Marty Nemko interview

Don't quit your day job
Career and education consultant Marty Nemko encourages Bay Area job seekers to move away from cool, to survey burritos, and to grow roses.

By Karen Solomon

MARTY NEMKO IS the voice of the local career and education scene. Literally. You can hear his radio show, Work with Marty Nemko, on KALW, 91.7 FM, every Sunday at 11 a.m., when he offers call-in "career makeovers" to the local unemployed and underemployed. His controversial views on formal education and tips on career satisfaction also appear in his weekly Careers column in the San Francisco Chronicle, and he runs a thriving private career-counseling practice. In addition, he's a sought-after speaker and book author covering jobs and learning coast to coast. The Bay Guardian asked Nemko to school us on living through the local crap economy.

Bay Guardian: How is the San Francisco employment landscape different from that of the rest of the country? What's unique to our area?

Marty Nemko: We're probably living in one of the most competitive job markets in the world. We attract the best candidates because of our good climate and our diverse community. We have a very highly educated workforce – anyone going to UC Berkeley or Stanford comes here for school and then decides to stay. And if you're the best techie in, say, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, of course you want to come to Silicon Valley. And there's no industrial base here, so the jobs tend to be clustered around biotech, high tech, health care, and finance. We have very high tax rates, which are great for social services but are an oppressive climate for businesses. Also, we have the highest number of employment lawsuits in the U.S., the cost of which encourages big business to leave. Unless you're a star in your field, you're not employable here. As compared to the rest of the country, it's very tough to get a job.

BG: What's the climate like for those of us working in nonprofits or the arts world?

MN: Well, those people don't make a lot of money. Today's job seeker just can't live on $24,000 a year. People who are looking for a working-class living are moving away from those jobs. The unemployment rate is misleading [Note: For San Francisco, the May 2004 rate is listed at 5.8 percent by the state Employment Development Department.] There are plenty of jobs in the Bay Area, such as janitorial work or truck driving, but your college-educated, socially aware, young, and urban readers probably don't want those jobs.

There's a danger in seeking a career in an area that everyone loves. For example, if you love the environment, you can be sure that there are tons of applicants for any environmental job. But the truth of the matter is that you may never get any closer to saving the spotted owl than the accounts payable desk. I encourage people to take the road less traveled away from these hip jobs. No one ever graduates to go into the insurance industry. But as long as you're an ethical human being in every aspect of your life, jobs outside of the arts can find you a kind boss who treats you well because they know there aren't 10,000 other people waiting to fill your job.

When it comes to a good career, people most want pleasant conditions, ethical behavior, good pay, and a good commute. Find jobs that aren't hip to find happiness. Many people could work in soybean processing if they were respected, paid well, and secure that their job wasn't going to be outsourced. As long as you were doing well, you would go home at night feeling better than those in ostensibly cool careers, such as that frustrated, underpaid person working in accounts payable for the spotted owl. Glamour professions are no guarantee of happiness. It makes me sad to see people getting sucked in to only do the cool jobs, and they claw, schmooze, try to move up, and get nowhere. The smart people will try to move away from the crowd.

BG: Well, if truck driving and the spotted owl are out, what career opportunities would you recommend for Bay Guardian readers?

MN: I have to tell you, I've become really disenchanted with the Man. There are so many qualified college graduates out there that many companies are hiring people only as a part-timers, at salaries that aren't that great, and very long work hours – 50 or 60 hours a week. Companies hire them, burn them out, and then let them go, and it's not fair.

I think the smart money is on opening up your own simple small business. And the risk assessment and the skills necessary to do so can be learned. Most businesses go out of business because they follow business school principles: they think of any operation as a large, scalable institution. I encourage your readers to think small. A small business should simply copy an existing small business and put it in a different location.

For example, find the five best burrito shops with the longest lines and watch them like hell; carefully observe their menu, pricing, location, how they assemble their food, and take notes. Google any articles on the subject, or look for books about running your own burrito shop. Work for one or two of them for a while and learn the business. Then take the best ideas of those five places and open your own shop in a noncompetitive neighborhood. Hire the owner of the best shop as your consultant. Whatever you would need to pay them would be worth their on-the-job expertise, as they could teach you about product sources, employee screening, health regulations, etc. This is better than a college course because your teacher is proof that the business plan can work. Of course, I would never encourage anyone to do this where the market is already saturated; with burritos, say, don't do it in the Mission. Nor would I encourage anyone to risk anything too trendy, like a cigar shop or a gift store, as the return on that investment hasn't been proven. But if you copy a business that's already doing well, it will be guaranteed to succeed.

BG: Burrito shops aside, is this a good time to go back to school to learn a new career?

MN: I'm very against that. We have a tremendous amount of college grads in the job market right now. Universities are in an unscrupulous business because they will admit as many students as there are those willing to pay the bill. The schools are well aware of how few jobs there are out there, and yet they charge a fortune, knowing that only a tiny fraction of their graduates will ever be able to pay their student loans. To me, that's unconscionable. It's like a doctor giving a drug to a patient that doesn't yield its promised results. Nobody would stand for that, and yet we're very tolerant of the university system. Higher education is America's most overrated product. However, I feel somewhat better about trade schools. Especially those that offer training by real professionals working in their field.

BG: So how is one to get an education? DIY?

MN: Yes, absolutely! A few years ago I wan
ted to become a rose breeder. I didn't like the fact that roses had to be sprayed with so many pesticides. But I didn't sign up for my master's degree in botany. Instead, I contacted the world's greatest rose breeders – including one in Germany and one in Denmark – to teach me. And while some gave me more time than others, they all answered my questions and helped to some degree. I now breed roses as a hobby, and I've even made some new friends and some money in the process. The point is to do your homework first and be effusively appreciative of their time.

BG: I get the sense that some people are feeling stagnant in their jobs – afraid to leave because of a terrible economy and a tight job market. Do you have any advice for people who would like to jump the track?

MN: Really ask yourself how you're spending your discretionary time. If it's more TV, basketball, and yoga than job hunting, you might want to reevaluate. Many opportunities exist to get your toes in the water of another career. You can Google a job and read more about it. You can job-shadow someone in your dream field for a day. I would advise these low-risk investigations before signing on for a two-year graduate program somewhere. If you want a career change, don't wait for the idea to come to you like manna from heaven. Think less, act more, and control your risk.

BG: Do you have any career advice for people just moving to the Bay Area now?

MN: It makes me sad that it matters who you know, but given that, I would say take steps that can get you to know people quickly. In addition to joining professional organizations, join a less-obvious organization related to your hobbies. For example, join a community theater, a Buddhist temple, or a running club. Volunteer on the board of a small nonprofit. This will give you the opportunity to develop relationships with people who all have jobs in different fields. Join something in a nicer, more affluent neighborhood, as these people might be better connected and more able to help you. Also, online networking groups are good too. The most simple way to get a job is to be around people who want to hire you. Not just because you've handed them a business card, but because they know you well, and you've created a real bond. That's how you build out your network.