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Monday, June 27, 2011

Why are we talking about careers with pre-schoolers and not high schoolers?

The same day I wrote the previous article, Kids who know what they want: a competitive advantage, my daughter brought this worksheet home from pre-school. At 3 years old she is being exposed to possible career choices in school.  Sitting together we chatted about what the people are doing in each picture and she quickly responded to the ones she remembered such as the baker, "He makes bread!"

This experience reminded me of a book I had when I was a kid and later purchased to read to my son, Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day.  This book shows people (well, not people actually, rather dogs and baboons and worms) going about their day in a variety of easy to understand jobs for kids. Richard Scarry's book is recommended for kids 4 to 8 years old.  So what happens when they get older?  Based on my own experience as a kid and seeing the education my son receives now, all discussions of possible careers end when our children start elementary school.

Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All DayThe focus in elementary school is on skills training (reading, writing, arithmetic) which is all well and good but there is a lack of discourse about real world applications (read jobs) that continues up through high school.  It is understandable actually considering the focus on grades and standards as our kids get closer and closer to college application age.  How do you justify spending valuable class time going over what a marketing manager for P&G does versus an actuarial for Hartford Life Insurance? Wouldn't it make more sense to take a practice SAT exam during that time?

For us as parents it gets harder as our kids get older as well.  Most of us can explain in a fair amount detail to our 3 year old daughters what a baker does.  The same is true for firemen, baseball players, mailmen and hopefully whatever Mommy or Daddy do for a living.  But, how many of us can talk with any conviction to a 16 year old about the day to day life of an investment banker?  Do you know what a supply chain management consultant does?  Once our kids are old enough to understand adult level explanations about jobs the shear number of possible careers becomes an obstacle to talking about any of them.  So we don't, figuring that our kids will work it out when they are in college (and out of our house). Let them get a good, well rounded education and it will all work out.  Laissez-faire may be a legitimate strategy in economics or politics but I think it is out of place when raising our kids.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kids who know what they want: a competitive advantage

After writing part 1 of the series of articles on college: College Part 1 - Helping your child choose a degree, I received several comments both verbally and emailed saying it was unrealistic to expect a 16 or 17 year old to know what they want to do with the rest of their life.  I agree that it is unusual.  But that is the point isn't it?  We all believe our kids are unique and special and will be superstars.  Why settle for "usual".  When the recruiter is screening 50 kids for one open position, he is not likely to choose the 49 typical new grads who are still trying to figure out what they want to do.  He is going to choose the one who made a choice early and therefore shows his or her commitment to that job.

Nobody, not even our own amazing and talented kids can do everything and do it well.  As is often the case in sports, the 10 year old that spends all his time playing soccer is more likely to get onto the high school soccer team (and therefore college, and maybe even pro) than the other kids who are splitting their days up with other sports and activities.  The same goes for academic and career choices.  It is worth the effort for both our kids and for us to start earlier with decisions on the future.

I clearly remember a friend of mine in college telling me freshman year that he was going to get his degree in English Literature, go to law school, get a job in the local personal injury firm in his hometown and eventually buy out the owner.  He is now running the firm just like he said he would.  For me, it was "something in business... maybe".  I am happy with where I ended up but it took a lot longer for me to get here.

Keeping one's options open is not always a good thing.  According to Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational, The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions humans are wired to keep their options open even when it is not such a great idea to do so.  As parents, we need to stop saying to our kids that they have lots of time to decide and we should start encouraging them to explore their options now.  Freshman year in high school is probably a good place to start.  4 years is enough time to come up with some idea about the future.  This forward thinking and goal setting is a valuable habit to get into.

One candidate I met obviously did not have this habit. He was 38 with a background in sales and very presentable however he fumbled when I asked him what his career goals were for 10 years from now.  His answer was that he "guesses" he will be doing sales in a similar company and industry.  This was not a goal, this was a prediction based on inertia and a lack of thought.  The thing is, he was probably right!  10 years from now he will be doing the same thing he is doing now.  A dead end job with a company going nowhere selling a dying product and making no money.

The hard part for our kids is that they don't know what jobs are possible.  We parents, with out infinite wisdom and experience can step in here to fill in these pesky gaps of knowledge.  Imagine talking about one different career choice per night at dinner for one month.  By the end of the month you will have shared 30 different career options with your son or daughter.  Kids will remember the ones that interested them and will come back asking for more information. Try to answer as much as you can yourself and when you run out of information, look to your friends for help.

The Internet is also an endless source of details on jobs.  There are countless free online tests our kids can take to point them towards certain careers.  Here is one I just took at Students.net.  It says I should be a Scientist...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Headhunter Dad's Dad

I never doubted that my Father loved me.  I remember walking with him in the woods of upstate New York when I was 4 years old.  The snow was coming down and we came upon a bird feeder with cardinals and chickadees gorging on sunflower seeds.  My Father took me closer with his hand on my shoulder whispering to me to take small slow steps so as not to scare them away.  He reached down and scooped some of the fallen seeds into my mittened hand and told me to reach it out slowly toward the birds.  I was trembling with anticipation as I waited.  It took no more than 5 seconds (it felt like 2 hours to a 4 year old) for one of the chickadees to land on my outstretched hand and start pecking away at the seeds.  I can still see that tiny bird perched on my maroon, knit mittens but more so I can feel my Father's hand on my shoulder, warm with calm and love and pride.

Later in life, as I started off on the various adventures one confronts (like heading off to college or taking a chance and moving to a foreign country), I always knew that I had someplace safe I could return to if things did not work out.  I knew without any doubt that my Father would be there for me if I asked for help.  That feeling of security was like having a net under you when you swing out on the trapeze.  If you are going to make it to the other side you need to let go and stretch for the other bar.  Letting go and taking that risk was easier because of him.

As a father in my own right now I find myself acting in ways I remember him acting when I was a kid.  I try to set an example for my children by working hard and showing them that anything worth having is likely to require some effort.  My Father taught me that it is not necessary to be the biggest or the smartest or the fastest to succeed.  If I work harder than anyone else, I can be just as good.

Growing up I never recognized the challenges my Father (any father) faced: bills to pay, kids to educate, compromises. I admit to thinking at times that it was my parent's choice to have me, I didn't ask to be born!  It was his decision so now he should deal with the consequences.  Now that I am facing the same issues I see my Father in a different light.  I recognize the times when he must have had to make difficult decisions or suppress his own desires for the sake of our family.

The part we play as parents and the effort we put into raising and loving our kids will stay with them their whole lives and affect every major decision they make.  My Father gave me the strength to take risks and taught me the meaning of dedication. I can only hope that my own children will be as lucky.

Happy Father's Day Dad, thank you for everything. You are the best.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

College Part 2 - Helping your child choose the right college

In the previous article on choosing a degree, I stated a premise.  This is an important point to keep in mind so I am going to repeat it here:

The ONLY reason to pay for college is to get a better job.

I began with the article on choosing a degree because not all kids need to go to college.  If your daughter wants to be a photographer, she will get more experience working for a a pro than she will studying about theory and a degree is not a requirement for the job.  On the other hand, if she wants to be a lawyer, well, there are specific requirements for that one.  Before picking a school, our children should have job in mind and an understanding of how the next 4 years at school will improve their chances of getting that job.

There is a fair amount of debate over whether it matters which school you graduate from and how it affects the quality of your life.  Some will claim that it is absolutely essential that your child get into and graduate from the best school he or she can.  Others will say that it is the student not the school.  This article is meant to advise parents on how to help their children choose the right school for their career goals.

Since we began with choosing a degree, we can take the next step directly from there and narrow the list of possible colleges to the ones that offer that particular degree.  If the degree is pretty standard like accounting then it will be difficult to find a school that does NOT offer it.  However, remember that specific is better and for some programs there may be limited options.

Next we should eliminate all the schools that are out of budget.  This can be a complicated exercise as you and your child evaluate the possibilities of student aid or scholarships, many of which are school specific.

I recommend that our children try to go to school where they want to work.  The professors will have local connections and there will be a history of hiring from the school by businesses in the area.  After 4 years in cloudy, overcast Syracuse, NY I had no wish to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary.  Unfortunately, the majority of the companies that came to the school career fairs were all from the immediate area.  Returning to NYC was challenging where I was then competing with local graduates from NYU, Columbia, etc.  If your child says something like this: "But Daddy, I don't know where I want to work yet."  Then she does not go to college until she figures it out.  This is not a small investment and asking our children to give it some serious thought is a reasonable request.

In general, a big school is better than a small school.  Everyone is affected by brands, even employers and there is better name recognition from a big school.  With a larger student and alumni population, the chances of your son's interviewer being from the same college or fraternity also increase.  A friend was recently invited to lunch at the Princeton Club in NY.  This is an exclusive members only organization for alumni of Princeton University.  There are meeting rooms, restaurants, fitness equipment and even hotel rooms available for members.  Just graduating from this one school gives your child a ticket to shmooze with the other senior alums and established business people who frequent the club.  Compare this to the small college in upstate NY which I graduated from.  The alumni are mainly US based with the majority staying in the northeastern US.  A search of the alumni directory for those alums in Japan brings a grand total of 4.

Finally, with a list of schools that offer the appropriate degree, are in your budget, are big and in the right locale, you can look at the school rankings.  For example, US News and World Report has rankings based on the degree.  The University of Texas in Austin is #1 for accounting.

The cost of college continues to increase.  When my son heads off to school in 2019 I will need $174,000 to see him through graduation (based on the World's Simplest College Cost Calculator).  We parents must take an active role in this choice and not only by controlling the checkbook.  It is unfair to our 17 year old child to ask them to figure it out for themselves and expect them to know what the future will hold for them based on their choice.  We have seen a lot more of this world than they have and they deserve the benefit of our wisdom, even if they don't always appreciate it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

College Part 1 - Helping your child choose a degree

This article will be the first of 3 (at least!) regarding choices our kids will face about college.  Part 1 is about how to choose a degree, Part 2 about how to choose a college and Part 3 about what we can do to ensure that our kids get into the school of their dreams (admissions).

Much of what you will read in the following paragraphs and articles will be based on the this premise:

The ONLY reason to pay for college is in order to get a better job.

Therefore, the degree our sons and daughters choose to major in for 2 to 4 (5?) years should be one that is well thought out and has a practical application once they graduate.  These days our children have an almost infinite number of degrees to choose from when they head off to college.  Some degrees are more valuable than others though.  Business is as excellent example.  When an employer interviews a new graduate for an open position in their company, if the role is not specifically for one department (marketing, accounting, etc) then the type of business degree becomes less important (often it does not even have to be a business degree). Most degrees will be considered equal for screening purposes in that case.  The prestige of the school, the GPA, extracurricular activities and internships will play a larger role in the process. Let's take that same application now for the same company but this time they need someone specifically for the marketing department.  Now, all the kids who majored in Marketing will have a slight edge in the process.  At the same time, the Marketing majors will also be able to apply for the first job which was not specific.  What if your daughter majors in Business Administration though and wants to apply for the marketing department job?  She will be at a disadvantage.

Here is another premise to apply to our children's college degree choices: The more specific the better.

As in the business example described above, a more specific degree will offer a better chance of passing screening for twice as many jobs as the general alternative.  Rather then Business Administration, go for Accounting,  rather than Biology choose Molecular Biology, rather than Physics choose Nuclear Physics.  Specifics are good but which degree is best?  To answer this refer to premise number 1.  Which job is the goal of the degree.  Don't let your children tell you that they want to "leave their options open" and therefore do not need to choose a major yet.  It is OK to change their minds, grownups change their careers all the time, but all freshman should start with a plan.  My plan was get a liberal arts degree and then wait for the offers to start pouring in.

When I was applying for colleges there seemed to be a different article in the newspaper every day saying that employers were frustrated because they could not find staff with good, basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic.  This was like inside information to me at age 17 and with my parent's well intentioned, yet incomplete guidance I narrowed my applications to those colleges with strong liberal arts programs.  What the articles and my parents and anyone else who I spoke to at that time failed to explain (or perhaps they did not know) was that while employers were certainly frustrated with the lack of basic skills in the marketplace, that was not the whole story.  Employers did not just want someone who could write a grammatically correct report, they wanted an accountant who could write a report or a computer programmer who could write a report.  The basic skills provided for by a liberal arts education are not enough on their own.  An employer who needs an accountant when given a choice between an excellent liberal arts graduate with no accounting experience and an accounting major with bad syntax, will choose the bad syntax 10 out of 10 times.

Just because an area of study is interesting to your son, does not necessarily mean it is a good choice for his career.  Kids don't know enough about the world to make these decisions independently.  As parents we should take an active role in their careers.  When your enthusiastic offspring comes home with the college application forms for the Omaha School of Medieval Weaponry,  sit down with him and ask him if he knows what job he will get after graduation.  Agree to support him if he can find 3 people who graduated from the same degree and are now working in the job he expects to get. This is a great exercise and has a number of positive benefits.  First, chances are most 17 year old kids will not exert much effort finding someone who has done what they are trying to do.  It is a test of their enthusiasm to see if they actually follow through and look for proof of concept for their choice of degree.  Second, if he does look and your son cannot find anyone who is gainfully employed he may give up on this particular hobby job (there is a good article about hobby jobs here called the Danger of the Dream Job Delusion) and find something more practical.  Third, if he does find someone he can then follow up and learn what it took for that person to be successful.  Perhaps it was the degree in Medieval Weaponry followed by a PhD and three books on the subject before his mentor could move out of his parent's house.

To help our children with this choice, start with the jobs.  There is a list of 8 jobs that are still likely to be hot 20 years from now in my article Why do kids all want to be baseball players and astronauts.  Which degrees would be best to get into those jobs?  In an article in the New Yorker, Louis Menand (Harvard Professor) pointed out that, "As work becomes more high-tech, employers demand more people with specialized training." Technical degrees will be more in demand as our universities continue to pump out liberal arts grads in increasing numbers.

You will find that often the degree matters, not the courses.  This is another interesting anomaly about college.  Just like college grades matter and graduate grades do not. For undergraduates (and graduates also) the courses one takes are not important to a hiring decision.  The only exception to this rule is the thesis.  If your child is applying for a job as a junior equity analyst in a securities firm then it is great if their senior thesis was an in depth study on stock prices and how to predict them.

Here are some questions to start the conversation about degrees with your child.  Remember, it is OK to help.  Kids do not need to make the same mistakes we made in order to learn.

  1. What job are you going to apply for when you graduate?
  2. Is this the best degree for that job?
  3. Do you know anyone who has a job like that now?  
  4. What was their degree and which college did they go to?
  5. Is there a more specific degree you can apply to that will give you more options?

It is interesting to note that the degree you choose becomes less and less important the further you advance in your career.  When your daughter is contacted by a recruiter to become the next head of GE they will not care whether she graduated with a history degree or molecular biology.  They will also not care what her GPA was at that point.  The fact that she graduated from Harvard however might tip the scales in her favor if she is competing against another candidate for the job from a lesser known school, assuming all other aspects of the two careers are similar. More on choosing a college in Part 2.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Guest Interview - New Grad Recruiter for a global telecommunications company

As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is OK to ask for help.  I am no exception and have unashamedly taken advantage of the good nature and generosity of my friends for insights into new grad hiring and raising awesome (marketable) kids.

The transcript below is from an interview I had with Janet (name changed to protect her innocence) who has worked on new graduate recruiting for a large telecommunications company.  She asked that her name and the name of her company be withheld as the information below could be used by applicants to cheat the system.

Headhunter Dad: Janet, thanks for coming in. I am going to jump right into the questions if it is OK with you? How long were you involved with new grad recruiting?

Janet: I worked on recruiting for several years but was particularly focused on new graduates for about 1 year.

Headhunter Dad: Were you recruiting for specific entry level positions?

Janet: Not really, we were looking for 12 to 15 hires and started with about 140 applicants. The departments were all expected to take a couple of them. It was not pre-decided which departments would get a grad. There was a plan for rotation so to some extent it did not matter where they started. We did not know how they would turn out so it was better to keep an open mind about it. The only real distinction was whether to point them towards front or back office.

Headhunter Dad: Did you screen the candidates differently depending on the position?

Janet: Yes, but only for front vs back office.

Headhunter Dad: What were the criteria?  Did the school or grades matter?

Janet: Yes, grades did matter.  We asked for a transcript at the time of application, and then again upon graduation. Generally we were not necessarily looking for straight As but not much less than B-. If things got really tight between a couple candidates from the same school, we may compare grades. The school does matter. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the academic system does do an initial filter of intelligence/ability to compete.

Headhunter Dad: What other criteria were there?

Janet: We used a personality test to filter in the beginning. The test screened for competitive drive. Candidates were declined if they scored as too accepting or shy or had no analytical skill. Too conforming was a negative as well. Although, it is important to distinguish between conforming and teaming. Teamwork was definitely a positive. We assigned candidates to the front or back based on their perceived personality.  Typically introverts for the back office and extroverts for the front. Extroverts should be inquisitive and good at building relationships. Back office people should have good analytical skills. Good teamwork was important for both.  Candidates needed to be able to show that they were tolerant, worked well with others and have clear opinions. After the personality test the candidates who passed went to the English test. This was outsourced and mainly focused on speaking. The last step was face to face with the executives. Usually 2 executives would meet one candidate and afterwards the candidate would move to another room to meet 2 more. Each candidate would meet a total of about 6 executives for 20 minutes each. The final decision was based on a vote. Executives were supposed to consider what the company needs to grow in the future and look for a match in the candidates. We wanted generalists, people with basic skills we could train. If one executive REALLY did not like a candidate he was declined, even if the others liked him. This was because of the rotation system. That candidate would have eventually rotated into that executive’s group.

At one point, we put all of the candidates that would receive an offer in a room to mingle and interact with each other and a few of the executives. This helped to identify where they should start.  Candidates who initiated conversations were more likely to be assigned the front office for example.

Headhunter Dad: What did you look for in the resume?

Janet: To be honest, they all looked the same. Although there was a preference for anyone with an engineering background. Hobbies were something that helped to set them apart if the hobby was interesting.

Headhunter Dad: What did you look for in a face to face interview?

Janet: Kids are all too nervous so we spend a lot of time calming them down before we can really get to know them. Even if the English was bad, it was positive to see someone try hard and keep at it throughout the interview.  Smiles were great, if not faked. Too confident, "Nothing to learn" is not good.  It is OK to make mistakes, learn from them. Self-awareness is also important. Finding a good fit helps them to grow. Being able to answer questions like the ones below show self-awareness:
·      What am I good at?
·      What am I bad at?
·      What interests me?

Headhunter Dad: What questions do you ask in an interview?

Janet: We asked:
·      What is the toughest thing you ever had to do?
·      When have you shown leadership?
·      What do you think of China (for example)? This one to check or tolerance.
·      Why are you interested in us?
·      We talked about the business to see how well they can follow along and make connections to check their analytical skill.
·      What are you looking for?
·      What is the biggest problem you faced and how did you solve it?
·      What drives you? - Bad answers would be money or travel, good answers might talk about family or things the candidate was proud of. A part time job is always nice to hear about.

Headhunter Dad: Do you have kids?

Janet: Yes, one boy in grade 6

Headhunter Dad: What are you doing now to help him prepare for that resume or interview?

Janet: He is signed up for karate and has been doing it with his father since 1st grade. This has really helped to build his self confidence. Candidates need to be able to sit in the interview and explain themselves without help. This is hard to do if they are not grounded well. The karate helps to give him something. No matter how hard the interview is, he is still going to be good at Karate.

A job is not the end all of life it is just one thing, important but only one part of life.

Headhunter Dad: Appearance is obviously important but what do you look for? What turns you off?

Janet: Appearance is more important for front office. Candidates should carry whatever they look like with confidence. You cannot change your height, even though tall is generally better. It would be refreshing to have a candidate confident enough to acknowledge their height/weight. "Am I the biggest candidate you are interviewing?" might be an amusing comment coming from a heavy kid and would show some comfort with their appearance and confidence.

Headhunter Dad: Which job should a young person choose?

Janet: The one where they will learn the most.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Take away the Gameboy/DS/PSP/iPhone and help your kids ace their interview

My son is lost to the outside world once he starts playing video games.  His mother may have to call him 3 or 4 times before the sound of her voice punches through the haze of virtual reality where he is energetically scaling digital walls or racing down silicon highways in his purple and yellow Ferrari.

I should make something clear before continuing with this article.  I like video games.  I think they are a fun and entertaining past time and depending on the game they may actually provide some benefits to our kids.  But, only in moderation and more importantly, when they are played.  We have a one hour screen time rule in our house (for the kids anyway) and while my wife and I are guilty of being indulgent parents occasionally we do our best to limit the amount of time our kids spend in front of the TV, handheld games and computer.

To some extent though, the bigger issue is when the games are played.  I prefer the one hour our children are allotted to be used at home, after the homework is finished and when my wife or I are around.  This gives us more control over what is played or watched and even allows us to interact with our kids while they play (even if we have to talk louder to drown out the game noises).

One of our goals as parents is to raise our kids to be socially adept.  Along with the pleasure this skill will give to our kids and the people they interact with throughout their lives, it is also critical in their job search.  Time and again I see employers make hiring decisions on what they refer to as "chemistry" rather than the hard details of a resume.  Chemistry, in case you were wondering, is hiring manager code for "I just liked him better".

In order to help our kids develop this important skill set, I have become decidedly less enthusiastic about anything with a screen attached once we leave the house.  If we head out as a family for dinner or a trip to Costco it becomes a valuable opportunity to interact with our kids and to set an example of proper behavior in public.  If my son is playing his game for the entire car ride then he will not hear a word my wife and I say nor will he join the conversation.  The car is one of the few places these days where he cannot get away from us and as such it is a good spot to talk with him.

Restaurants are a fantastic location to work on manners, small talk, patience and of course, which fork to use and when.  Allowing our kids to break out their Nintendo's as soon as they sit down eliminates any chance of small talk and does not force them to practice their patience.  I know the temptation.  You and your spouse would love to have a moment to chat about adult things without the interruptions (dragging the kids out from under the table) and whining about being hungry so you relent and gain some peace until the food arrives.  I get it!  We are not perfect either but we can try not to give in as often.  Every positive experience is another brick in the foundation of our children's future career.

If (and hopefully when) you try to cut back on the external gaming you will find that it helps to be prepared to entertain.  With the younger kids and occasionally with the older ones, I Spy is a simple and also play anywhere game that can help to take their young minds off of their growling stomachs.  There are many other games that would work but just talking and more importantly, listening to your kids is the best.  Be patient in order to get past the initial whining and you will be surprised at the conversations that develop.

Once your kids get comfortable with leaving the games at home, maybe Mom and Dad will leave their iPhones behind as well.  Wouldn't that be something!