Conference Room Command

I was in an off-site meeting recently, and as I exited the conference room after the meeting was over I saw this sign above the door.  It made me chuckle — but the point of the sign was clear, too.

I felt that my mental state met the sign’s command, and I also thought the sign was pretty useful coaching.  How many people walk out of office meetings wondering what the heck they’re supposed to be doing?

Summer Jobs For Young And Old

If you’re looking for work this summer, you might just want to go to Maine.

Changes to the federal immigration laws that govern the ability of foreign workers to come to America and obtain seasonal employment have created a kind of labor shortage for cooks, waiters, bike shop workers, and other job staples during the Maine summer tourist season.   The laws permit 33,000 people to obtain visa to do seasonal work in the United States, but the way in which those workers are counted has changed.  Before, returning workers weren’t counted toward that 33,000 number; now they are.  As a result, the 33,000 ceiling has already been reached, primarily by hiring in the southern states.  Maine, where the season won’t really begin for a month or so, gets the short end of the stick.

IMG_0441Will the Maine businesses that used to hire foreign workers just close up shop?  No, of course not — because it’s not a real labor shortage until the entrepreneurs that run those businesses try to address the issue through other means.  If foreign workers aren’t available, maybe something can be done to attract non-foreign workers to fill the open jobs.  So Maine businesses are looking at offering higher wages, flexible work schedules that might be appealing to older workers, and other approaches that will allow them to get the jobs done with locals.  It’s a classic example of the law of supply and demand and the invisible hand at work (pun intended).

Of course, Maine’s elected representatives are attempting to change the law to reinstitute the exception for returning workers that will allow more foreign hiring to occur, because for local businesses it’s no doubt cheaper and easier to hire those workers than it is to recruit, train, and deal with locals who might be more demanding about pay and hours and other job conditions.  But for now, at least, opportunity can be found in Maine, if you’re a kid, or a retiree, who’s willing to serve up lobster rolls or work in a bike shop or serve as a deck hand on a tour boat in order to put some extra dollars in your pocket.

As someone who left Columbus, Ohio and spent a wonderful summer working at the Alpine Village resort in Lake George, New York in 1976 — an experience you can read about here and here — I don’t think changes in our federal immigration laws that incentivize businesses to hire local teenagers and seniors for summer jobs is a bad thing.  If the changes open the way for more American kids to get used to the concept of holding down a job, keeping the boss happy, earning a paycheck, and putting money in the bank, that’s a good thing in my book.

Birthday Beercake

At work today some of my colleagues surprised me with a birthday beercake — locals brews configured to form a kind of layer cake, with a special sour beer as a quasi-candle on top.

What a thoughtful and artistic gesture!  They insisted, however, that I leave their creation in my office for a few days, so all visitors can enjoy it.  I wonder how the nightly cleaning crew will react to the new addition to my desktop art?

Our Changing Skyline

For years now, the skyline of downtown Columbus has stayed pretty much the same.  For decades, it’s been the Nationwide complex of buildings to the north, the courthouse and municipal buildings to the south, and the cluster of high-rises surrounding Capitol Square and the LeVeque Tower in the middle.

All of that is now changing, and rapidly.  As I mentioned recently, there are construction cranes all over the downtown area.  Every day I walk past a construction site at the corner of Rich and Third Street that is taking the place of what used to be a grassy expanse adjacent to Columbus Commons that was home to kickball games and exercise groups.  Soon it is going to be the location of a 12-story mixed use building with retail on the ground floor, a few stories of office space, and residential units.  There are similar multi-story, “mixed use” buildings under construction up and down High Street, filling in most of the surface parking lots that have been an eyesore on Columbus’ main north-south street and helping to bridge the “skyline gap” between the taller buildings in downtown Columbus.  And the city is abuzz about the recent announcement of a 35-story skyscraper to be built next to the North Market — an addition that will really change the look of the skyline.

Columbus isn’t Manhattan, where the construction of a 35-story building wouldn’t merit much attention.  Here in the heartland, a 35-story building is a pretty big deal.

But, to my mind, the North Market high-rise announcement, and the other construction projects aren’t the biggest sign of how things are changing in downtown Columbus.  Instead, the most compelling indicator is the money that has been poured into refurbishing the crumbling, crappy Long Street garage, where I used to park my car until the structure was condemned by the city.  Amazingly, a new owner purchased the building and has been working on it for months, giving it a spiffy blue metal and glass facelift and adding a car wash option for parkers.  You know your downtown area is heading in the right direction when developers are willing to put money into a derelict parking garage in the expectation that the conversion of surface lots into buildings, and the influx of workers and new downtown residents, will make a better parking garage a profitable enterprise.

What’s going on in downtown Columbus is pretty amazing, and we’re going to be seeing the results of the changes every day as we drive, and walk, and bike, into work.

 

Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

Requiring A College Degree For Every Job

Recently Washington, D.C. became one of the first cities in the country to impose a licensing requirement that mandates that all child care workers — that is, people caring for infants and toddlers who aren’t yet in a pre-school or kindergarten program — must obtain college degrees.

The college degree requirement is part of an effort to address an “achievement gap” between children that apparently is evident as early as 18 months of age.  The concern is that most early child care workers are treated, and paid, like glorified babysitters, when they actually should be viewed as being more like teachers.  D.C. officials want to focus child care programs more on education and quality of care and “set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development.”

The new standard will require many existing child care workers in the District of Columbia, who hold only high school diplomas, to go back to college and obtain a degree — a daunting prospect for many because of the cost of going to college and the low pay that child care workers traditionally receive.  Studies show that a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education produces the lowest lifetime earnings of any college degree, which makes it likely that child care workers who do earn a degree won’t stay in the child care area and will instead move on to better-paying careers.  If those child care workers need to take out student loans to get that college degree, their financial issues will become even more acute.  And neither the District of Columbia, nor the parents of the kids being cared for, apparently have the resources to pay the workers more after they get that required college degree.

This seems to me like a self-inflicted problem.  Of course, making sure that young children enjoy stimulating environments, are introduced to the benefits of reading at an early age, experience interesting forms of play, and so forth is important — but it doesn’t require a college agree to make sure that happens.  People with high school diplomas who are adequately trained and monitored should be perfectly capable of helping children move onto that “positive trajectory for learning and development” through programs that can be set by the supervisors of the child care centers.

More and more, we seem to be requiring college degrees for jobs because it sounds good, and a college degree can be seen as a kind of general surrogate for all kinds of skills — when in reality not every job actually requires a college degree.  This trend pushes more people into college, allows colleges to continuously increase their tuition, puts pressure on wages, and has all kinds of other effects.  We need to recognize that not everyone needs to go to college, and not every job requires college.

 

De-Mented

A few days ago our firm came out with its roster of attorneys and practice groups.  The roster lists all of our attorneys, and for associates also identifies their designated partner mentors.  As I scanned the roster, I saw that this year, for the first time in a very long time, I do not have any designated associate mentees.

As I mentioned to one of my colleagues, I guess this means I am officially de-mented.

I’ve enjoyed being a mentor over the years.  My practice is to take my mentees out to lunch on a relatively regular basis, buy them a good meal, serve as a sounding board if they want to talk about their plans and their problems, and offer my advice if the situation seems to call for it.  What older person wouldn’t like flapping their gums to offer advice to an earnest young person?  My mentees have become friends, and Kish and I have enjoyed socializing with them, having them over to our house for a cookout and cocktails, and hosting them for an annual holiday meal that has become a fun end of the year tradition for us all.

But, in reality, I’m confident that I’ve gotten far more out of being a mentor than I’ve given.  I’ve gotten to know some really fine people who might not have otherwise become friends, I’ve experienced the satisfaction of seeing my mentees move on to success, at the firm and in life, and I’ve gotten repeated reminders of how out of step my thinking is in the modern world.  Unfortunately, I also had to deal with one brutal tragedy that still hurts to even think about, when a wonderful young woman died long before her time — but I guess that’s part of being a mentor, too, in that you have to be willing to take the bitter with the sweet.

The other day I got a call from one of my former mentees who left the firm a number of years ago.  She was asking for a reference, and in her message she said “you’ve always been a great mentor to me.”  Of course I agreed to help if I could, and it made me feel good to think that she still views me as a mentor of sorts.  Maybe I’m not totally de-mented after all.