Thursday, September 5, 2013

Employment? Unemployment?

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about unemployment and unemployment rates over the last few days. I have tried to isolate the combination of factors that minimize the probability of unemployment in a particular life. It seems that comes down to a mix of work ethic, IQ, a respect for and love of education, a life sustaining social network, and the ability to take a calculated risk. None of these factors (with the possible exception of the Confucian/Protestant work ethic) are enough to provide a high probability of employment, but in combination these factors almost guarantee full employment over most of the years of a working lifetime.

I am privileged to know a young man who is always hustling work, no matter what the current economic condition. If he can not find work he invents it. As far as I know he has walked dogs, been a house sitter, worked, installed, and maintained sound boards for various organizations and events, installed car stereos, and even driven my wife’s car to our new home in SC. To be fair, he is extremely intelligent. He not only attends college but he is also seeking accreditation in various networking and computer specialties. He certainly is willing to take a variety of risks. I expect he will be rich. I expect he will own his own business.

Still, anyone in Montgomery County who is willing to take a lawn mower door to door through wealthy neighborhoods, offer a car detailing service, or a housekeeping service will not be unemployed. There are just too many rich people with more money than time. I don’t know enough about Greenville, SC to make the same statement, but I’ll bet it is true in this city as well.

I feel uncomfortable bringing IQ into the equation. I was raised to believe that any American who wanted something bad enough could achieve any goal. That is simply not true. When I hit engineering school after 9 years in American factories, I realized that most of my coworkers could no more survive a curriculum in the technologies than my wife could play defensive end in the NFL. Not everyone is 6’6’’ weighs 270 pounds and can run a 4.6 forty. I have seen studies that indicate there is a close correlation between IQ and annual salary up to about 120. Beyond that level of intelligence there is no correlation. I haven’t seen similar studies that relate IQ to unemployment rates, but I bet the results would be similar.

Who you know is more important than what you know is an unfortunate truth than runs contrary to our American egalitarian belief system. It is a simple fact that members of the Rockefeller and Kennedy clans do not need to worry about finding a job. All of us have friends and family members. Do these people lift you up? Do they encourage you? Do they challenge you to improve yourself? Can they hook you up with a job when you lose yours? Jim Rohn is famous for saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” but there is another dimension to this strength, emotional intelligence. I know a woman who is able to create a valuable social network wherever she chooses to live. She has the knack of making people like her and want to help her. She also has the knack of finding some pretty valuable contacts that have helped her career.

Education is no longer a guarantee of a good job, but the love of and respect for education and educators seems to be a common thread in the lives of people who are generally employed. I won’t waste your time with stories about overeducated failures I have met. I am sure you have seen plenty of these unfortunate stories in your life. However, communities that traditionally placed a high value on education (Jewish and Asian come to mind) have lower unemployment rates than the general population.

Although I left the workforce for a few years to get an engineering degree, my work life has been limited because I never really learned how to take a calculated risk. There is a very famous story about the owner of the largest chain of truck junkyards in the Southern United States. After graduation with a MBA, he found employment in a fast track program for young executives with a major manufacturing company. His first assignment was at a dealership. There was a wrecked truck in the dealership’s lot. His boss told him to sell it to a local junkyard. He received $600 for the truck. Two weeks later his boss sent him to the same junkyard to buy a used part to repair a similar truck. The junkman went to the same truck sold to him two weeks earlier, removed the part, and sold it to the young man for (you guessed it) $600. The young man found the love of his life. After buying his first wrecked truck for $2,000 he quit his job and never looked back. I was raised and trained to be a cog in a great corporate or governmental machine. I never learned how to take the kind of risks that make a successful entrepreneur. I think in the future, this skill will become more and more valuable.

A sufficient mix of some combination of these factors seem present in anyone who I have seen support themselves and their families through good times and bad times. Of course I understand these are just probabilities. Disabilities and unfortunate accidents limit even the best people. Drastic economic catastrophes or wars can derail or destroy the wealth of entire nations. Work hard, be honest, save for a rainy day, go to school, take care of your friends and family, walk in the old truths. There are no guarantees in this life, but travel this path and you will probably do OK over the course of your lifetime.

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