Where Are All the Workers?

While Indiana’s unemployment dipped to 3.6% last month, Utah is a full half point lower. The New York Times recently cites some of the challenges that brings. A few excerpts:

After eight years of steady growth, the main economic concern in Utah and a growing number of other states is no longer a lack of jobs, but a lack of workers. The unemployment rate here fell to 3.1%, among the lowest figures in the nation.

Nearly a third of the 388 metropolitan areas tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have an unemployment rate below 4%, well below the level that economists consider “full employment,” the normal churn of people quitting to find new jobs. The rate in some cities, like Ames, Iowa, and Boulder, Colo., is even lower, at 2%.

That’s good news for workers, who are reaping wage increases and moving to better jobs after years of stagnating pay that, for many, was stuck at a low level. Daniel Edlund, a 21-year-old call center worker in Provo, Utah, learned on a Monday that his hours were changing. On Wednesday, he had his first interview for a new job.

But labor shortages are weighing on overall economic growth, slowing the pace of expansion in northern Utah and other fast-growing regions even as unemployment remains stubbornly high in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and in regions still recovering from the 2008 recession, like inland California.

To Todd Bingham, the president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, “3.1 percent unemployment is fabulous unless you’re looking to hire people.”

“Our companies are saying, ‘We could grow faster, we could produce more product, if we had the workers,’” he said. “Is it holding the economy back? I think it definitely is.”

But the share of Utah adults who have withdrawn from the labor force remains higher than before the recession. Last year, 31.7% of adults in Utah were neither working nor looking for work, up from 28.2% in 2006. That is part of a broad national trend.

NY Times Poll: Americans Speak Out

One may not always agree with the politics of The New York Times, but its stature and credibility can rarely be questioned. A recent public poll conducted by the newspaper revealed some sobering results, such as:

  • Only 64% of respondents saying they still believe in the American dream. This was the lowest result in nearly two decades.
  • 54% said that “over-regulation that may interfere with economic growth” was a bigger problem than “too little regulation that may create an unequal distribution of wealth (38%).”
  • Only 52% think the country’s economic system is fair.
  • More than 75% are concerned about having enough money for retirement
  • 70% view the stock market as “risky,” down from 79% in 2008. 52% think the stock market unfairly benefits rich investors at the expense of average Americans
  • Nearly 90% are concerned that their personal information may be stolen. 40% stopped an online purchase because of security concerns.

Life is Like a Team Sport

I admittedly have little knowledge about the game of soccer. I participated in a league for elementary students for a few years, but my experience mainly consisted of talking to teammates on the sidelines and partaking of the snacks before going home. I’m not even sure my foot ever made contact with the ball during a match.

In light of the recent World Cup matches, I came across an article posing the question: Is life more like baseball or soccer? The conclusion was that life mimics the team-oriented sport of soccer rather than the more-individualistic baseball. And while baseball is another sport that evades my complete comprehension, I found the argument compelling.

At Hanover College, where I’ll be a senior in the fall, we’re assigned to at least one group project in each of our business classes. During the first business class I took in college (and many of the subsequent ones I’ve completed), I received a speech on the team-oriented nature of business. Those of us who preferred individual work would have to adjust, because the success of an organization hinges on the collaboration of the individuals working within it.

The article is interesting because it asserts that even decisions we would consider purely personal—such as what career path to take, whom to socialize with and what values to hold—are actually influenced by the people around us, which makes sense. Our norms are determined by those we’re surrounded by.

Now, considering my lack of sports’ knowledge, I can’t truly comment on the soccer versus baseball argument, nor on Brazil’s loss to Germany (which seems to have inspired the article), but I appreciated the perspective on the team aspect of life and how influential our networks are. I think it’s something important to keep in mind, whether at work, school or simply with friends. Who we surround ourselves with and who we work with can play a major role in our lives.

Good Journalism; Broken Congress

I  love reading The New York Times headline stories. I continue to be shocked by the fact that Congress is so dysfunctional. The two came together late last week.

Here’s the first sentence of a Times story from early in the week. "Members of Congress feel mighty proud of themselves this week, mainly because they appear to be avoiding a government shutdown — an outcome taken as an actual accomplishment in this turbulent and acrimonious legislature." (Which is exactly what happened early Saturday with a stopgap budget measure to fund day-to-day government through late March 2013).

Other gems from this Times article:

  • The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the “do-nothing” Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses.
  • Appropriations bills, once the central function of the legislative branch, have been ditched in favor of short-term spending measures that do little more than keep the lights on.
  • After the election, when the makeup of the White House and the next Congress are known, there will be a lame-duck session during which myriad tax issues will be tackled, or, somehow punted into the next year.

Saxby Chambliss, a Republican senator from Georgia, sums up the situation. "There has been way too much politics injected into the work that is going on in the Senate. We’ve been spinning our wheels all year."

And that, while true, is simply unbelievable. 

Netflix CEO Faces Fire for Missteps

The New York Times conducted a pretty intense Q & A with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings following the Qwikster debacle last month. Likely some lessons here about long-term thinking — and facing the proverbial music. A sample:

Part of Steve Jobs’s legacy is how incredibly well he managed the Apple product rollouts. What do you think Jobs, who never minced words, would say about how Netflix has operated in the last three months?

I’m not going to put words in a deceased man’s mouth.

But you really botched the handling of the DVD spinoff, Qwikster. In your recorded launch announcement, you flubbed your lines. You somehow neglected to secure the Qwikster Twitter handle. Then, facing a backlash from shareholders and consumers, you put the kibosh on the whole idea. Seriously, what’s the deal?

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been moving toward streaming, doing the Starz deal, doing the Xbox deal. We simply moved too quickly, and that’s where you get those missed execution details. It’s causing, as you would expect, an internal reflectiveness. We know that we need to do better going forward. We need to take a few deep breaths and not move quite as quickly. But we also don’t want to overcorrect and start moving stodgily.

Last month, when announcing Qwikster, you apologized for the way Netflix handled its price hikes, writing, “In hindsight I slid into arrogance based upon past success.” But wasn’t introducing Qwikster the way you did the most arrogant move of all?

No, I think it was just a mistake in underestimating the depth of emotional attachment to Netflix.

I’m curious if you could have done any kind of research — or even a select-market rollout — that could have anticipated this?

I don’t know of any Internet service that opens on a regional basis. Our focus-group work concentrated on trying to understand consumers’ perspectives on names other than Netflix.

The company’s stock has fallen from more than $300 in July to under $120. More than $9 billion of market capitalization has disappeared. For the benefit of shareholders, have you considered stepping down?

No, not for a second. I founded Netflix. I’ve built it steadily over 12 years now, first with DVD becoming profitable in 2002, a head-to-head ferocious battle with Blockbuster and evolving the company toward streaming. This is the first time there have been material missteps. If you look at the cumulative track record, it’s extremely positive.

Company Photogs: Check Your Aperture — and the Fine Print

Let’s say you’re the PR/marketing person for your company and you take a delightful photo at the staff picnic of your CEO re-enacting a Colts game half-time frisbee toss with his Border Collie named "Harley" or "Rascal" or whatever. Throw that bad boy up on Twitter and watch the positive vibes roll on into your brand. Only one problem: If you used Twitpic, that photo may no longer be just yours. The New York Times has the 411:

If you post a photo on the Web, it still belongs to you, right? Well, be sure to read the fine print.

World Entertainment News Network, a news and photo agency, announced this month that it had become the “exclusive photo agency partner” of Twitpic, a service with over 20 million registered users that allows people to upload images and link to them on Twitter. The deal allows the agency to sell images posted on Twitpic for publication, and to pursue legal action against those who use such images commercially without its permission, according to the agency.

“There has been much unauthorized use of Twitpic images which we shall be addressing without delay,” said Lloyd Beiny, the agency’s chief executive.

World Entertainment News, whose photo business revolves largely around shots of celebrities, says it is interested only in the photographs posted to the accounts of people like Britney Spears, Russell Brand and Demi Moore. But the scope of the deal is not clear, and professional photographers are worried that it could allow the agency to profit from any photo posted to Twitpic. Others say Twitpic’s move shows the tenuous control people have over what they post through Internet services.

The extent of that control is typically laid out in the terms of service that users agree to when they sign up for Internet services and smartphone applications. But the more such services people use, the harder it becomes to keep track of the things to which they are agreeing. And of course many terms of service, which are heavy on legal language, include clauses that assert the company’s right to change them without notice.

In a recent episode, the television show “South Park” poked fun at the tendency to consent to such agreements without reading them, when one character discovered that he had inadvertently given Apple the right to surgically transform him into a “product that is part human and part centipede, and part Web browser and part e-mailing device.” In the real world, there has been more discussion of what users could be risking than concrete examples of problems. Much attention has been centered on privacy concerns and the confusing aspects of companies’ privacy policies.

Professional photographers in particular have worried about their work being distributed in ways they would not approve. Protests over changes to Facebook’s terms of service in 2009, which seemed to give it rights to users’ content even if they discontinued their accounts, caused the company to change its copyright language.

Death of the Blog?

In a discussion with my supervisor, I recently stated my opinion that blogs are on the way out due to preferred brevity on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Glad the New York Times is actually validating one of my predictions. Now, if Texas becomes its own country and Andy Dick wins an Oscar within the next 25 years, I’ll become a bona fide Nostradamus.

Also noteworthy is that I’m communicating about the "death of blogs" on our own blog, so I’m either very ironic or not super attentive to details. Likely some of both, I suppose:

Blogs were once the outlet of choice for people who wanted to express themselves online. But with the rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are losing their allure for many people — particularly the younger generation.

The Internet and American Life Project at the Pew Research Center found that from 2006 to 2009, blogging among children ages 12 to 17 fell by half; now 14 percent of children those ages who use the Internet have blogs. Among 18-to-33-year-olds, the project said in a report last year, blogging dropped two percentage points in 2010 from two years earlier.

Former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers. Others said they had no interest in creating a blog because social networking did a good enough job keeping them in touch with friends and family.

Blogging started its rapid ascension about 10 years ago as services like Blogger and LiveJournal became popular. So many people began blogging — to share dieting stories, rant about politics and celebrate their love of cats — that Merriam-Webster declared “blog” the word of the year in 2004.

Defining a blog is difficult, but most people think it is a Web site on which people publish periodic entries in reverse chronological order and allow readers to leave comments.

Yet for many Internet users, blogging is defined more by a personal and opinionated writing style. A number of news and commentary sites started as blogs before growing into mini-media empires, like The Huffington Post or Silicon Alley Insider, that are virtually indistinguishable from more traditional news sources.

Blogs went largely unchallenged until Facebook reshaped consumer behavior with its all-purpose hub for posting everything social. Twitter, which allows messages of no longer than 140 characters, also contributed to the upheaval.

Twitter More Prominent in Customer Relations, Crisis Response

In its few years of existence, Twitter has grown in use from simply a way to answer "What are you doing?" to being a way to answer "Where can I find information important to my life and/or profession?" The latest East Coast snowstorm provided evidence of how businesses are taking to the medium. The New York Times reports:

Some travelers stranded by the great snowstorm of 2010 discovered a new lifeline for help. When all else fails, Twitter might be the best way to book a seat home.

While the airlines’ reservation lines required hours of waiting — if people could get through at all — savvy travelers were able to book new reservations, get flight information and track lost luggage. And they could complain, too.

Since Monday, nine Delta Air Lines agents with special Twitter training have been rotating shifts to help travelers wired enough to know how to “dm,” or send a direct message. Many other airlines are doing the same as a way to help travelers cut through the confusion of a storm that has grounded thousands of flights this week.

But not all travelers, of course. People who could not send a Twitter message if their life depended on it found themselves with that familiar feeling that often comes with air travel — being left out of yet another inside track to get the best information.

For those in the digital fast lane, however, the online help was a godsend.

Danielle Heming spent five hours Wednesday waiting for a flight from Fort Myers, Fla., back home to New York. Finally, it was canceled.

Facing overwhelmed JetBlue ticketing agents, busy signals on the phone and the possibility that she might not get a seat until New Year’s Day, she remembered that a friend had rebooked her flight almost immediately by sending a Twitter message to the airline.

She got out her iPhone, did a few searches and sent a few messages. Within an hour, she had a seat on another airline and a refund from JetBlue.

“It was a much, much better way to deal with this situation,” said Ms. Heming, 30, a student at New York University. “It was just the perfect example of this crazy, fast-forward techno world.”

Although airlines reported a doubling or tripling of Twitter traffic during the latest storm, the number of travelers who use Twitter is still small. Only about 8 percent of people who go online use Twitter, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the social impact of the Internet.

“This is still the domain of elite activist customers,” Mr. Rainie said.

Of course, an agent with a Twitter account cannot magically make a seat appear. More often than not, the agent’s role is to listen to people complain.

If It’s for the Kids, Why Not Ask Their Opinions?

When discussing education reform, it’s common to hear proclamations like, “We’ve got to do it for the students!”

To that end, many of the proposed education reforms center on the teacher, as a consensus is (finally) beginning to take hold that teacher effectiveness is paramount to student success. Ideas for reform include better training and education of teachers and rewarding teachers for the quality of their teaching, as opposed to the amount of time they spend at the front of the classroom.

All of the offered solutions and ideas go back to the sentiment that the whole point of education reform is to give students a better education and better chance in life. But if that’s truly the case, shouldn’t we be asking for their opinions?

An article in the New York Times reported that students actually have a pretty good handle on when they’re in the presence of an effective teacher. Results released from a report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation show that students who learn the most during the year (as measured by standardized test results) described their teachers as ones who were able to focus their instruction, keep their classrooms under control and help students understand their mistakes.

The report is part of a much larger research project, which also ranks teachers using a method called value-added modeling. The method uses standardized test scores to calculate how much each teacher helped the students learn. Researchers are now using other methods – like student surveys – to corroborate those value-added scores. It seems the results show a correlation between what the students report and what the scores show.

The Times went on to report that out of thousands of students who filled out confidential questionnaires, classrooms where the majority of students said they agreed with the statements, “our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” and “in this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” more often were taught by teachers with high value-added scores.

While college students all across America are asked to evaluate their courses and professors on an annual or semi-annual basis, it’s rare that schools do the same with their K-12 students – leaving teacher evaluations up to pre-arranged classroom observations by the principal or other school administrator.

Students – the ones that are meant to get the greatest benefit from education reform – therefore aren’t given the opportunity to confidentially share their experiences and opinions about the teachers they rely on for their future success.

Maybe it’s time that the adults stop proclaiming and start listening to what the students actually have to say.

10 Keys to Entrepreneurial Success

Jay Goltz of The New York Times offers 10 reasons for entrepreneurial success. If you’re thinking of starting a business, or just want to separate your small business from the competition, these thoughts might help you:

  1. Look for opportunities to do something better than just about everyone else.
  2. Accept risk as a necessary evil. It makes for much less competition.
  3. Act responsibly to customers, employees and vendors.
  4. Goals aren’t enough. You need a plan. You need to execute the plan.
  5. You need to fix the plan as you go. Learn from your mistakes. Most people don’t.
  6. Do not reinvent the wheel. Learn from others — join a business group.
  7. Make sure the math works. I know plenty of people who work hard and follow their passion but the math doesn’t work. If the math doesn’t work, neither does the business.
  8. Make sure that every employee understands and works toward the mission.
  9. There are going to difficult times and you need to be resilient; whining is a waste of time.
  10. There will be sacrifices. Work to find a balance so that you don’t become a financially successful loser. It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome.