Those who pick up skills along the way generally keep employed, or solving unemployment on the personal level…

November 21, 2013

I was looking for something to write about in this space and then I ran across an article about something like 38 people applying for each low-wage job (part-time at that?) at a new Walmart store opening up in Washington D.C.  I didn’t even finish the article (yet). What caught my eye was some statistics it was using about the unemployment rate among those with various levels of education, such as no high school, high school, college. And as you might expect, it said the rate is lower among those with higher educations.

And then there is always the ongoing argument or discussion about the worth of higher education, to include the fact that so many college graduates, already deep in debt from borrowing to finance their education, cannot find jobs.

At 64 years of age, I can safely say from what I have observed the key to employment is being willing and, more importantly, able to do what someone else needs to be done. Yeah, works almost every time. Regardless of your education (well most of the time) if you are able to perform work (manual or otherwise) someone else needs to be done you will have a job.

Simplistic I know. And yet so true.

As my dad always told me: you should learn a trade so you have something to fall back on if what you really want to do does not work out. I did not follow that advice to a tee, that is not directly.

His advice was not original. People have been advised that forever.

In my own life I just bumbled along. But somewhere in my late middle age I learned the truck driving trade (not my first pick of things I always wanted to do) and have not been without work since (save a bout of disability due to health).

Now I don’t for a minute suggest that is the key. No I would suggest a far better trade or skill. And yet, it worked for me.

Not all trades or skills require a degree or license or such. People just learn things by doing them on various jobs and find that what they learned comes in handy on other jobs.

Now the following is not exactly an example of what I am talking about but it comes to mind nonetheless:

Once another trucker and I arrived at a newspaper to deliver rolls of newsprint. But there was a problem. The lift truck the man at the newspaper dock was using would not work. Well my trucker friend in another job did some work on forklifts. He found the problem — it was something about a loose fuel line as I recall — and fixed it. Now there is a man who could get a job. He picked up some skills along the way. I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes you have to be not too narrowly focused. It helps to be somewhat multi-talented.

What I am trying to say is that people who want to work and who in fact end up getting work are usually those who open their eyes to what is in demand at the time and also who pick up skills along the way. And that can start young. I am not a good example personally, and yet in my younger days I was certainly offered a lot of opportunities:

My dad was a newspaperman, but he grew up on a farm and there he learned some skills, such as carpentry and home (and farm) electricity wiring, and plumbing. He did a lot of handy work around the house. I should have paid more attention. But once when I was little he was wiring a light switch and said: “pay attention, you might need to know this some day”. Years later when I had a home of my own, that came in handy.

During high school and at times later I did some amount of farm work, driving tractors and such. On one occasion I worked for a farmer and he said if I stayed on through harvest he would have me drive a big truck from field to processing plant. I went on, though, and became employed in journalism. But wouldn’t you know it? years later I attended a short course in truck driving and went into driving semis — the earlier offer by the farmer could have come in handy later.

And here’s a real good one as far as I am concerned:

When I was in the army in Germany I was a crew member on a tank. As tank crew members we did crew maintenance. As part of that, when mechanics needed to work on our engines we undid various bolts to assist them in getting at the engine and transmission which was then lifted in one unit right out of the back of the tank. But I had a fellow crew member who was a black guy. I mention his race only because I’m trying to make a point. There is always the lament that unemployment is high among minorities. Well he went a step beyond crew maintenance. He learned how to undo the brakes, something the mechanics usually did. I had no clue. But he took it upon himself to learn. Now there is someone looking to build skills for future employment. I mean you never know.

And this holds true in all types of work — in the field, in factories, in offices, everywhere.

All of this is easier said than done, I know. Sometimes you are kept busy and not offered the opportunity to do anything else. But some people just seem to ignore that roadblock.

I don’t claim to be among those. But I will pat myself on the back for the following:

When the newspaper trade finally played out on me during that era of corporate downsizing a couple of decades ago I sought help through some public agency (veteran’s?). After a discussion with a counselor, the guy tells me:

“I could put you in a training program but I see you as someone who is just going to go out there and get a job.”

Really. He said that. I was discouraged, temporarily. I mean how much help is that? But then I did what he said. I was desperate for sure. And sometimes that’s what it takes.

I should add, now that I think about it, that tagging along with my dad as he made photos and covered various news stories, to include fires and floods, gave me a head start in journalism.

All this does not solve the lingering unemployment problem and the fact that there are way too many people and fewer and fewer jobs, due to the rapid movement of technology even more than economic conditions.  But when you’re unemployed it’s a personal problem that public policy and politics and such is not likely to solve for you personally. I was just making some observations from that personal point of view.

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Hey check out my new video edition of Tony Walther’s Weblog: http://youtu.be/PMupDfggVIM

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Some inconvenient truths about truck driving…

March 26, 2009

(This is a slightly updated version of a previous blog.)

People out of jobs are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it.  For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are rolling. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover or even wait time (but usually not total wait time and such pay is usually not much, often not even minimum wage). And layovers can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

And if you don’t like wait time, I’d advise staying away from hauling refrigerated or temperature controlled freight (such as produce).  I once logged in 40 hours of wait time in one month, not counting sleeper birth or meal breaks. And I was not paid for any of it, as I recall (and if  I was it was only a few dollars).

I would discuss that issue upfront with a prospective employer (they may string you on, though).

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it and got out of it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul LTL (Less than a load) and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I won’t go over hours of service and log book rules in total detail, but basically under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Under current rules, if you have 34 consecutive hours off, you start a week again with 70 hours available on your log book.

Some companies or dispatchers or your own greed or all three may goad you into cheating on your log book.  Or you might feel compelled to because you notice that the first to get his or her load delivered is often the first to get a reload. Do not do it! You, not anyone else, are liable if caught or anything goes wrong. The most likely scenario besides you falling asleep at the wheel and killing folks is that someone will run into you. If this happens and your log book is not up to date and/or legal, you may well get the blame under the law, no matter who was really at fault.

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of what I wrote was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul. And some feel a sense of independence out there. It certainly is not like most jobs. You are not highly supervised.

And in this time of high unemployment to have any job has become a status symbol. Just ask any unemployed investment banker (right after you ask him what the hell he did with that bonus check paid by your taxes).

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!

(Copyright 2009)


Take a long look before going long haul…

February 9, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

People out of jobs or fearing they soon might be are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it. It’s officially or in truck driver parlance called “layover”. For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are moving. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour, or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover, but often not for the first night. And your layover can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving, I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I was going to give you an example, using federal hours of service rules, but frankly I don’t remember all of them, and few people completely understand them or their interpretation, including truck drivers and the police.

However, basically, under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

The 14-hour rule is relatively new. It used to be drivers could by working their log book stretch out their allowable driving hours over days. But at any rate, you’re looking at 14-hour days. If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of it was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul.

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!


Re-inventing yourself for jobs can be tough…

January 10, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

There was a commercial some years back about a couple of suspect chicken characters trying to sneak in the gate passing themselves off as Foster Farms chickens. The security guard shined his flashlight into their car and said:  “what’s this? it looks like freezer burn”.

Pretending to be someone or something you’re not is not easy.

It made me think about the plight of those looking for work in this dismal economy with the biggest yearly job losses recorded since the end of the second world war and in an economic climate reminiscent of the Great Depression.

More specifically, I was thinking of cast off newspaper journalists who find themselves in the unemployment line because newspapers after so long being on the deathbed are really dying. I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer for some 15 years (it seemed like a lot longer). And several times during that so-called career, as I call it, I found myself looking for work, sometimes due to my life decisions and as the years went by due to circumstances beyond my control.

Anyway, I found it particularly hard to get work out of my field in between newspaper jobs. And I write this not just with unemployed newspaper reporters in mind, but anyone who has to re-invent himself or herself to find work.

I know, the employment counselors always say you need to point out your transferable skills. I never was good at that, at least judging by the written and face-to-face responses I got.

Let’s see, as a reporter I wrote – but most people conjure up some eccentric novelist and don’t see any connection with their business. I typed (and the first part of my career I typed on a manual typewriter) – but even though I did take a couple of typing courses, I never really learned how to touch type, as they used to call it, as the secretaries do, although I do have my own modified touch typing system (keyboarding is what folks do today, I suppose). And reporting is not clerical work. I used the phone a lot, and then again, doesn’t everyone? I had to interact with people. But real journalists, I have read and I believe, are not people persons, as much as they are observers. As a reporter, even off the job, you’ll find a lot of people in social situations are either put off or intimidated by you. One wise guy glad handing loquacious local insurance agent once greeted me at a social affair with this gag line: “oh you tell everything you know.” And back to those supposedly transferable skills: yes, I was a photographer, but really the only kind of photos I was at all good at – and I was good – were on-the-spot news shots. And really, newspapers and magazines are the only ones in the market for that (and not so much now). These days with YouTube and everything else there is so much out there floating around for free there’s not as much demand. Guess I could have become part of the paparazzi – but not my thing. (Well, you see how this is going).

I firmly believe that telling someone or admitting to someone that you have worked in journalism is an interview killer right there. I could detect it on the faces of interviewers, even when they tried to smile and be polite and pretend to be impressed. Some of them even told me: “well, that’s fine, but we don’t put out a newspaper here.”

And once after I had gone back to college and got my BA degree (in political science and please don’t laugh as so many do when I mention that) and along with that obtained a useless paralegal degree from my university, an attorney interviewed me and noticing that I had worked as a reporter observed: “so, you’re used to telling the truth.” That would be a problem, he implied. That firm specialized in fighting against workmen’s comp claims, as I recall.

I didn’t get that job or any other in the paralegal field. And I should warn anyone here. If you think about going into a field, do a lot of research on it. Talk to a lot of people actually in the field and don’t fall into the trap of eliciting just what you want to hear.

But it’s not hopeless. If there are any jobs to be had you can get one. I did. And that proves it right there.

I’ve done quite a few different jobs over the years. I irrigated farm fields with ditch and sprinkler irrigation, picked fruit, was a tank crewman in the Army, worked at a sawmill, worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer, harvested worms for tropical fish feed, and drove big trucks. And I’m sure I left out some, but those were representative.

As I have blogged before, I lost my last newspaper job due to a corporate downsizing. And, due to various considerations I was not ready to simply move to another town at that time, so I took the drastic measure of totally changing my way of making a living.

I read an article in a free job news sheet that the long-haul trucking industry had such a demand for drivers (this was in the mid 1990s) that in some cases companies were offering free training and guaranteed jobs.

Strangely enough, I actually was rejected by a couple of companies (that journalism on my resume did not help). But finally, a company recruiter found on my resume that I had been a local delivery driver for a paint store (I forgot to mention that one earlier in this blog) and decided I could fit in.

That sent me off on a trucking career that lasted more than a decade, ending up with a shorter-haul outfit that paid well, very well. If I had not come down with cancer, as tough as times are now, as far as I know, I’d still be working. And I was paid a lot more doing that than in journalism. And, overall, I liked it. My last employer often demanded long hours and work in not always pleasant weather conditions, but paid well and paid for every minute of work, something more than I can say for a lot of journalism jobs and a lot of trucking jobs.

The best skills I brought with me into trucking I think are reliability, being able and quite willing to work on my own and make decisions without direct supervision, and being able to read a map and have a sense of direction (even that fails sometimes – all truckers have their nightmare getting lost stories).

Oh, and I have a quite extensive history in the strawberry root stock business too. On two occasions I worked out in the fields hefting burlap sacks and working on the back of a plant digger and working in the sheds dumping them onto tables for cutting. As a trucker I hauled those plants from fields and sheds to strawberry growers. And I hauled the finished product, fresh strawberries, from growers to the supermarkets or to the supermarket distribution centers.

I don’t consider myself to be handy enough to tag myself as a jack of all trades, but something akin to that – you know, a jack of all trades and a master of (almost) none.

Even though this post may not prove it or might even serve to disprove it, a writer is what I am and always have been.

And about the best advice I could give to any young person is to try to be what you really are and then be darn good at it. And I guess that applies to the not-so-young too.

Generally speaking, there is always a demand for people who are darn good at what they do.

Eagerness to do the job at hand and being able to express that enthusiasm is important too. I was on the other end of job interviews a couple of times and you’d be surprised at the number of applicants who just don’t give a darn. Why do they show up? I ask.

Showing up is the biggie, though. As Woody Allen put it: “half of life is just showing up”. 

P.s.  Never let a school counselor or any counselor sell you on a career. First of all, they usually have little to no real-world experience, and second of all, they may have something to sell. You are responsible for you and you have to do your own research. That means talking to real people, a lot of them, in your prospective field (and don’t worry, people usually love to talk about themselves).

Of course if you aspire to something that is not in big demand, you may have a problem – you have to decide if it is worth it. And, no matter what, you are likely to have to work out of your skill area for a time. But I would advise not turning your back on your true calling.