Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I learned on my summer vacation

Now that the rain is dropping daily in Portland, I'll admit that the summer is over, and my hiatus from posting is over.

The last few months were eventful, and there was one work particular work-related incident that I think will leave a permanent change in my world view.

In September, I accompanied a customer on her first day of classes this semester at Portland Community College. I previously mentioned this customer in a post about delayed gratification. She is a smoker, and she was very surprised to learn that PCC is now a tobacco-free campus. That means all of campus, including outdoor walkways and lawns, and the parking lot.

Normally, I would think that tobacco-free is a good idea. It's great for non-smokers (I love tobacco-free restaurants and hotels), and a good push for smokers to quit.

But based on my customer relationship, I hate PCC's policy. My customer already has to manage anxiety, attention deficit disorder, PTSD symptoms, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and recovery from drug use. I was on-campus with her to help put her at ease. Unfortunately, cigarettes are the usual tactic she has for overcoming nervousness.

Maybe nicotine gum will ease her cravings between class. Maybe she will kick the habit. That will help her long term, but what about this semester?

When I think about this shift in my view on the tobacco ban, I think about general employment specialist views on criminal history. Of course, we don't like that someone broke the law, but we still see someone with value and the ability to work, and it's easy to fall into an us against them trap with employers. Likewise, I'm not happy that my customer smokes, but I'm disappointed by the potential effects of the smoking ban on her grades.

Here's a Radio Lab segment discussing the study that inspired my previous post on delayed gratification.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why do you do what you do?

Here's another TED video. In this one, Dan Pink discusses intrinsic motivation and its value in future workplaces.

Dan argues that intrinsic motivation is made up of "autonomy, mastery, and purpose." He also says that this form of motivation will be necessary as work moves from simple and repetitive tasks to complex and creative thinking tasks (knowledge/information economies). According to behavioral psychology research he references, traditional incentives such as bonuses are not effective for jobs of the near future.

Last month, I saw a job posting for an employment specialist that advertised $50.00 bonuses per placement as part of the compensation. According to Dan's talk, it should be better to build the bonuses into the salary and offer a higher base pay. Job placements require so many different factors to come together that it's hard to feel a direct connection between placing a job seeker and receiving an extra $50.00 weeks after the job begins. Also, placing someone already feels rewarding; the emotional experience can outshine the monetary reward.

See this post for another view on intrinsic motivation. It identifies autonomy, competence, and relatedness as factors for intrinsic motivation...2 out of 3 factors in agreement (autonomy, competence/mastery).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Last week, I attended a training by Jon Larsen on Motivational Interviewing (MI) within Supported Employment programs.

Jon argued the case for MI (assessing interest and readiness for employment, identifying strengths and barriers) and provided practice on techniques and tools for putting it all into practice.

Some points:

Actively listen: Jon asked us to role play a dialogue where the Employment Specialist was only allowed 2o words. The challenge was to keep the conversation going as long as possible up to the 20 word limit.

Be patient as a problem-solver: This refers back to the listening point. Use MI to gather information, to guide a customer in thinking through a decision, or explore setbacks.

Ask permission: If you must absolutely interrupt and offer an opinion or suggestion during MI, ask permission first. Leadership Through People Skills offers a similar tactic for managers: gauge for reciptivity before beginning a discussion.

The training had good information and Jon was an excellent presenter. He had frontline knowledge from his own work and mixed in entertaining stories. My only recommendation is that Jon include more practice in the session.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bored people are boring

What do your employment workshops look and sound like?

Here is a page with some example presentations for inspirational purposes: You are in the presentation business. I think the first one is the best use of design, and the voice is dramatic. Larry Lessig's delivery in #2 has good timing, but I don't find it interesting.

Here is my favorite TED video: Hans Rosling and "the best stats you've ever seen."

More slide shows: Slideshare.

I borrowed some style from "What teachers make" for a presentation on dressing during a job search (door to door visits). I took out the pictures for privacy reasons. You'll need to use your imagination.

Slides included photos of onestop employment specialists demonstrating the right and wrong ways to dress. Including staff made a huge impression on the audience, who commented that it was much better than generic pictures of models or strangers. For further involvement, ask job seekers to participate as models. As we went through the slideshow, we asked participants to critique the outfits.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Hamburger Today...or Two on Tuesday?

I'm catching up on the July posts that I promised! If you're having trouble waiting, there is bad news in store. Self-control and delayed gratification may be connected to success in life, according to a long-term study described in this New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer.

In May, I accompanied a job seeker on a job hunting trip. We picked some employers in a nearby neighborhood and hit the sidewalk with resumes in hand. She was dressed nicely, business casual with a spring flair, and she had taken the time to fix her hair and makeup. It was a noticeable effort that I complimented. Then, she said, "And I can't smoke, right?"

That's right!

The next hour and a half was a battle over an extreme example of self-control: resisting nicotine addiction. She made it to 7 businesses before I let her have her cigarette reward. At that point, she looked through her purse and found that she had lost her last one.

Along the way on our trip, she found a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. That made the lost cigarette a minor disappointment.

While cigarette cravings are not the type of impulse referenced in the New Yorker article, the situation helped me link the study with employment services. What kind of impact, I wondered, could an inability to delay gratification have on a job seeker?

Some ideas:

1. Unrealistic expectation of a short job search; frustration grows as time goes on.

2. A lack of long-term planning; no investment in training, education, or working oneself up from entry-level.

3. Disassociation between the effort necessary to apply and the reward of being hired; there may be too large a gap between the action (targeted resume and cover letter, fully completed application, follow-up calls or visits, interviewing) and the result (job offer).

This is where an employment plan with short-term goals -make a big deal about checking them off- can pay off.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dying newspapers and growing application piles

Recent discussions with Portland, OR employers have revealed the following.

*A job listing in the daily Oregonian newspaper received only a few responses (walk-in applications only).

*The same job listing on craigslist a week later resulted in a steady stream of applicants, but only on the first day. Responses dropped off to only a handful on day 2. The employer was reluctant to post on craigslist due to previous issues with the quality of applicants ("interesting people").

*One discount department store is receiving up to 50 applications a day. Over the summer, hiring will slow down due to participation in the youth (WIA) summer jobs program.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Employment specialist, unplugged

The New Yorker is emerging as my main source for ideas that can be adapted to workforce development. It's fitting since I love Malcolm Gladwell.

This article by John Colapinto (also good), "Brain Games, The Marco Polo of neuroscience," is a fun look into contemporary research on autism, atemnophilia (a compulsion to amputate healthy limbs), and other conditions. The research is described as evidence of the brilliance of Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. He is certainly smart. The details of how he works are the most interesting part:

"Ramachandran listened closely as Jamieson talked about his condition. In a specialty that today relies chiefly on the power of multimillion-dollar imaging machines to peer deep inside the brain, Ramachandran is known for his low-tech method, which often involves little more than interviews with patients and a few hands-on tests -an approach that he traces to his medical education in India, in the nineteen-seventies, when expensive diagnostic machines were scarce. 'The lack of technology actually forces you to be ingenious," he told me. 'You have to rely on your clinical acumen. You have to use your Sherlock Holmes-like deductive abilities to figure things out."

Job seekers need computers: resumes and cover letters, craigslist, indeed, employer websites, email contact, linkedin, etc.

Employment specialists need computers: tracking databases, matching job seekers to openings, skills assessments, reading blogs, etc.

But can we get by without them?

Now that I'm working in Supported Employment, I'm encouraged/required to get out of the office and work with customers in other settings: meet with employers, going out to submit applications together, onsite job coaching. It's still hard to get away from the computer, and I realize there are things that I do in my cubicle that don't have to be done there.

Employment plans, reviewing job leads, resume reviews, mock interviews, counseling... Really, if a jobseeker is computer literate (word processing and internet), all employment specialist-job seeker interaction can take place without a computer nearby. The exception would be assisting individuals who cannot edit their own resumes or submit online applications (even then there are other options for applying). The only currently essential task that requires computers is data entry for internal program reasons, not for direct services.

By interacting with the jobseeker free of the computer distractions, one of Ramachandran's techniques pops up: you can listen more closely.

Getting away from the computer also prevents one of my professional fears: that my role as an employment specialist becomes simply a middle-man for craigslist posts and support services.

Something else came to mind as I reread the piece for this post. Ramachandran frequently uses mirrors to manipulate how a subject perceives him or herself. I wonder how having mirrors present would affect discussions about the proper way to dress for job searching and interviewing. Mirrors may also have an impact in building self-awareness and hopefully self-esteem.