The week@work – Nail salon workers, Sally Mann, sacrifices of the successful and Dan Abromowitz shares his potential job list

The dominant story of work this week was told in a two part series for The New York Times, ‘Unvarnished‘, by reporter, Sarah Maslin Nir, “examining the working conditions and potential health risks endured by nail salon workers”.

“Once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, manicures have become a grooming staple for women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012.

But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.”

The series received an immediate response from the New York governor.

“Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered emergency measures on Sunday to combat the wage theft and health hazards faced by the thousands of people who work in New York State’s nail salon industry.

Effective immediately, he said in a statement, a new, multiagency task force will conduct salon-by-salon investigations, institute new rules that salons must follow to protect manicurists from the potentially dangerous chemicals found in nail products, and begin a six-language education campaign to inform them of their rights.”

In a follow-up report for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki examined ‘The Economics of New York’s Low Nail-Salon Prices’.

“…one of the most surprising, and economically telling, facts in the piece is also among the most mundane: namely, that the price of a manicure hasn’t budged much, if at all, in the past two decades.”

“What the nail-salon owners have done…is to pay their workers much less than a market wage. Maslin Nir’s nuanced account of who nail-salon workers are and how they live helps explain just how the nail salons are doing this: they hire workers who have fewer choices for employment because of language barriers, immigration status, and so on. These workers also have less bargaining power, and many are presumably leery of using the legal system to gain redress, which gives nail-salon owners the freedom to violate minimum-pay and overtime laws with little fear of being punished. The result is that these salons can stay profitable and still keep offering their customers the same low prices for decades. From this perspective, the cheap manicures New Yorkers have been getting have come, quite literally, at the expense of nail-salon workers.”

These articles, letters to the editor, media follow-up combined with good old fashioned customer guilt, will hopefully continue a conversation to improve the working conditions of these folks whose day is spent making others feel beautiful.

In other news this week@work:

Charlie Rose interviewed photographer Sally Mann. In an exchange taped for the CBS Morning News they shared their mutual concept of work: “In the end it’s love and work. Work to find your place so you can stand and leave your mark.”

Lifehack, a productivity and lifestyle blog reported on the ‘8 Things Successful People Sacrifice for Their Success’: “time, stability, personal life, sleep, health, quiet times, sanity and immediate desires.” 

Writer and comedian Dan Abromowitz shared a list of ‘Jobs I’d Be Well Suited For’ in The New Yorker, “As part of my current job hunt, I conducted a thorough inventory of my unique skills. From that, I’ve generated a list of professions at which I believe I’d excel. Please contact me if you are recruiting for any of these positions.” 

A sampling: “History Channel alien expert, Lobbyist, if that meant what it sounds like it means, Night watchman at Sleepy’s & Night watchman at the Museum of Natural History, provided that “Night at the Museum” is true, but lower-key than that.”

We are now in the ‘high season’ of university commencements. NPR has collected ‘The Best Commencement Speeches Ever’ from their archive. “We’ve hand-picked over 300 addresses going back to 1774. Search by name, school, date or theme, and see our blog for more.”

The Saturday Read – ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft’ – Matthew Crawford

What can you do with a degree in philosophy? Matthew Crawford received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2000. After a series of jobs as a ‘knowledge worker’ he created a career that combined philosophy, writing and custom motorcycle maintenance. Drawing from his personal journey, he wrote about the value of work and producing tangible results. His book, ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work’, was published in 2009.

In a New York Times Magazine essay he argued ‘The Case for Working With Your Hands’.

“A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.”

He provides the historical context to explain how we got to where we are today.

“High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.”

Contrasting his experience at a policy organization with his part-time experience tearing down an old Honda motorcycle under the guidance of an experienced tradesman: “As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.”

He then considers the broader implications to our society when the best and the brightest are channeled into elite institutions bypassing an apprenticeship in problem solving in the world of grease and dirt.

“The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?”

He remains optimistic as he concludes the essay: “The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels… For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.”

Enjoy the Saturday read, ‘Shop Class As Soulcraft’.

‘The Workforce’ – A Poem by James Tate

How often do you find yourself in negotiation with management and suppliers to acquire the resources necessary to meet your objectives?

In the poem ‘The Workforce’, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet, James Tate creates a dialog about the ‘resources’ needed to complete a job. It’s up to your imagination to visualize what these workers are trying to accomplish. To perform their task they need a variety of supplies…and women. We are left with the question: Are the women motivation to work or are the women workers who will help complete the task?

In a 2006 Paris Review interview Tate described his process: “I love to take a poem, for instance that starts with something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential and then grows in gravity until by the end it’s something very serious.”

The Workforce

Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I’ll see if I can get them for you.
I’d be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I’ll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don’t want to go there, it’s stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it’s my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
We have no women.
You’re a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can’t get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we’ll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.

James Tate, “The Workforce” from Memoir of the Hawk: Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Tate

The week @ work March 9 – 15

It’s amazing how many people cede their career decisions to the whims of others: high school students who select a college based on prestige vs. fit, college students who choose a major considering only the return on investment and mid career professionals who take residence in their comfort zone and lose connection with their network outside the organization.

There are many things in life where we have no control, but our career success is a result of the effort we apply to setting our goals and making them happen. Read any profile of an individual who has achieved their dream and you will learn of hard work, determination, failure, resilience and a bit of luck. These are folks who ‘own’ their career despite skeptics and critics, building a support system to enable their success.

This past week we suggested some ideas to jump start your decision process, reclaim ownership of your career.

First, write a letter to your younger self. What have you learned from your experience to this point? What is important to you? What were the ‘big’ things that seemed to matter at the time, that now, in retrospect, had no impact on your future.

Next, create a collage. Visualize your life in photos. Include all the things that describe you, and then broaden the picture to include the social influences and finally the reality of the workplace. Here is the narrative at the starting point. Who you are, who is influencing your decisions and how your goals will play out in the world.

Reflect on your experiences with a journal of life and work. Record your experience in real time and select intervals to go back and review: after a month, six months, a year. We are so consumed by the urgency of the present that we often miss patterns over time.

Clarify your ideas in conversation with others. Get feedback without abdicating ownership. Many have charted their career path before you and there is wisdom to gain from the stories of others.

Outline your plan and set it in motion.





This Is Your Life

Who is telling your story? Take a minute to think before you respond. It’s so easy to get caught up in the expectations of others that we often lose track of our own narrative, and after time it’s so buried beneath the voices of others that we need a team of archeologists to sift through several layers to find traces of our original thoughts.

It’s a basic question of ownership. Anna Quindlen describes it as “custody of your life” in her 2000 book,  ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’:

“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.

But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”

At the beginning of a freshman seminar each fall I gave each student a simple black lined Moleskine notebook. The idea was that they would ‘write’ their life in ‘real time’, scribbling snippets of their new adventure in college and hopefully initiate a practice that  would catalog their days long after commencement. I did not want this to be an electronic record, but life captured in the written word with pen and paper with time for reflection.

There was no expectation tied to the gift of the notebook, and I’m not sure how many students continued the practice of keeping a journal after the first few weeks. What I do know, is that keeping a written account of our days allows us to return and read our story as it evolves. If we have captured our hopes and dreams on paper, we can watch them emerge over time and even pinpoint when outside influences begin to redirect our path. And that awareness will inform our decisions.

You are the only person who can write your ‘true’ story. Keeping a journal, writing your life in real time, is one way to claim ownership of your career and your life.






‘Painting’ a Picture of Your Dream

For a number of years I taught an undergraduate course on career theories. Hang in there; I am not about to anesthetize you with the syllabus. As you may imagine, the content was a bit challenging and it took some imagination and good humor to engage students in the material.

In a nutshell, our career decisions reflect three major spheres of influence:

Our individual background including: age, gender, self concept, personality, values, ability and interests

Our social circle: family, friends, community, workplace and education

Our environment: political decisions, globalization, job market, socio-economic status and geographic location

All three are parts of a puzzle, when solved reveals a picture of our future.

Back to the undergraduate class. I think it helps to visualize how all these parts come together. To do this, we came up with the idea to create a collage that would illustrate, for each student, the evolution of their dream.

Starting with stacks of old magazines, poster board and lots of glue we all found our spot on the floor and returned to our kindergarten days, cutting and pasting, creating a vision that incorporated values, hopes, dreams and detours. In the subsequent class each student had the opportunity to present their collage and articulate their career vision. Lively discussion followed and in one case, a student who was being influenced to join a family business, found a substitute to introduce to his father – another classmate whose dream was to work in the type of organization his father managed.

All this to suggest a way to uncover your passion is to create a visual that creates a narrative for your journey. You can go old school and create a collage or use Pinterest to start a ‘career board’.

Creating a visual representation of your work life is a learning process, confirming your values and setting your GPS toward your career home.




Week in Review

Groundhog Day has always been one of my favorite annual celebrations. Since the Bill Murray movie, I think of it as the national day of second chances. So, if you don’t get it right the first time – you get another chance.

I launched ‘Workthoughts’ on Groundhog Day because a blog about work should be a blog of career evolution, lifelong learning and many second chances.

The blogs of this past week introduced some of the themes I hope to expand as we continue our conversation. Here’s a quick summary of the week that was:

Finding your work ‘place’ may be a more realistic way to find your ‘passion’.

The vanishing ‘snow day’ still provides an unexpected window into work/life balance.

Storytelling is still alive and well in both job funding and venture building

Competence and confidence will only get you so far.

Poetry is the portal to visualize your ideal.

We learn from the wisdom of others – this week, Bob Dylan.

‘In the news’ – The New York Times reported the ‘The economy cruised into the new year with a bust of fresh momentum, adding jobs at the fastest pace since the boom of the late 1990s and lifting unemployment and wage prospects for millions of Americans left behind in a long but mostly lackluster recovery.”

Will the recovery lead to more mobility within the employed? Good question to explore as we continue the conversation next week.