to determine which came first, but my money is on the vernacular as the forerunner. Somewhere post Working Girl, Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street office life changed. There was a time (think really big hair) that getting the work done; in relative isolation was the norm. Most industries did not dictate group work, teams, or even presentations. There was little time spent selling oneself internally or making sure one looked as if one was working. The latter really took flight with advances in technology. How grand it is to set one’s alarm or code one’s email to appear to be working at 3:00 AM on a Sunday (during a 3-day weekend!) It would be wonderful if this “look at me, I’m working” approach was not a direct response to flextime, telecommuting and consulting. After all the very raison d’être of exhibits a, b and c is to not be engaging in work as performance art but instead to be producing perhaps invisiblly to the naked eye.

The workplace can be a very paranoid place indeed. There’s something about a shared microwave that breeds immaturity and pettiness as well. (Seriously people don’t ordinarily go around stealing each other’s food and leaving fuzzy congealed cartons in the refrigerator. But in the workplace we’re all 15 again.) It is (almost) natural to pit oneself against others and when others aren’t visible things get complicated and messy. Of course it doesn’t have to be this way.

Good leadership can create an environment of collaboration and support. A leader who understands how flexible work schedules and home offices can be beneficial will make it work. An organization that rewards productivity, stewardship and penalizes wastes of time, money and people will create more harmony among workers. But to do any of these things demands very skilled leaders. Perhaps there are people born with an innate sense of organizational behavior and social psychology, but I’ve yet to meet them. Being the best widget designer, or bond trader or scientist does not prepare one for being a great supervisor. It might seem a minor point, the cultivation of good bosses, but an awful lot hinges upon it.

As the ‘look at me I’m working’ approach becomes more popular, productivity is not necessarily increasing. Technology and real life lend themselves to working remotely, yet workers are often penalized (overtly or subtly) for availing themselves of the options. Neither of these workplace revolutions supports our economy or employment. Having people work more, do less and burn out quicker is not sustainable. Marginalizing talent who avail themselves of company policies is shortsighted. Much is said about preparing young people for the workplace. Enough cannot be said about preparing workers for leadership positions.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Education By Degrees

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Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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It’s Work After All

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So a book publicist and an agent walk into a bar (okay not a bar, a reception area of a media conglomerate) and discover they represent the same issue du jour. “Bring it on,” says one in a clumsy attempt to appear secure (if not woefully out of date with her slang.) “This will be fun” says the other in what can only be called utter insincerity. They were clearly uncomfortable with confrontation and/or competition and poetically the issue du jour with which they’d been charged was women in the workplace.

The issue of work/life balance is not new, it’s been bandied about since women were told they could “have it all” (cue Veruka Salt) which would’ve been somewhere around the mid-to-late 1990s. There has been a push by women (that has buy-in from some men) to tailor the workplace to the personal needs of employees. There have been talking heads and studies supporting the edict that ‘happy employees are productive employees.” For the record you can always find a study to support your own position (e.g., divorce? happy parents make happy children. drinking while pregnant? a glass of wine makes the woman happy & calms her uterus. childfree? people without children are happier…) The fact that workplace balance is almost always a veiled reference to ‘women in the workplace’ is not a coincidence. Not since the industrial revolution has the workplace changed as dramatically as it has with the inclusion of women in real numbers and positions. But to somehow suggest that these employees work differently or need allowances to be productive is offensive.

Women (particularly post 1970s) do not need to be told how to conduct themselves in the workplace or boardroom. We’ve been doing it for decades thank you. The fact that some women are doing it in software (or other male-dominated fields) doesn’t make it uncharted territory. There was a time when everything (save teaching and nursing) was a male dominated field. So please don’t tell me to lean in and/or work harder. It’s called ‘work’ after all isn’t it? It’s really not all that complicated to get to the top (which isn’t to say it’s easy to do.) Please don’t suggest that those women who’ve made it to the corporate top can sprinkle their success fairy dust on the cubicles below. I don’t need special dust or treatment; I just need for you to be a good boss/leader. And while we’re at it, please keep my personal life out of the workplace. What I choose to do outside of work is just that; outside of work. I will choose a job and/or career that suit my personal needs. These needs will change over my lifetime, as will my work choices. I do not need or want the world of work to alter its nature to honor my personal life. It’s called work after all.

What I would like is affordable childcare (not for women or for men but for children.) I’d like reasonable family and medical leave time (for maternity, parenting or other personal needs.) I’d like flexible working arrangements when they either do not impede the work or in fact advance the work. I would like equitable medical and dental benefits and have people pay for the amount of coverage they need. I would like a workplace free of harassment and hazard. I would like fair compensation for the work done not the position held. And if I may borrow some fairy dust for a moment; I would like hiring and promotion tactics to occur on merit alone.

A little advice to that anxious publicist and agent; relax there’s enough 15 minutes of fame to go around.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Take Back The Workday

 

In one week I was asked three times if I was available for a meeting after 5:30 PM. These meetings were not involving that business we call show, or in the hospitality or health care arena. There is nothing 24-hour or evening hours about this particular business. If anything this organization follows a somewhat academic rhythm with employees starting between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning. There was no crisis, no deadline, no urgency. These were run-of-the-mill everyday “we meet because we meet” meetings.

If it was one request, it might go without notice; but three times in one week is worthy of note. You would have to be living under a rock to not know that everyone is “stressed” and “has no time.” Articles and on-air segments tell us that people are having it all and doing everything and scheduling physical relations. We are led to believe that business is busy and people are doing far too much. But is it true? Is it really true?

How many times in the past week have you seen any of the following?

  • Police officers texting on duty
  • Cashiers texting on duty
  • Anyone texting on duty
  • Non-work related tweeting, Facebooking, surfing, commenting (now let’s be honest, unless the whole damn world is unemployed, working people have got to be contributing to the daytime noise)

Now think back to how many meaningless emails you’ve received and meetings you’ve attended in the past week. Could it be when the workplace was more formal (and not just in the “no flip-flops” way) time was more formal and structured as well? When communication has to go from your head, out your mouth into a secretary’s ear, through his/her fingers, into a mimeograph machine, prepared for the mailroom, delivered, opened and read; you might think twice about how and when you express yourself.

In addition to the immediacy of an outlet for our brain dump is the fact that boundaries aren’t what they once were. (Need we discuss how many times you’ve been subjected to a full blown account of someone’s medical test or birth control choices while riding a bus or elevator?) People ask you to meet at 5:30 on a Friday because there’s a chance you might say yes. They will email you on Sunday night because there’s a chance you might respond. Certainly there are professions and industries that demand being “on” all the time. But the rest of us needn’t be so available or feel so anxious. Let’s be frank, we answer (or g-d forbid send) that Sunday night email because a) we can b) we want it off of our minds and c) because we want to appear to be working.

The appearance of working is not technically the same as working. Getting coffee, having lunch, touching base, celebrating milestones with mini-cupcakes? Not really working. Meetings at which people show up late, no one is in charge, and everyone is texting? Not really working. A little austerity could go a long way in giving us back some hours. Starting today when an off-hour request occurs ask yourself:

  • Is anything on fire
  • Is anyone bleeding
  • Is a project in danger of becoming completely, utterly, irreparably derailed

If the most dramatic response you can muster (to these questions) is a “well”, say no. There are those who work for unreasonable people and feel they simply have no choice (if they want to eat.) That’s a dreadful and hopefully temporary situation. But for everyone else it’s just a matter of changing the cultural climate. Yes, the most direct way to do that is top down, but that would take a rather evolved leader, no? We can all slowly and incrementally change the way we respond to requests of our time. It demands we stay present and not reactionary. It means keeping our eye on the prize (or our work/project goals.) There’s no doubt if we can stay focused during our work day we’ll actually accomplish more, and after-hours can resume its rightful title; “happy hour.”

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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