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Friday, January 28, 2011

Better Unemployment Numbers for Nashville

This morning the Tennessean announced that the jobless rate in Nashville had dropped from 9.3% a year ago to 8.1% last month. That sounds good... actually that is good. But what exactly does that mean?

The Chamber of Commerce lists the adult workforce in Nashville at 787,389. Allowing for those commuting in from outside Nashville and undocumented/uncounted workers, let's just say that the total adult workforce in 850,000. Remember too that at any one time about 4% of the workforce is in transition; just moved here for their spouse's job, just had a baby and out of the workforce for awhile, just graduated and looking for that first job, etc... Historically Nashville's unemployment rate, even in boom times, is 4.5%.

So the real unemployment rate, that percentage of people who want a job and can't get one, is the difference between 8.1% and 4.5%, or about 30,000 people. That's still a large number but in a community of over a million people, its 3% of the population. Put another way, 97% of everyone in Nashville and surrounding counties who want a job has one.

This isn't to make light of the tragedy of long-term unemployment. About half of those unemployed nationwide have been so over a year. Just keep in mind when you hear the staggering figures about 15 million unemployed people that there is context behind those numbers and that, locally, we're recovering.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Weather As Drama

This morning WSMV in Nashville, usually my favorite local station, reached a new low in weather reporting. With a light snow falling amidst rising temperatures and substantially clear roads, the warnings and imagery would have you thinking Donner Party. Our parking lot is almost empty, and much of that due to Metro Schools lack of courage in closing yet again when it didn't have to. Other absenteeism can be traced to folks looking at their televisions and not out their windows.

There were two accidents, count them, in Metro Nashville that required emergency workers. The footage of one of those accidents played continuously throughout the morning weather coverage. Some young cub reporter was dispatched to Clarksville showing footage of a slushy street with cars moving at nearly full speed. His comment? That it was surprising how fast traffic was moving given the dangerous conditions. He also pointed to Wilma Rudolph Blvd. where "last week over 200 wrecks were reported." Well, there were over 200 wrecks in all of Clarksville last week (he later corrected himself), but if there were 2,000 wrecks last week what does that have to do with today's conditions?

I left the house, drove my 20 minutes to work, and there was no snow on the streets. None. Zip. Nada. Metro Schools and local media combined to create unnecessary absenteeism that's disruptive to families and to business.

You can't yell, "Fire" in a crowded theatre. There are crimes against hate speech. How about a law against fear mongering that contributes to lost wages and productivity?

Just remember when you watch local weather that its sponsored by Kroger; the people selling you milk and toilet paper.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Inevitable Younger Boss

Unless you get to be CEO, at some point in your career you'll work for somebody younger. When that happens it stings for a lot of reasons. It is an unpleasant right of passage like the loss of an older friend or grandparent. It tells you where you are in your career unless you do something drastic to shake things up. What it tells you about your career status may hold true even if you do shake things up.

Organizations, as much as they may try to adopt egalitarian language, are pyramids. There are fewer positions the higher up you go. Along the way you reach a point past which you won't rise higher. You know that in your intellectual mind just like your know your own mortality. You just don't want it brought front of mind like when one supervisor moves on or retires and the next one is younger than you.

This can happen for several reasons. You can be a professional in a skill that supports, but is not at the core of, your employer. I'm an HR professional in a publishing company, for example.

Other less pleasant reasons for a younger boss are that the company thinks this youngster is better suited for tomorrow's skills, or that they've assessed the two of you and just think the other person has more potential.

So after you get the news and absorb the shock, what's there to do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Don't chalk it up to discrimination. If you take the easy way out you'll miss the self-examination that is needed for you to benefit from this development.

2. Ask the decision makers why it wasn't you. Also ask what you would need to do to be the right candidate next time, if they're willing to support you in that effort, and what they see your career track to be going forward.

3. Seek advise outside your company. Get a second opinion and decide for yourself if your company is right or if they're just made a terrible oversight as to your potential.

4. Make a decision and move forward positively. Whether you decide to shop your skills on the market, seek to close the skill gap with your current employer, or transfer to another department, do it. Do it and don't let the decision cause your performance to erode through poor attitude. You can't make a positive change in a negative frame of mind; people smell it. You can, with the same amount of energy and a better outcome, turn other's negative opinions of you into motivation.

To handle this type of career turning point you must first expect it. Unless you're going to work for yourself, or be CEO, it is going to happen. Skip the anger, self-doubt, and suspicion and turn it into the energy needed to deal with this inevitable point in your career.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Fool's Errand

Our daughter works in HR for a local state-supported non-profit. They absolutely, positively prohibit employee use of social media at work. Don't do it, don't think about it, don't even think about thinking about it. This means she violates organizational policy whenever she updates their Facebook page or posts job openings on Craigslist.

You can't make this stuff up...

Now before you think I'm picking on one organization I would submit that there are a lot of old school traditionalists that are still of the mindset that social media use at work can be banned. The State of Tennessee where two of my relatives work has blocked eBay at the firewall. Many others have blocked Facebook. What all of these types of organizations fail to recognize is that a game changer has arrived.

Mobile Social Media. Here's why this changes everything.

According to Research in Motion approximately 50 million people use mobile social media applications, most notably Twitter and Facebook. At current sales projections this same report estimates that number by the end of 2012 to be 800 million.

Instead of a single phone usage communicating two-ways between two people (caller and receiver), one post can communicate instantly with tens of thousands and start a hundred thousand collatoral conversations. Our CEO can reach 90,000+ followers with one tweet from anywhere in the world instead of reaching one person with a phone call or email.

Vanguard's Vision 2010 report estimates that only 15 million adults in the world don't have a cell phone. Yes, you read that correctly, don't have a cell phone. In the next five years that number will be cut in half.

The Economist recently reported on a Chinese company making light-weight solar panel kits that sell in African for the equivalent of $70 U.S. dollars. One small panel on a grass hut provides enough electricity for a small cook stove, a few light bulbs, and a cell phone charger. Yes, you read that right as well.

Combine all these innovations with the rapid development and deployment of smart phone hardware and higher band-width networks (3G, 4G, etc...) and you have a worldwide e-ecosystem that operates outside of your company firewall.

Want to ban certain sites from your workforce? They'll access them on their phones. Want to control their phone use? Well, have you seen the small size of those phones? Hope you have cameras in the ladies room...

Workforce control is the SOP of weak managers who limit information out of personal insecurity or fear of hard conversations. Good management engages its workforce in the conversations pertinent to the business, especially the tough ones, and earns its respect. Concerned about confidentiality? Put confidentiality agreements in your Handbook and Employment Agreements and deal with violations as they come up. Oh yeah, and hire the right people and treat them well. Don't be afraid to get rid of the rest. Loyal and engaged people are better than the best security.

The better model is what we've done at Nelson. Encourage really good people to engage the marketplace in social media conversations that are good for the business. This current technology, much less whatever is coming next, makes your firewall obsolete except as a way of protecting your servers from hackers and viruses. Companies soon will have a simple choice; the fool's errand that brands your company as backward or the policy of engagement.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What It Takes to Get to Work

Please don't mistake this for a rant because it absolutely isn't. I have a bias for coming to work and I always, always do unless I'm so sick that I can't get out of bed. I have missed work because of road conditions a total of two days in the nearly 30 years that I've been working for companies. This doesn't mean as much as it used to; technology has changed the nature of work to the point that much of it can be done from anywhere. Missing a day here or there while working from home, especially if schools are closed and you are watching kids is sometimes the better part of valor.

But what if your work won't allow that? What if you have to work in order to get paid and pay your bills? I find that a lot of younger workers don't understand what that takes. Here are some things I've learned and where my "I always go to work" comes from.

I grew up in a rural community of 1,200 where almost every man did one of two things; worked on the farm or worked in a factory. A handful of people were shopkeepers like my pharmacist dad. Our family had a drug store and two farms and I grew up farming while my parents went to work in town. Our town had three sewing factories that employed almost all women so the men commuted to Bowling Green and Louisville, 30 and 90 minutes each way respectively.

What each of these three groups had in common was simple: nobody was on salary and if you didn't work you didn't get paid. We had no middle class; we didn't know we were all working class until we left and lived somewhere else. This fostered a culture where neighbor helped neighbor, but where everyone took responsibility for being able to get to work no matter what. Farmers' herds had to eat no matter what the weather, and indeed had to eat more during snow and cold. Factory workers had to punch in at 7:00 or 7:30 an hour-and-a-half away on good days; up to three hours or more in the snow. Shop keepers took in what they sold, and medical professionals like my Dad had to go in at all hours during the cold and flu season.

What I observed in that culture sticks with our family today. If you must be there instead of working from home, and/or you want to develop the reputation of being the person who is ultra-dependable and always there it starts with some fundamental and intentional decisions.

1. Where you live relative to work - Whenever we've moved we always check the route between that house and work and ask ourselves if we could get up that hill or back down that steep driveway. If we felt it inhibited our ability to get to work we passed on that house.

2. Own a front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel-drive vehicle - This doesn't have to be expensive. A small front-wheel-drive vehicle will get you to work almost any time unless you have a difficult hill or driveway (see 1 above). If you do, four-wheel-drive is essential. Buy an older model if expense is an issue and stick with common models where parts aren't overly expensive or difficult to find (Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Jeep, etc...).

3. Have a roadside emergency kit - You should always have a tow rope, small folding camp shovel, flashlight, blanket, jumper cables, rock salt or cat litter. These are indispensable if you or someone you come across ends up in a ditch. Store them in a truck box or a heavy plastic tote in the rear of your vehicle.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice - So many people don't get out on the roads because they are afraid. While the weather is icy, take your vehicle out to an empty parking lot and practice skidding and recovering. Most icy road accidents are caused when inexperienced or frightened drivers over-correct. Knowing your vehicle and how it steers and stops will keep you from being your own worst enemy.

5. Own snow boots and a heavy coat, and take them with you on the road - Dress to be on the side of the road even while taking steps to make sure you aren't. Every so often you may slide off anyway. Having the right clothes can be the difference between a bumpy ride and a threat to your health.

6. Keep your cell phone charged up - Being able to call for help keeps you from having to flag down help and hope for the best.

Remember that the keys to going no matter what start with where you live and what you drive. You also need to be prepared through practice and the right clothing and equipment. Is all this necessary to hold a job in today's world? Most likely not. Is it necessary to be that rare person who never, ever misses work and builds a reputation for incredible dependability? Absolutely! That, Gentle Reader, will take you farther in your career than people with more ability.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


On Friday I had commented to a couple of executives that one of the goals in any employee communication is to incite the best thoughts and instincts in people. It is a fundamental HR competency that you craft any message to avoid inadvertently starting conversations that you don't intend to happen on subjects that divide people. Some examples that come to mind are one Plant Manager who tried to explain, poorly, to a group of factory workers that they were receiving market pay for their isolated area in Kentucky but said, "You're getting paid what you're worth." The anger over someone from outside that small town telling people that they weren't worth much never subsided until that Manager was replaced.

Another EVP was trying to brag on an assembly line group whose product went into a very expensive Toyota SUV. In the mid 1990's that vehicle sold for $40,000 and this group made about $6.50/hr. He said, "I bought one and recommend that you do too. You should be proud of the work that you do here." That set off an us-against-them discussion on wages and was a field day for the perpetually envious in the workforce (and every work force has them).

So if you can so easily bring out the worst in people when you're not trying, how much damage can you do when you mean to provoke?

I found it ironic that we had these discussions on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday we heard of the shootings in Arizona. Not surprisingly the shooter is young and, from my reading of his MySpace videos, disturbed. The Congresswoman who was shot had a target superimposed on her face on the Sarah Palin website. Every day people on the political spectrum from Glenn Beck to Maxine Waters make it their livelihood to provoke those who'll listen. The message is almost always the same; some variation of "they" are against you but "we" can rise up if you'll follow me. That message in the hands of the immature and/or disturbed can result in tragedy.

The idea of non-provocation is clearly biblical, from Colossians 3:21 to Ephesians 6:4. Although both of these are about parents not vexing or provoking their children, the principle is the same: those in power should not intentionally provoke those under their charge.

This goes for leaders, but remember that there are all manner of leaders. There are those who lead from position power, those who lead from the influence of their platforms, and those who lead from interpersonal influence. This last group can be anywhere in your organization.

Leaders should be careful to (1) not provoke intentionally when angered, (2) not inadvertently provoke through careless communications, and (3) discipline or remove "thought leaders" in their organizations who undercut the organization. It is the responsibility of leaders, no matter what type of leader you are or where you are in the organization, to intentionally bring out the better angels of human nature in those around you.