In this month’s HR Magazine there’s an article about the benefits of “poaching” as a recruitment tool. Timothy Gardner, a management professor at Vanderbilt University is a published expert on “lateral hiring,” a nice way of saying you convince someone else’s employees to come work for you. Seems innocuous enough…or is it?

I taught an undergraduate Recruiting and Selection class at UCF for five years. To illustrate the recruitment process I’d tell my students that hiring a new employee should be a lot like the way you would find a “significant sweetie.” First you have to figure out what you want in a partner. Do you want someone who has a job, apartment, and is kind to animals? Or do you prefer a partner who has tattoos, doesn’t eat meat, and camps out in public parks to rail against “The man.” For recruiters this is when they establish qualifications for the position. They update Job Descriptions. Do you have a job description for your new beau, I’d ask. No? Then why are you surprised that after you get done playing kissy-face you find you have nothing in common with this numbskull?

After figuring out what your sweetie should be like, you need to develop a pool of prospects. Go to social events, answer personal ads, join Match.com, or approach people directly. Bars become job fairs. Telling your friends you’re in the market become networking. How do you make networking effective; reach out to those people who share your common interests. Maybe you network with mom, maybe not! Finally you identify candidates and select talent. So a first date becomes a job interview. If you spend the day together is that a working interview?

Anyway, this focus helped put the recruiting process into terms that a 21 year old college student could understand. If a hire fizzles out (kinda the way a relationship fizzles out) then maybe you didn’t really identify what you wanted, or maybe you didn’t interview thoroughly enough, or maybe you just didn’t look around long enough and hired the first loser that answered your ad!

So, all that said, what do we make of Dr. Gardner’s assertion that lateral hiring is legal, ethical, and desirable because the issue lies not with the party soliciting, but the relationship the solicited apparently has with their current suitor? To quote, “Managers who lose employees through lateral hiring want to blame the hiring organizations but the real issues come down to the relationships they had with their employers.” There you go. If someone comes and steals your sweetie, it’s your fault you loser! Not keeping them home fires burning? Then be prepared to have your partner skip out on you. Ok, maybe there’s some validity to that. There must have been some issues at home to make the person stray. Maybe you write it off to the solicited; they have no loyalty and hid it from their partner. Maybe there’s an issue with the solicited’s morals. It’s ok to look around while you’re hitched. Hey, you know what Dad told you before you moved out, it’s always better to find a job while you have one. I guess the same applies to sweetie pies!

My question is what does it say about the individual that preys on other people’s partners? Is it ok to hook up by hanging out at the Publix in Lake Mary to hit on all the Heathrow soccer moms? Is it ok to sit at the bar at some businessman’s hotel and pick up hubbies who are on the road? Do you see PTA meetings as a chance to expand the numbers in your little black book? What about your neighbor who comes over to confide that she and her husband are having a spat? Do you feel sorry and offer condolences or think, JACKPOT!!

Folks, your reputation is one thing that you are entirely responsible for. The way you conduct your business says, “This is who I am, this is what I believe.” Whether you are an HR / Recruiting professional or just a business leader looking to grow your enterprise, you will need to have a good working relationship with your peers. Networks are built and thrive on nothing more than trust. You can’t see it, smell it, or touch it. But you know when it’s there. And you know when it’s been violated. Violate that trust, and don’t be surprised when some big biker is pounding your sorry butt into sausage because you made a move on his girl!

S*** My Students Say…

April 2, 2012

“I’m cool with anything, minus a lot of things…”

I think I’m going to rename this blog after a short-lived William Shatner sitcom, “S*** My Students Say.” I spend the week doing my job, but in the back of my mind I’m always looking for topics or news of interest to pass along in this space. Facebook passwords from job applicants, Orlando’s employment scene, health care reform and company health benefits, entry-level job opportunities, networking; all of these have crossed my mind as meaningful topics, but only half of them made it to post. Why? I work with MBA students at the University of Central Florida helping them find job and project opportunities. So I talk to people for a living. And people say some really thought-provoking s***!

This week I was talking to a young lady about her impending job search. My first question when I’m helping a student form a career plan is always, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a fairly simple, straightforward question; one that parents have been asking their kids since before kindergarten. But it’s probably the hardest question for students to answer. This week we were talking and when the discussion got to careers her answer was that she was pretty much open to anything, with certain restrictions. In other words, she THINKS she’s willing to look at any job. But in reality, her, “I didn’t go to college for X years to do that job” filter is kicking in. She’s not alone. It’s actually easier to talk about the jobs students DON’T want to do. I’ve seen “the look” a lot the last few months.

I don’t fault new grads for thinking they should expect a good job after graduation. Their professors tell them all about their exciting and exotic consulting assignments (getting PAID to just give your opinion, oh yea!! I’m full of opinions). Their parents, so proud of their academic accomplishments, have told them how smart they are. Society and the media tell them that having a degree, especially a graduate degree, is their ticket to stability in this highly unstable time. Movies and TV are replete with young hipsters sipping latte on worn leather sofas in a trendy little café. Looks like a great life to me!

So what I’m going to do this week is throw out a few “inconvenient” truths for my students to ponder…

Inconvenient Truth #1: Friends, Sex and the City, CSI…ARE ALL CRAP!
The lifestyle presented in these television shows is out of the reach for most new grads. It’s TV. It’s fake. That’s why you watch it. No one has budgets to hit at work or bills to pay at home. Their jobs are swarthy and exotic. They wear snazzy clothes, get their nails done and eat at cute little bistros. Want a bit of truth? According to a recent survey 85% of recent college graduates will move back home with their parents. Unemployment of recent grads is decreasing slowly, but student debt and stagnant (or commission-based) wages in entry-level jobs make that “made-for-TV” lifestyle impossible for most grads. Pop culture is NOT a realistic indicator of twenty-something living. I’d also like to add that most adults over 40 are full of crap as well. It’s been almost 20 years since we looked for an entry level job with no job experience. Unless we’re in the business of hiring people, our opinions are simply a guess at best.

Inconvenient Truth #2: No one will hire you to manage something you haven’t already done
Poll graduate business students and their top job choices will include consultant, financial analyst, investment banker, and baron of private equity. I recently polled a sample of HR professionals and their overwhelming entry-level job recommendation was administrative support and “overhead.” Positions generally categorized as overhead include IT support, HR administration, and customer service rep. Sales was a strong second. Large companies that have “pipeline” management programs (including most large retailers) will have the new hire work and show success in a variety of support positions including sales before moving on to more responsible positions.

Inconvenient Truth #3: People who make lots of money, don’t draw a salary
If you have an aggressive salary in mind (and almost every student who has come to see me does) then you can’t think in terms of a salary. New business grads who earn “good” money right out of school tend to work in jobs that have performance-based pay structures. That means they have to work really hard and they have to perform really well. They don’t sit in a cube (or trendy, brick-walled office like Truth#1) and put in a normal work week. They don’t talk about shoes, clothes, basketball, or weekend vacas with co-workers. They don’t put numbers in a spreadsheet and analyze data for someone else to review. They hustle. If you don’t want to sell something, then going back to Truth #2, you will probably enter the workforce in an administrative or overhead support position. Nothing wrong with that, the positions exist for a reason. Learn your job, hone your craft, and position yourself for promotions. But don’t expect to get rich immediately.

Inconvenient Truth #4: Words that end in “n’t” will severely limit your opportunities
I watch BBC’s “Top Gear.” Love the show. In one episode Richard Hammond was in Asia and needed to pick out something to eat. “Don’t like…” was what he kept saying over and over again. Consequently, he went quite hungry during the show. When employers hear grads say, “I won’t…” or “I can’t…” or I don’t…” they quickly lose interest in the grad and go looking for one who will. As they say on Top Gear, a new grad “top tip” would be to ask the Recruiter about their first job. Talk to the hiring manager about how they started in business. You’ll probably hear more stories about jobs that were quite humble and not very exotic.

Convenient Truth: You’ll probably lose this job in the next few years
Remember your high school sweetheart? Is he or she sitting next to you? Today the chances are much higher that if you do have a seat mate, you’re sitting next to someone you met later in life. Why? Options. Personal growth. Expanded communication channels. Individual fulfillment. Blah, blah, blah…. Same thing with careers. How many people do you know who’ve had the same job since graduation? How many have had more than one job, either at their employer’s request or their own? Your first job is not what you’ll do forever. Rather, it builds skills, traits, and accomplishments that will not only populate your resume but make you a better, more effective job candidate. If you narrowly define that “perfect” first job you may not ever find any first job in the same way your weird old spinster aunt or creepy bachelor uncle never found a mate.

Why is this last one a “convenient” truth? Because this truth is the one that should make new grads happy. Your first job will set you up for success in the future. You’ll build professional skills, gain experiences, and begin to shape a personal brand that can lead to that sexy / exotic / super cool job that you wanted out of the gate. The job might be with the company that hired you or it might be with a different company. It could be in the city you started in, or a different city (even one with trendy cafes, worn leather sofas, and a decent latte!) The possibilities are there, if you are open to anything!

“Sales.” I said it. I said it loud enough for the sleepy young lady in the back row to be annoyed by my inflection. I smiled when I said it. And I watched their cherub-like exuberance slowly melt into an ashen repugnance. They were budding MBA graduates. A sales job is beneath them!

A month or so ago I wrote that in Orlando, “you either sell to those who serve, or serve those who sell.” It generated a LOT of discussion in various circles. Some thought I was castigating professional sales as a career path for new college grads (including those newly-minted MBAs) but I want to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Sales, in fact, is an EXCELLENT way for new grads to gain entry into a firm.

Why? It’s the best way to show what you, individually, are capable of achieving. It’s also the most effective way to learn about the firm’s core product or service. Career-wise it’s a good move because companies will generally lay-off overhead and support positions before touching revenue generating positions. It’s also the best position to be in to interact with every operational unit at every level of the organization. From a control standpoint you generally enjoy a performance-based pay structure, are given a great deal of flexibility to self-manage, and initiate most of your interactions. Intrinsically you get to experience the highs and lows that come from setting and achieving goals along with helping your clients operate their businesses or live their lives better.

So why do students have an aversion to sales? Some claim they don’t like the reputation a “sales job” has. They immediately think of a used car huckster or other dishonest caricature. I know this picture well. I worked in the car business and there are a lot of folks whose actions keep that reputation alive. Slicksters, cheaters, sloths, and just outright crims dot the dealership landscape like so many potted plants. But it’s too easy to blame the profession for some bad seeds. I think that’s a convenient excuse for not really knowing all it takes to be a good sales professional.

Sales is hard. To be a good sales professional you have to be smart. You have to be able to retain tactile facts about the product or service you offer, you have to be able to communicate with and relate to your customer, you have to listen to their needs, and ultimately be able to apply what you know to create a solution for your customer. When I was teaching I used to say it’s one thing to barf up a list, it’s another thing to be able to pick through the chunks and identify what made you sick.

Sales takes discipline. Good sales people have to be smart enough to create a plan and have the discipline to stick to it. You have to manage your own activity, manage your time, and stay organized. It also takes interpersonal discipline. You’ll be challenged and questioned. You’ll be rejected. You’ll have to “suck it up” and make amends when your plan falls through or someone outside of your sphere of control fails to perform effectively. You create and maintain the image of the company you represent. Ask Charles Barkley, being a role model takes discipline.

Sales means you have to perform. In sales there is no cover. You either did it, or you didn’t. Your performance is out in the open and subject to evaluation. Some people are not comfortable being held accountable. In sales if you don’t perform you can expect corrective feedback. You have to be mature (and disciplined) enough to take the feedback and improve your performance. If you don’t improve your performance, you will eventually pay the ultimate price and be removed from your position.

Finally, sales is less about talking and more about relationships. In the days of sailing ships the British Navy would solicit new recruits by just cracking them over the head. You’d wake up miles out to sea with a knot on your head. Sales professionals understand that long-term success comes from building a relationship with their customers, not cracking them over the head. Only thing is, it takes time, effort and talent to build a relationship. I’ve heard people say, “So-and-so is a great talker, he should get into sales.” Wrong! The best sales professionals are the best LISTENERS, not talkers.

Regardless of the job you have, you need traits like these to be successful. Accountants have to interact, consultants have to influence their clients, analysts have to be capable of complex thought, HR generalists have to build relationships. All of these are critical competencies to a professional sales person in the same way that all of these are critical competencies for a professional business person.

I still feel Orlando needs a more diverse Entry-Level employment base if it’s going to retain the best and brightest local college graduates. Everyone can’t be expected to sell or work in the service sector waiting for their break. Especially if that break is just a higher level position in sales or service. The graduate talent pool is just too diverse. However, a lack of options, doesn’t mean those options are bad.

“I hate fishing! Why would I bait a hook and wait for a fish to get hungry and come get the food. If I want a fish, I go down there and get the fish.”

I was having lunch with a new client and we were talking about his love of spear fishing. He grew up in Key West diving without tanks, not even a snorkel. Just a mask, fins and Hawaiian sling. It’s not a sport thing. It’s a food thing. He’s not looking for a trophy to hang on the wall. He fishes because he loves fish; fresh fish. So, if the desired end result is a meal, wouldn’t you take the quickest most efficient path there? Makes sense to me.

When my students talk about their job search, they talk about answering online job postings. They use the campus job board. They go to job fairs and do all the things that we generally associate with an entry level job search. Sounds like fishing to me. They bait their hook with a resume and wait for a job to swim by. If an employer bites, they work that strike like Bill Dance landing a trophy bass.

Here’s the problem with that approach and why I love my client’s position as a metaphor. My client likes to spearfish because HE chooses the fish to pursue. He’s not waiting for whatever wants to hit his bait. It’s essentially a shift in the power relationship; he’s taking an active role and making things happen. In the same way, incorporating networking and direct contact into your job search gives you more control of the job you try to land.

Sounds pretty straightforward, eh. So, what’s the downside? Plenty! First of all, lots of shots miss. Spearfishing is a skill and even the most skilled at it go home hungry on occasion. You need to practice…a lot! That means getting off the boat. That means getting in the mix. In job search terms, that means turning off the computer, putting on pants and getting out among people! Networking is an active strategy and to learn how to use it you have to practice. Then once you figure out how networking works, you have to do it a lot to get good. Then to stay good, you have to keep doing it.

Next you have to know where to fish. You can put a lot of effort fishing a reef with none of the fish you want to eat. Again, networking takes skill and knowing where to find the fish you want takes practice and experience. For example, knowing dolphin gather under beds of floating grass is something you learn after spending a lot of time out on the water. So if you want to network with bankers, do you know where to fish? How about HR folks? Purchasing managers?

Finally, you may snag a fish that you can’t actually land! My client told a story about tagging a huge grouper that was hanging around a wreck. But he couldn’t pull it in. He tied it off, went up for air, and kept coming back. But in the end he couldn’t land it. You might make what you think is an AWESOME connection only to hear, “We aren’t hiring” or “Gee, I really don’t know anyone that can help you.” You invested time, effort and skill. Made the shot. Got connected! But, you couldn’t make the sale. Or you picked a target that just wasn’t right for you. Happens a lot. Sometimes you can change your technique or approach. Sometimes you can back off and then hit it again later. Sometimes you have to do like my client and go get help to land it. Then again, sometimes you just can’t land it.

Networking and direct contact is the key to unlocking the ubiquitous “hidden job market.” Sounds exotic, but really all you’re doing is ditching the passive rod and reel for a more active Hawaiian sling.

Lonny

When I was a kid my dad had a Zippo lighter. Actually, I think everyone’s dad had one. They were standard issue to GI’s in WWII and no one could be the Marlboro Man – Ten gallon Stetson askew, wrinkled smile, cig hanging from one’s bottom lip – without one. That is, until that whole problem with cigarettes and cancer, emphysema, and all kinds of other health issues made smoking only slightly more socially acceptable than spitting tobacco juice while Uncle Lou gives the blessing before Thanksgiving dinner. People still smoke these days and some of them carry a Zippo. But the vast majority of smokers would rather flick their Bic than maintain a lighter. Cricket and Bic lighters took the disposable fire creating attributes of matches and got rid of the litter. Well, until it was out of fuel, anyway. Zippos needed TLC. My folks kept lighter fluid in the Kitchen cabinet next to Florence Henderson’s Wesson oil. I remember my dad taking his lighter apart to change wicks or maintain that mysterious little sparking thingy.

These days disposable lighters come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Plain, ornate, big, mini, pink, blue, and designer disposables from Ed Hardy fill the shelf in front of the cash register at my local convenience store. That last one cracks me up. Only in America could you sell a wildly blinged-out item that’s meant to be thrown away when it runs out of gas! But it’s not just lighters. Diapers are disposable, razors are disposable, cameras are disposable. Shoot, if you think about it, this laptop that I’m banging out this blog on is disposable. In a few years it’ll be way cheaper to just buy a new one instead of upgrading memory, drivers, or a CPU. So why are we so quick to discard these used up commodities? No more minutes on your cell phone? Toss it in the trash and go get another one when you need it. Toaster on the fritz? Don’t empty the crumb tray, just stop at Target and get a shiny new one. Short of the underwear guys have worn since high school and will never throw away, no product in use today is designed to be purchased and then maintained over the long run. You just pitch it and go get a new one.

Is it the hassle of having to maintain the item? Are we so busy that the Zen task of pulling apart a small appliance, massaging life back into it, and then carefully reconstructing it is too consuming and bothersome? Or is it the expense? Has the cheap, plentiful nature of replacement items made it easier to just toss the old one aside and get a new one? And then there’s repurposing. When cigars were hot you couldn’t use your Zippo, you had to buy a new expensive torch that burned special NASA formulated fuel that wouldn’t sully the subtle overtones of chocolate and road tar in your Romeo Y Julieta Maduro Reserve. Zippos, according to the standard paradigm, were for lighting Marlboros (remember the cowboy?)

Unfortunately, many companies now treat their people like disposable lighters. People, to their employers, are commodities. Nothing wrong with that; that’s why it’s called “Human RESOURCES.” Labor is purchased in the hope that the output will be more valuable than the costs of operation (wages, benefits, training, office supplies…) Back in the day, people were Zippos. You went to work at the local mill, or in an office, or at the store and 35 years later they gave you a watch, a dinner, and sent you packing in your Oldsmobile to some Adult Living Community in Florida. But somewhere along the line, employees became Bics. You didn’t take a junior employee and move them up, you hired a new person to do that job. Maybe it was technically beyond their reach. Or maybe it dealt with some new process or technology that no one understood. Or was it just way too much work to do what needed to be done to repurpose that person for a different job? People were a fairly cheap commodity for a while and it was easier to just buy a new one. I remember one job where I was laying off Engineers while hiring new ones at the same time. The old ones were really just technicians. They had some technical expertise related to existing products, but lacked the formal education and design expertise needed to create new products for new markets. In other instances I’ve witnessed the dismissal of an employee with no prior disciplinary issues because they made a mistake or took an action that was “grounds for immediate termination.” Fighting and stealing are reasonable. But I’ve also seen it applied to behavior that was determined to be an “audit risk.” Labor, then, is no different than Bic lighters, Gillette razors, and Fuji cameras. No different, that is, except for one glaring difference. Labor is personal.

Given the current state of our economy, new employees are more available than ever. Anyone who took an introductory economics class can line up their supply and demand curves to know that for now, labor is plentiful and cheap. Not only is unemployment still almost three times what it was before the recession, but “underemployment” or the employment of people in jobs that demand less than what they’ve previously done is on the rise. My guess is this will only exacerbate the tendency to view labor as disposable. Instead of investing in what they have to make the worker better, or repurpose it for a different use, or simply maintain it so it’ll keep working efficiently, short-sighted companies will feel it’s easier to just toss aside half-used employees for one that’s newer, cleaner, fuller, or just more blingy.

This in turn will create a feeling among existing employees that they need to look out for themselves since they could be one mistake, one poorly executed project, one personal emergency away from termination. Instead of seeing themselves as part of an interrelated team, employees are in competition to show that they are not the weakest link. In highly competitive fields that focus on individual metrics, the competition could result in cheating, cutting corners, or at least a bunch of nanny-nanny tattle tales vying for the boss’s good graces. This will ultimately limit the team’s productivity. When Laverne and Shirley discarded their cooperative shopping spree strategy for an “Every man for himself!” sprint to the finish line they ended up sacrificing a cart-load of winnings for Bosco and a box of cookies.

Additionally, this approach means that the path to promotion for existing employees will be stymied because it’s cheaper and easier to hire a new person that’s been laid off from a higher level job somewhere else than it is to develop an existing person and guide them through the learning curve. Not bad on the surface. Get some new blood in there. Look and the clusterfudge that GM became by eating its own young. But not every company is GM. Most companies benefit from procedural and environmental experience. Philosophies are developed over time and need to be passed down, or you end up with “Mission Creep” (the desire of the new creep to redirect the company’s mission!) At the most basic level, think about your own boss. How does it feel when that person has your back, and how does it feel to be hung out to dry? So, next time you stop at an intersection, look out your window for an old discarded lighter and then think about the people that work for you. Are you tossing them out the window as they dull, or doing what you need to do to keep their flames high and bright?

Lonny

Networking Pre-work

March 7, 2012

I work with an International student and she was telling me about how employment works in her home country. “Here, you network as part of finding a job. At home, the only way to find a job is through who you know.” She went on to tell me that a small network of powerful elites still control most of the post-Communist economy. The job market is closed and there are no want ads, no applicant tracking systems. Her story got me thinking about the challenges new grads face as they enter a new market where they may not have many connections. For example, Orlando can, at times, have established and mature networking circles that are hard to penetrate. So what is a new job seeker to do? Here are some hints…

Know WHY you are networking. Do you have a job already and you’re selling a product? Are you looking for a new job? Do you have a “school” job and you’re looking to move into a professional job? Are you just looking to expand your circle of contacts? Do you need a mentor to help you through the first few years of your career? All of these are valid, but you need to be specific with the people you reach out to regarding why you’re reaching out. That doesn’t mean tell them in the first sentence (we’ll discuss that later) but do some self assessment to know WHY you need to network in the first place.

Know what you have to offer. A former student of mine who is now a successful business owner summed networking up this way, “I never think about what I’m asking for, I spend time finding out helping others with what they need.” In other words, give and it comes back to you. But…to do that you have to know what you have to offer. If you’re looking for a job, you offer experience, skills, talents, and qualifications. Be specific. Write out a series of “I can…” statements. Something like, “I can think creatively to solve problems.” Or, “I can interpret a financial analysis.” If anything it can serve as a morale booster during what can be an arduous and humbling process. A lot of this is obviously on your resume, but be able to give tangible examples (with results and outcomes!) of times when you’ve done the things you say you can do.

Know what you need. I used to teach a class on Recruiting and Selection. I told my students that the hiring process was a lot like dating. The first step in finding a person who will be a good match for you is to know what qualities that person should possess. In the same way, a good hiring manager knows the skills and qualifications a person will need to do the job they are trying to fill. Fail on this and just jump in and you’ll soon see why your new significant sweetie is running off with your roommate and stealing your CDs! Bringing it back to networking, when you know what you need it not only guides your actions on where and with whom to network, it keeps you from asking for things that don’t help you with why you’re networking. I said before that networking is all about giving, but you need to know when to say, “Thanks, that would be helpful” when it comes back to you.

Identify places and groups. So now you’ve done the self-actualization thing, what’s next? We’ll, as your mama used to say, the measure of a person is who they choose to surround themselves with. Go back to your lists of what you offer and what you need. Do you offer a Human Resources degree from UCF? Then get involved in the alumni association. Join SHRM and the Central FL HR Association. Get some cards made up that you can hand out. Include your contact info and a few highlights from your resume. Leverage social media tools like LinkedIn to frame your identity and engage in conversations. Join groups and get involved in the discussions that take place.

Ask lots of questions. When I worked in the car business, I learned that the best sales people, the one’s with a book of business that could choke a mule, that never had to take an up because they worked repeat customers and referrals, the ones who had the highest customer service scores, the ones who had the best closing rate, the ones who were the best at what they did, didn’t really say much. They asked lots of questions and found out what the person thought, felt, needed, etc. Want to see how this process works, read The Trail and Death of Socrates. See the Socratic method in practice and take that lesson with you to your next networking event.

From this point on you can find plenty of guides on networking. It’s probably the most overused tip in career advising today. But remember that until you’ve done some self evaluation, you won’t know where you’re going. And if all you do is talk, no one’s going to ask you to come back!

Lonny

Not sure if I can finish that witticism from my rural youth in polite company. Suffice to say, it points to making yourself seem more appealing by increasing your proximity (and potential for comparison) to less appealing individuals. Yea, I know, crass. But layered in this homage to “Foxworthian” philosophy is a lesson for college grads. You can increase your perceived value by simply being compared to less valuable. Seems simple enough, eh? Not so fast…

A month or so into my new job I’m watching the local news and hear a headline about a local college student being arrested for trying to wrestle a police officer at a football game. I remember looking up over my coffee thinking, please don’t be one of MY students. Now why would that be my first reaction? Quite simply, I didn’t want the brawler to be associated with my pool of students. I didn’t want one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.

Cities and economies have reputations as well. A city can be tagged as being unsafe or “business friendly” based on the publicity it gets/seeks. It can also develop a reputation based on what’s happening in nearby cities. Cities compete for positive press so that they can look like the place to be. And that reputation is leveraged to attract businesses, industries, and ultimately workers.

According to the most recent wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Orlando should be concerned. I looked up data for a “Financial Analyst,” a typical entry level position for recent college grads. When you compare Orlando to its closest neighbor, Tampa, we actually compare favorably with a mean annual salary about $2-3K higher (translation, about $1.70 per hour.) But, when you compare Orlando to two major metropolitan areas with highly diversified economies, we don’t fare as well. Orlando lags Miami by $7K and Atlanta by $10K. Additionally, Orlando trails Charlotte, a city of comparable population but a very different economic base by $8K. When you compare overall wages for all occupations Orlando lags all of these locations (including Tampa) by $3-5K.

Much of the buzz around my last posting had to do with salaries and wages in Central Florida. Specifically, job seekers who commented felt that wages in Orlando were too low. This can be driven by a number of factors including cost of living, the nature of Orlando’s service dominated economy, and simply what the market will bear. Additionally, the price of labor can be impacted by what is has to offer. Workers that are seen as highly trained or possessing a special expertise can drive up wages for themselves, the industries they support, and ultimately the entire economy.

So how does Orlando’s cost of living compare? Metro Orlando’s index is slightly HIGHER than the national average, being driven mostly by the cost of housing and transportation. Tampa, on the other hand, is LOWER than the national average (and almost 10 points less than Orlando!) Factor in wages that are only slightly higher and Tampa becomes more attractive by comparison. The comparison is even more striking when you look at Atlanta and Charlotte. Buoyed by lower transportation costs (public transportation and lower gas prices) both of these metro areas have cost of living indexes lower than the national average. Miami, plagued by higher transportation and housing costs is the only metro area in this informal survey that has a higher cost of living than Orlando. But factor in higher wages and it seems like it may be a wash.

Lower costs of living, higher wages, tell me again why a top quality recent grad would hang around? If we want to grow our economy and reap the long term benefits of retaining our best and brightest college grads (not to mention attracting NEW grads from elsewhere!), we’re going to have to fix this one. What tangible advantages do we have over these other metro areas? What do you think drives down wages in Central Florida? And, most importantly, what do we need to do to make ourselves look prettier? I know there are things like Sun Rail in the works, but it has been in the works for some time now. As always I invite you to weigh in on the discussion. Comment here or shoot me an email at UCF_OCC@yahoo.com.

Lonny