28 September 2008

Late-September News Notes

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I am working on a few different columns, which I will finish and post over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I want to draw attention to some different stories and news items—some of which have received a lot of attention, and others not nearly enough.

Story #1. Political repression in America is alive and well. NPR’s On The Media had this story yesterday by Amy Goodman about the arrests of journalists at the Republican National Convention.

Story #2. When the conservative National Review runs an article suggesting that GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin should step aside for the good of her party, well, then you can’t help but wonder whether Palin should step aside, for the good of McCain, her party—and her country.

Story #3. In case you have not figured it out, this Wall Street “bailout” is a bad idea. How could it not be a bad idea to give a $700 billion, taxpayer-funded allowance and free reign to the Secretary of the Treasury to play at fixing problems that may be caused by some combination of stupidity and greed. And so we go back to On The Media, where David Cay Johnston breaks this whole story down rather nicely.

Story #4. To me, this is the biggest, most important, and most ignored news story of all, bigger even than the $700 billion Wall Street “bailout.” I remain transfixed—and angered—by a story that has best been covered by Alex Blumberg for This American Life, in the episode known as The Giant Pool of Money, and related stories like the one about Philadelphia sheriff John Green. It has been ignored by the Republicans as much as by the Democrats because it meets neither party’s traditional story lines and (of course) would only anger voters. But for all that, it remains demonstrably true: the average American has just as big a role in and responsibility for this crisis as any Wall Street player. It’s easy—too easy— to blame creative investment bankers for creatively collateralizing everything they could get their paws on. It’s easy—too easy— to blame over-inflated executive pay.

No one wants to talk about the greed of the average American. The Americans who, for the last 7+ years, have happily spent all cash rather than made any serious attempt at saving money. The Americans who have steadily sucked every dollar of equity out of their homes and other assets, in order to keep shopping freely—without understanding the impact of the interest rates on those loans. The Americans who decided it would be easier to believe that a 0% adjustable rate mortgage would stay at 0% then invest in understanding the details of their loans. The Americans who have consistently responded to offers for new credit cards, without being able to pay off their debts and, again, without understanding the impact of the interest rates on those loans.

There’s a crazy plan being circulated by a guy whose e-mail is signed “Birk T. J. Birkenmeier, A Creative Guy & Citizen of the Republic.” At first glance, his plan sounds alluringly populist: what better way to help the American people than to give them the billions of dollars instead! What’s wrong with it? (Aside from the math?) Here’s what: hey, Mr. Birkenmeier: those are my tax dollars you’re sharing!

I am not unsympathetic to people who have lost their jobs, had trouble financing their life and paying for the necessities for their children, or who (as a result of all this) have lost their homes. It saddens me. But too much of the current financial crisis is not about that. It’s about people, average people, looking to make a quick buck without bothering to understand the potential consequences of their actions. It’s about people at every level of our society acting out of greed, and not intelligent self-interest.

What’s the difference? Intelligent self-interest is looking for the best, cheapest loan for the best, cheapest house you can afford. Greed is fooling yourself into thinking you’re doing that when you know, deep in your heart, that you aren’t.

13 September 2008

Jobs Top 5

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Some interesting facts: according to a recent study, more than 50% of job-seekers do not know that they are supposed to sign a business letter before they send it. Of the remaining 50%, at least another half (or, 25% of the total) are missing some other element of a standard business letter. Some 20% seem to think that presentation quality will outweigh content. About 10% think it is acceptable to apply for a job other than the position being advertised. And (worst of all) more than 60% of all job applicants think it is acceptable to spend time congratulating a potential employer for the work they do, often by plagiarizing the employer’s own language.

If you are currently job hunting, these numbers should be a wake-up call. If you work in a career counseling office at a college or university, you should take note, too.

To pull back the curtain on this data: it comes from my own analysis of job applications I have received and reviewed over the last 6-8 months, a pool that represents several hundred cover letters and resumes. The data is not encouraging. In November 2003, I wrote out my top 11 tips for resumes, cover letters, and job applications—and while all of those tips remain relevant, it seems like a good moment to update that list with an additional five points that address the above issues.


1. More than 50% of job-seekers do not know that they are supposed to sign a business letter before they send (or fax) it. Maybe in the digital era this obvious detail is overlooked because people sign so few things these days. Nonetheless, if you are applying for a job, follow the convention and sign your letter. In the business world, actual letters and real, pen-and-ink signatures are still used—so demonstrating that you know and understand the standards has value.

2. 25% are missing some other element of the standard business letter, such as a proper address or salutation. Letters that begin “Greetings,” or “Hello!” do not make a good first impression; recruiters are not pen-pals, friends, or your long-lost cousin. Again: figure out what a business letter should look like and stick to the standard. If you want to break the mold, do it by expressing ideas that will stand out—even within the conventional forms—rather than by proving that you do not know how to write a business letter.

3. Some 20% of applicants think that presentation quality will outweigh content strengths. To come back to the previous point, the opposite is also true: a letter that follows convention perfectly, but which is poorly written, will not help you either. Just because you bought heavy, 24 pound, cotton-weave paper, and a folder that is pre-printed with the word résumé on it in gold lettering, does not excuse you from using a spell-checker or asking someone to proofread and edit your letter and resume before you send it. Do fancy applications like this stand out? Absolutely! And they might draw even more scrutiny as a result.

4. About 10% think it is acceptable to apply for a job other than the position being advertised. Why? I have no idea. But it is definitely a waste of everyone’s time. Do not apply as a part-time applicant for a full-time job. Do not apply for a job for which you have no relevant skills, or if you are unprepared to explain why the skills you do have should be considered relevant.

5. More than 60% of all job applicants think it is acceptable to spend time congratulating a potential employer for the work they do, often by plagiarizing the employer’s own language. In my 2003 tips list, points two and three addressed how applicants do research on potential jobs and express their interest in a position. But applicants should know that most employers also know what their company says about itself, on its website or elsewhere. Copying that language into your letter does not make you look smart—it makes you look lazy, or worse. Nor do recruiters need an applicant to tell them they would like to be part of a team that “[insert company jargon here].” Express your interest and skills in your own words; that will make the stronger impression.

Why does all of this matter so much? The first opportunity an applicant has to make an impression is usually their cover letter. If the job opening is in an intellectually challenging, white collar business, that letter means a great deal—and if the letter indicates that the applicant does not know how to write, or think, that also means a great deal. To state the obvious: recruiters are looking for the most qualified applicant. The ability to write a conventional, competent, coherent, and grammatically correct letter is most certainly one important qualification.


Other articles by me on job-related issues can be found here, from 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. I am also a big fan of Gina Trapani and her team at Lifehacker, which has posts tagged for job searches and careers, and sometimes provides good insights for both traditional and non-traditional approaches to job-hunting.