The Credential Conundrum—Limiting Whose Qualified for Which Jobs

Recently I wrote that I’m lucky that my work as a college prof affords me ample opportunities to learn about myself and become a better person. That doesn’t stop me from daydreaming about other work.

Depending upon the day, I’d like to be Dustin Johnson’s caddy, write a newspaper column, be a subsistence farmer, have a radio talk show. The alternative work that loops the most in my peabrain is money counselor by which I mean a hybrid of a financial planner and a financial therapist. I enjoy managing money a lot and I’m always intrigued by people’s disparate thinking about money’s relative importance and how those differences complicate partnerships. Most of all, I’d enjoy helping people reduce the gaps between what they think about money and how they live their lives.

I didn’t know shit about investing thirty years ago when my parents gifted me some money to save on their federal taxes. Somehow, as a modestly paid school teacher, I knew the gift was an exceedingly rare opportunity to build a little bit of a financial cushion, that is, if I didn’t blow it. So I started reading John Bogle’s books, the first step in my personal finance self education. Today, I’m a good money manager for at least two reasons—my independent studies and I internalized some of my dad’s self discipline.

What I’d like to do for an alternative living is listen to individuals or couples talk about their dreams, their finances, their greatest challenges and then help them clarify their priorities, adjust their spending, restructure their portfolios, and enjoy more open and honest communication about money. There’s gotta be people interested in that doesn’t there?

There’s only one problem, to do that work I’d need a long list of personal finance and counseling licenses and certificates. Absent an alphabet soup of credentials, my self education and life experience don’t count in the formal economy.

Licenses and certificates are required in many sectors of the economy. They are designed to help consumers know they can trust that the holders of the licenses and certificates are competent. Take my work with teachers-to-be. Often people bemoan the fact that a Ph.D. can’t teach elementary, middle, or high school without first completing a formal teacher education program that typically lasts 1-2 years, not to mention passing related requirements including content area exams and a student-teaching based performance assessment.

Similarly, if you want to work on people’s nails or hair, you can’t simply rent a space and hang out a shingle, beauty schools offer formal training that culminates in licenses that enable you to “join the club”. Sometimes, when work is complex and requires specialized expertise, the Credential Industrial Complex contributes to public trust. Other times though, when the related work isn’t terribly complex, like working on nails or driving a cab, they can be used to limit competition.

Money counseling is on the “complex, requiring specialized expertise” end of the continuum, but wouldn’t it be nice if our job gatekeepers, the credentialing officials, devised intelligent ways to give some credit to individuals for self study and life experience. Absent that, everyone has to start from scratch, meaning people on the back nine of life, like myself, are less likely to switch things up.

 

Rethinking Work

My favorite 21 year old is graduating college this May and “launching” shortly thereafter. A college friend, a 56 year old retired SoCal fire fighter, was just accepted to a Physician’s Assistant program. This is for them. And everyone in between.

Our work tends to be the result of our personal interests; compensation considerations; and though we may not want to admit it, the relative prestige or social status associated with our chosen occupations.

More specifically, we choose among possible jobs not just because they pay the bills, but also because of the particular activities associated with them-we become teachers instead of accountants because we enjoy interacting with young people in classrooms more than we like crunching numbers in cubicles. A person attends seminary rather than law school because they want to make a tangible difference in their community without any pressure to maximize their billable hours. A person becomes a landscape architect rather than a golf club professional because they like plants and the outdoors more than they do beginning golfers.

Additionally, my fire fighter friend, if he’s typical of other fire fighters, probably partly chose his first career because of the unique work-life balance it afforded with a positive mix of twenty-four hour shifts and more than normal days off each month. I’m sure the excellent salary and benefits, service-orientation, and built in station-based community probably factored in too. A pretty great job altogether, apart from the extreme occasional danger.

Here is what even my daughter’s very good, vocation-oriented career placement center probably won’t tell her when she inquires about different possible jobs. Think about more than pay and primary activities. Talk to people doing the work about the less visible and less obvious activities, and the culture of their workplace, meaning the nature of their relationships with all of the people they regularly interact with. For me, as a university professor/administrator, my relationships are with faculty colleagues in my department and across campus, students, and numerous staff and administrators. Don’t fixate on the relative appeal of any job’s primary activities, instead, carefully reflect on the personal qualities each particular work culture is likely to cultivate.

For example, people think of teaching almost exclusively as what goes on between a teacher and her students during the middle of the day within the four walls of an individual classroom. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Ignored are the hours spent planning daily lessons; the hours spent alone reading and responding to student work; the hours spent teaming with colleagues to plan, problem solve, and respond to student work; the time spent continuing one’s teacher education; the time spent being a part of the school’s extracurricular activities. Conventional wisdom about teaching might account for about a third of a teacher’s weekly activities.

Every job comes with a distinct work culture, some work cultures cultivate more socially redeeming personal qualities than others. Working at Chicago’s Newberry Library is probably similar, but not the same as working at Northwestern University’s Main Library. So it’s a two-fold learning process, learning about library culture generally, and a particular library’s variation on “what’s typical” more specifically. How to do that? Talk to people at the library about the culture, what’s rewarding, what’s most exasperating, why. When, at the end of your interview, you’re asked if you have any questions, ask about the work culture, what do employees say when asked what’s the best part of working at x, what are some commonalities that prove most challenging.

Most people think about work in terms of how they’ll benefit/change the people they work with, giving little to no thought about how their work will change them. Every job you do for very long will change you, for better or worse, probably more than you’ll change anyone at work. Ask people doing the work you’re considering, “How has being a landscape architect, nanny, teacher, engineer, nurse, journalist, changed you as a person?” What personal qualities does the work cultivate? In what ways, if at all, are you a better human being as a result of doing this work?”

If they can’t answer that question positively, cross it off your list. Be bold. Don’t obsess about the obvious activities, the pay, the benefits, the perceived prestige; instead think about work as a context for self understanding and self improvement. Don’t think about work as an end in itself, meaning don’t fret about how your job or career compares to your peers; instead think about work as a means to becoming a better human being.

I’m fortunate that my work culture values good, open-ended questions, but my comfort with ambiguity can exasperate more concrete sequential, literal-minded people. And I’m fortunate to work with people, teachers-to-be, who are more altruistic and socially conscious than average. Their idealism and service orientation is a nice counterbalance to my cynicism and selfishness. I’m a better person because of their optimism and vitality. When it comes to the other two-thirds of my work, it’s mostly about conflict management, which provides daily opportunities to become a better human being. More specifically, I’m convinced my success resolving workplace conflicts depends almost entirely upon my ability to carefully, actively, and sensitively listen to others.

It’s cool that being a decent husband, father, friend, and citizen depends almost entirely upon the same thing. And for that reason, I’m fortunate to get to do the work I do.

The Ultimate Personal Finance Challenge

There are two types of investors, active and passive. Active investors are always educating themselves about personal finance; and paradoxically, tend to use passive funds, due to their lower fees and superior performance. In addition, they are purposeful in choosing a particular asset allocation and they monitor their progress regularly. They invest time and energy into increasing their wealth. I’m an active investor.

Passive investors, because they often think they’re not smart enough, often delegate to financial planners upon whom they depend for choosing particular investments and determining an asset allocation. Passive investors tend to end up with active funds with higher fees because they’re not paying very close attention.* They may not open their quarterly statements. Picture them falling asleep at the wheel of a semi-autonomous, financial planner driven car.

The most important thing I’ve learned in thirty years of investing is that there’s an undeniable point of diminishing returns when it comes to business smarts and investing success. Simply put, some of the most well-educated and successful business people I have ever known have made some of the worst investment decisions I have ever seen. And to add insult to injury, they’ve been unable to admit the error of their ways and reverse course. Too smart for their own good.

Personal finance research shows that once active investors master earning more than they spend, wire the difference into specific exchange traded funds monthly, and decide how best to balance bonds and stocks, additional trading detracts from their returns. Think of trading based on possible changes in the market as a “too smart for one’s own good” tax. Here’s one example.

Once you master earning more than you spend, wire the difference into specific exchange traded funds monthly, and decide how best to balance bonds and stocks, your ultimate personal finance challenge is doing nothing. Hence, consider my triumvirate of personal finance resolutions for 2017: 1) I will not be too smart for my own good. 2) I will not try to guess the market’s direction. 3) I will not trade. Or for the sake of additional research, you could guess and trade away and then we can compare returns in 11+ months.

* I hired an advisor in the early 1990s. Learned an expensive, but ultimately, invaluable lesson, no one cares nearly as much about your financial well-being as you do.

What Home Buyers Get Wrong

Six months on in the new crib, I’m ready to educate my brother who is allegedly studying design. This is for him, but I’ve been posting so infrequently of late, feel free to eavesdrop. Bro, just send a check for whatever you think my insights are worth.

Home buyers focus too narrowly on total square feet, too often thinking the bigger the better. We moved to a slightly smaller home, but it feels larger because we regularly use much more of the total area. In other words, there’s no wasted space. And even though there’s less total square footage, the kitchen is quite a bit larger. The beauty of the kitchen layout is you can open every drawer and the dishwasher and the refrigerator and still have two-three feet all around. No more sucking everything in when moving the silverware from the dishwasher to the drawer. In fact, now there’s nothing stopping me from packing on an extra 40-50 lbs this winter.

Our new master bathroom is about 60% the size of our former one. And it’s perfect. That other 40% was wasted space for the purpose of what, a slightly higher sales price? The new one has just enough room to do everything comfortably, and when it comes time to clean, it’s a breeze because damn near everything is in reach.

Homebuyers don’t realize small things make a big difference. Especially when combined together. Case in point, dimmable lights. Mercy me, how did I live in an on-off world all those years? There’s nothing like entering the bathroom at 5:30a, flipping the switch, and being met by a faint pre-dawn-like light. Same when preparing to retire at night. There’s nothing like brushing one’s teeth under a faint post-sunset-like glimmer. Every light should be dimmable.

Another lesson. You can’t put a value on genuine quiet, and on natural beauty, and on the edifying result of the two combined.

Another lesson. You can’t have genuine quiet and natural beauty without sacrificing some community. There are always trade-offs. Long time readers of the humble blog will know I value community. Is sacrificing some community worth the return in quiet, natural beauty, peace? Stay tuned, time will tell.

What else do home buyers get wrong?

 

Is There A Way To Climb Out Of This?

As in inveterate eavesdropper, I enjoy “Dear Abby” type columns. Presently, I like Slate.com’s “Dear Helaine” who answers personal finance questions.

Today’s “Dear Helaine” letter stopped me in my tracks because it succinctly and powerfully captures so many citizens’ dire reality.

 Helaine,

I am 41 years old and have not come into any windfalls of money, nor is there any hope I will. My financial situation is as follows: I make $15 an hour plus tips, and my paycheck is usually about $1,300 every two weeks after taxes. My rent and utilities take up about half of this income. My husband is unable to work because of a disability that is not disabling enough to qualify for Social Security. Our children are 22, 19, and 16. We have been living in a cycle of poverty pretty much for the past 23 years. And yes, we’ve been hit with student loans and medical bills that just don’t get paid—my husband is $30,000 in default. My older kids are working in low-wage jobs, $10 to $12 an hour, but as of now are not contributing to household expenses because I want them to build a life outside of the money-sucking hole of my reality. So, yeah, it’s dire. What kind of financial planning helps people get out of poverty? I am moderately intelligent and a really hard worker. I’m also kind of giving up. Most of the time, I would rather spend $8 on a pack of PBR than plan for retirement or emergency funds. My financial life is an emergency. Is there a way to climb out of this?

As I read it, I thought of Conservative Republicans’ knee-jerk response to poverty, people are lazy. I trust that this woman is telling the truth when she says she’s a “really hard worker”.

I purposely didn’t read Helaine’s response because I wanted to think about it independently. And I wanted to know what you think.

Two initial observations.

• student loans and minimum wage jobs, will their young adult children get college degrees, will those degrees provide them with any kind of competitive edge ?

• the husband is a “net loss”, spending, but not earning, can he do anything to generate some income?

It’s very easy to understand how the author, and the legions in her situation, would simply say “fuck it”, I’m going to enjoy today a little bit because tomorrow is looking real bleak.

I’m going to go back now and read Helaine’s reply. Mine would take a long time to write because there is no easy answer or quick fix to the family’s predicament. Of course the same is true of poverty writ large.

Final thought. Will this woman, her husband, and the 19 and 22 year olds vote? If so, for whom? They, and the legions like them, could determine the election.

[Can’t decide whether to give Olen an “A” or “A-“. Either way, a caring and thoughtful reply.]

Going Against Type

It’s human nature to extrapolate what we know about one another to predict the future. More simply, thanks to our pea brains, we put people in boxes. Case in point, my “friends” love nothing more than making fun of me for my sometimes frugal ways.

Truth be told though, I can open my wallet wide open, it’s just that it takes me a lot longer than the average person to be convinced of something’s value. In the last 18 months I’ve cracked the wallet wide open at least four times. From most to least expensive:

• New crib. Hard to express how fortunate I feel to have been able to make this purchase, the largest of our lives. I looked at enough waterfront properties in Olympia over the last several years to know the agreed upon price represented excellent value. We won’t make money on it because of real estate commissions and a 1.78% excise tax, but we won’t lose any either.

• New car. 2015 Acura TLX. It would be nice if I lived close enough to work to walk, run, or cycle. And close enough to everything else to ZipCar. But the crib is 4-5 miles from civilization and work is 30 miles. Amazing vehicle, no regrets, 90-95% as nice as luxury cars twice as expensive. The linked Edmunds review summary is a joke, my last tank, almost exclusively highway, I got 39.3 mpg. At that rate I can push 600 miles before finding a Costco gas station. I’ve averaged 35-36 from beginning. Perfectly quiet; excellent acceleration if you switch from “eco” to “normal”; buttery, Barbara Streisand-like smooth. Only blemish is a tech glitch. Occasionally, brake warning alert flashes on at random times. Last software update didn’t fix that. And since Dan is wondering, yes, a lot of women check me out while driving my new ride, but that’s been true since the first VW Bug beater, so can’t really credit Acura for that.

• 27″ iMac Retina. Three days old. Just read this article on it. Wowza, like being in Kenya. Never thought I’d own another desktop, but probably shouldn’t put myself in a box. Dig it.

• Last, but not least, this bad boy. The new crib sits amidst a lot of large trees. The wind blows most afternoons. This thing is total kick ass. One of my fav purchases in a long time.

So to my friends, put that list of purchases in your collective pipe and smoke it!

 

 

 

Equal Pay for Equal Work

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is threatening not to play until they get paid the same as male National Team members.

Admirable, but the challenge is building a men’s-like revenue stream for salaries, meaning attracting the same quality and quantity of corporate sponsors. The men’s team gets paid more not because of some vast misogynist conspiracy, but because they have a lot more eyeballs on them both in person and on television.

Why do more people prefer to watch men play soccer than women? I don’t know. Women’s tennis is an interesting comparison. They’ve succeeded in creating similar prize money at least at Wimbledon and the other majors. A lot of people enjoy the women’s finesse and power game more than the men’s power game, probably because their rallies are longer and thus more interesting. In this ardent heterosexual’s opinion, women’s tennis is hella sensuous too (tmi?). Maybe women feel the same way about men’s soccer?

Yesterday, the Ladies Professional Golf Association held it’s first major in Palm Desert, CA. The winner, the best female player in the world, 18 year old Lydia Ko from New Zealand, earned $390k for her one stroke victory on a course I once hacked my way around with the best father-in-law one could ever have. On the men’s side, “journeyman” Jim Herman won the run-of-the-mill  Houston Open for a cool $1,224,000. Ko pocketed less than thirty three cents on the PGA dollar.

Again, way more people prefer watching men’s professional golf than women’s, creating vastly different revenue streams. Why, I’m not sure. It’s okay that I don’t know, but for the women professional athletes who are agitating for equal pay, they better figure it out if they want to succeed in closing the gap.