The Skills Gap

photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Have you heard of the “skills gap”? Recently, while researching and writing content for some business blogs, I found the discussion of the skills gap particularly interesting—the disconnect that employers complain exists between skills needed in the workforce and the education students are receiving. Employers complain that they get a landslide of resumes, but a large number of job applicants lack the necessary skills. According to Online Colleges, a resource for online education, our government is looking at a variety of ways to subsidize colleges and universities on the condition that academic programs better reflect job market trends. Good? Bad? Both?

With the economic downturn and reduced number of jobs, a student’s chosen field of study probably matters more now than ever. Many people with expensive liberal arts degrees are finding it difficult to get decent jobs (which makes me extremely sad). I’m all for the practical fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but our society needs to be well rounded, doesn’t it? Little bit practical, little bit creative.

Management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources Peter Cappelli says employers now look at filling a job like buying a spare part. They expect the person to fit exactly without much investment in training. He also mentions that automation has made the hiring process easier and cheaper for companies, but if an applicant doesn’t use the right keywords and exact titles in writing job descriptions, they may get nixed, even if perfect for the job.

This sounds very faceless…and conforming. Is it me, or is that ironic? We’re always talking about thinking outside the box. But seems that a lot of times, we pretty much just like to put a checkmark in it and align it nicely with the others.

Another interesting point that Cappelli makes is that when pressed for details, employers often list “character issues” like punctuality and motivation as a greater deficiency than technical skills and education. Aha! Human factors. Something a computer couldn’t be the best judge in determining. We need face time. Time to grow and hone our unique gifts. I obviously don’t have the answers (or else I’d be getting paid the big bucks), but as you probably know already, I’m a firm believer in gaining early hands-on experience by volunteering or doing internships, which is basically the same thing—one just more formal and businesslike than the other.

True, certain fields are practical and have higher earning potential—and if you love them because that’s where your passion is? Full on great. But those in the arts and social sciences are still needed. Where would we be without those who love history and culture, and write it all down for the generations to come?

Where is the balance? Any ideas?

The Frasier Contest: A Cut Above

MBT frasier logoAs a writer who lacks stashes of cash, I obsessively research which writing contests to enter. And I mean obsessively. One of the suggested ways to lift yourself out of literary obscurity is to enter contests…along with attending conferences, purchasing memberships to writing organizations and subscribing to services like Publishers Marketplace. The choices can be overwhelming and pretty pricey, so I pro and con my way to my best value options.

A contest that stands out? I’d have to say the Frasier—an annual contest for unpublished authors conducted by My Book Therapy (MBT), a writing craft and coaching community for novelists. It’s open to any fiction genre (and even non-fiction, if that’s your specialty). What matters most is how well you can tell a story.

Last year, I entered the Frasier and I rate it with 3 out of 3 stars. Why? Because it excels in the following value-added categories:

1.  Feedback: A contest that provides feedback is worth its weight in gold, silver or any precious stone of your choice—especially thoughtful feedback.

Nothing is worse than sending out your work and hearing…NOTHING. Unfortunately, that’s how it is with most contests. You enter—and if you don’t win…ah, well, better luck next time. That’s it. You’re left with all the same questions. …Did they not like my story? Do they not find the lives of intrepid humanitarian aid workers interesting? …People who risk so much to try and make the world a better place? Did they not like the writing? Do I use too much dialogue? Do they not like smarty-pants heroines? It can’t be true they’re only attracted to books set in NYC. What’s wrong with Guatemala? It’s exotic. Do the romantic elements come out soon enough? Did it hurt my chances that I don’t have a cat in my story? Or that I include military characters and some cool airplanes? 

You see? I could go on and on. I’m a writer; I can have entire conversations in my head. Lucky for us, the Frasier lets you know what the judges think of your work—and not just with a numerical figure. They actually comment!!

2.  Prizes: All entries reaching the final round will be judged by Susan May Warren, the founder of MBT who is an award-winning, multi-published author; literary agent, Steve Laube; and Shannon Marchese, senior fiction editor for WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. These are high-value eyeballs to have review your work. If they take an interest, you know where this could possibly lead! Additionally, the winner receives a scholarship to an MBT coaching retreat, valued at $500. As writers, I believe we should always strive to learn more about our craft. In my view, if you stop learning in life, you’re dead…literally. Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a team from which you can learn, bounce ideas off of and pepper with questions…and even better—in person? Which leads to point #3…

3.  Community: Writing can be a lonely profession. Have you ever felt like, as a writer, you were out in the snow, freezing your bohunkus off, peeking in the window at shelves lined with published books, where everything seems warm and cozy? Well, the folks at MBT have a way of pulling you inside, seating you next to the fire, and shoving a mug of hot chocolate in your hands. When everyone takes a seat and the telling of tales begins, you realize you’re no longer alone in the difficult endeavor of writing a book.

As Susan May Warren, the founder of MBT says, “…we’re your friends, cheering you on.”

Entries for the 2013 MBT Frasier Contest will be accepted through Sunday, March 31, at 11:59 p.m. The contest is open to Voices members, which is FREE to join. For more information, FAQs and to enter, visit www.mybooktherapy.com or click on the Frasier picture above.

For any of you creative types, what do you look for most in a contest or arts community? What have been some of your experiences…good and bad?

Photographer Expands Her Skill Set In A Big Way

Weddings must be fun to photograph—people clinking glasses, wearing fluttery silk, and holding hands. Most people will happily pose for the camera and grin, but plenty of beautiful flowers and candles are conveniently available to soften even the countenance of the grimmest great aunt.

But what about a different sort of assignment—when you’re asked to capture something hidden in the shadows that has nothing to do with a happy event?

One of my fellow A21 Campaigners found herself facing this challenge not long ago. Caroline Howard is a wedding photographer here in Charleston, SC, who recently created a photographic series for The A21 Campaign-East Coast’s: BE HER FREEDOM fundraising/human trafficking awareness event this past June. (She was also in charge of the entire design of the art installation used to portray a victim’s journey from darkness to light, but that I’ll save for a separate post.)

Her evocative series attempts to convey even a small portion of the despair and deep sense of isolation a human trafficking victim may suffer.

I decided to go interview style today.

Me: How difficult was it switching from photographing weddings to images representing the darkness of human trafficking? What kinds of challenges did you face?

Caroline: It was definitely a challenge to switch from shooting weddings to shooting a darker subject, not to mention that everything I knew about journalism was stripped away; I had to create those feelings of darkness, heaviness and oppression.

Me: Do you think this experience helped you grow as a photographer? In what ways?

Caroline: Before this series, I had never shot personal work. If I photographed someone that wasn’t a paying client, there was a work-driven motive behind it, typically to build my portfolio. Even though this was for a specific event, I had never (in almost six years of being in photography) shot something that was putting myself out there, my aesthetic, putting my vision into a medium of art. Shooting this series gave me the affirmation that it’s okay to produce work, produce art, without a motive. Although I’ve transitioned back into wedding mode with the approach of fall wedding season, I’m actually working on another project just because. It’s a nice feeling.

Me: Any particular words of wisdom or advice for other photographers out there who might be interested in volunteering their services for a cause? How to go about it?

Caroline: The biggest thing I’ve realized is to be proactive. There is a surprising amount of people who want to get involved, but we need people with specific ideas—people, and artists, who can step forward and say ‘Not only am I willing and interested in getting involved, but I have some ideas on how I could make it happen. This is an idea I have.’ Because when it comes down to it, organizations and groups are excited and willing to take on talented volunteers such as photographers because it’s something not everyone can do. But they may need some ideas on how best to utilize the talent of a skilled individual.

I am so thankful to Caroline for the interview and for the opportunity to show off her incredibly moving photographs. Please visit her photography website at CarolineRO to see more of Caroline’s amazing work. I’d also like to thank Meryl over at Recovery Thru My Lens for sparking the idea for this post by asking how a photographer might volunteer.

What unexpected opportunities have come your way via volunteering? What are some talents you might offer up? What might you present to a nonprofit?

Who Doesn’t Need A Little Validation Now And Again?

INFJ personalityA few months ago, a multi-published author mentioned to me that she sometimes uses a personality tool to add variety to her characters. Studying psychology, she said, can be a great resource for adding depth and realistic reactions for characters with very different personalities and temperaments. I was intrigued. I took a writing class shortly thereafter that included a segment on character psychology.

It also made me wonder if there were certain personality types more prone to volunteer for causes.

Whatever your profession, I’m betting you’ll find this personality test interesting. Have you ever taken one? This one is called Human Metrics and its based on Jung and Myers-Briggs typology. Online, there are about 70 Yes/No questions. It’s a quick click-thru and at the end (obviously), it gives you a summation of your personality type.

Now, I tend to be skeptical of anything that smacks of extreme reductionism. We, humans, we’re complex, right? How could a few questions possibly hope to encompass and define my personality?

My results? I am an Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging (INFJ). Here are a few snippets:

“Strongly humanitarian in outlook, INFJs tend to be idealists, and because of their J preference for closure and completion, they are generally “doers” as well as dreamers. This rare combination of vision and practicality often results in INFJs taking a disproportionate amount of responsibility in the various causes to which so many of them seem to be drawn.”

“INFJs are deeply concerned about their relations with individuals as well as the state of humanity at large.”

“Usually self-expression comes more easily to INFJs on paper, as they tend to have strong writing skills.”

Hmm. Okay, so they mention a few areas and activities that take up a significant portion of my day. I admit it was an unexpected shot of validation because sometimes, I sit at my laptop, staring at the blinking cursor, thinking “What are you doing with your life? Why aren’t you out in the corporate world earning the bucks? Why are you editing this novel about expat volunteers . . . again. The pieces you write for good causes, nobody even knows you wrote them. Not the best way to build an author platform, dummy.”

But maybe . . . just maybe, I’m doing what I should be doing. According to this profile at least, it seems I haven’t wandered too far off the path that my natural compass points to pretty consistently. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

(If you’re interested, read the complete INFJ profile provided by TypeLogic.)

Find out which personality type you are.  I’m not saying they’re right. I just think it’s interesting, and you might, too. Do you feel like your profile aligns with your life and views of yourself? Do you want it to? If you volunteer, what personality type are you? Introvert? Extravert? What jobs and volunteer positions pique your interest?

Impact of International Travel On Teens and Twenty-Somethings’ Career Paths

Get out and see the world: Why it can be a good idea for teens and twenty-somethings before jumping into the workforce.

The irony of traveling in foreign countries, especially when studying abroad or volunteering, is that you learn a great deal about yourself. Beyond self-reliance and how to get yourself around, my own personal experience has been it helps bring you closer to figuring out your purpose in life and what issues in the world matter most to you.

Some tough questions: Is your job or the degree you’re earning in college, right for you? How many of us later in life are NOT working in our field (on purpose)? How many of us would’ve liked to figure out earlier we wanted to do something else? If you want to be a doctor or nurse, maybe it would be a good idea to volunteer for a medical nongovernmental organization, see if medicine is where it’s at for you, or if you chose the profession for other reasons. And this goes for countless other professions as well, since humanitarian work covers pretty much every aspect and need of life.

While volunteering, you might just discover your niche. You might discover the topic of your thesis or develop special skillsets that boost your resume over other applicants. Immersed in a language, you might just become fluent.

Volunteering or studying abroad is thought, in general, to enrich understanding of other cultures and promote greater acceptance of people who dress or talk differently. Recent studies show study abroad programs having a huge impact on people—in particular, for those going somewhere in the developing world.  Many maintain a long-term interest in the places they visit and the cultures where they have made friends, and go on to invest time and effort in development programs or become social entrepreneurs.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, says in his book, Half the Sky, that if you really want to help….”to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it—and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.” (pg. 88) He goes on to say that he believes one of greatest failings of the American education system is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. He is of the opinion universities should require graduates spend some time in the developing world by taking a gap year or study abroad.

What do you think? Should taking a gap year or study abroad in a developing country be a university requirement? (Personally, I would’ve jumped for joy to be ‘required’ to do that.)

5 Ways The Publishing Community Promotes Good Causes and Can Simultaneously Help the Aspiring Writer

In the process of profiling literary agents who represent the kind of book I have written, (literary fiction with a commercial bent), I noticed how many agents, editors and publishing organizations promote good causes. Considering I write a good bit about volunteerism and am an aspiring novelist, there could hardly be a better combo for me.

Online Auctions: Online auctions such as Brenda Novak’s Auction for the Cure for Diabetes (held in May) offer bidding opportunities that run the gamut…from travel packages to jewelry, but what is unusual about this particular auction is the section for writers. Brenda Novak is a New York Times Bestselling author and knows a lot of people in the publishing industry. More than 120 literary agents and editors offered, pro bono, to do a range of manuscript evaluations for the cause.

For an aspiring author, it is a brilliant win-win scenario: support diabetes research and…1) get your work in front of participating, first-class literary agents, editors and other industry professionals, 2) get to the top of the slush pile, and 3) receive that precious, but so-hard-to-get feedback. This year, the auction raised over $300,000. Pretty impressive.

Another aspect of this win-win opportunity is what it says about the caliber of agent or editor. These are people who have agreed to offer their services pro bono for a cause. I’d say that’s a nice indicator of the kind of agent I’d like to have promoting my career.

Brenda Novak’s auction is an annual event, but also, there are situation-specific ones such as for the Japanese disaster. In March, (Red Cross month), a group of writers conducted the Writers for the Red Cross auction that benefitted a local Red Cross chapter as well as the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. In their FAQ, they mention ‘Why writers?’ I love their reason for involvement besides raising funds… “Writers share a commitment to community by bringing people together through their stories.” I really hope my work can do that someday. For this kind of auction, you’ll need to keep an eye out. Unfortunately, with all the natural disasters occurring in the world, you will likely have ample opportunity.

Also, on Ebay, literary agent, Irene Goodman, auctions critiques of partial manuscripts at the start of every month. All proceeds go directly to the Deafness Research Foundation, Hope for Vision, and Foundation Fighting Blindness. Her son, 23, has Usher Syndrome, which is a genetic condition that causes progressive loss of both vision and hearing.

Proceeds donation: This is ‘Cause marketing’, which I described in detail in my post ‘Shopping Incentives’ last November. On June 7th, (sorry, I’m late on this), F+ W Media, Inc., the parent company of Writer’s Digest, decided that 50% of all profits made on that specific day from their Writer’s Digest shop (that sells books, offers webinars and a whole slew of writing classes), would be donated to the Red Cross for relief efforts regarding the recent tornados that cut a deadly swath across our country. In early spring they did the same to raise funds for the Japanese disaster.

Sponsorship: Organizations such as Publishers Weekly, Writers Digest and RT Book Review Magazine were co-sponsors for the Brenda Novak’s Online Auction for the Cure for Diabetes.

Awareness Promotion: It was from the blog of literary agent, Kristin Nelson, that I first learned of the online auction for the cure for diabetes. (I highly recommend her blog to anyone trying to get published. Lots of good stuff there). Research for diabetes is a cause close to her heart, so she promotes awareness of it. Agents generate a lot of traffic on their sites and can really help get the word out. Additionally, writers looking for an agent can gain insight into what particular subjects might be of special interest to them. Another example is a blog post by agent, Jenny Bent, to promote awareness of Down Syndrome. She supports Reece’s Rainbow, which facilitates international adoption of children with Down Syndrome.

Individual Calls to Action: Literary agent turned author, Nathan Bransford, promotes volunteerism, in general, and expanding your horizons. He went on a volunteer trip that changed his life. (I’m not the only one who had this happen.) Here…he says it best, himself,

“…remember when I went to Peru on a volunteer vacation and it changed my life? Well! You have this opportunity too! Please visit Volunteer Journals at Travelocity, and all you have to do is enter a video for a chance to win a volunteer vacation. People, voluntourism is the greatest thing ever. Enter! Enter! Enter!!”

Voluntourism (a.k.a. volunteer vacations) is a subject that deserves a whole series of posts. And I have a great place to start. My sister-in-law just returned from one in Africa on a game reserve. That’s up next!

Mid-Term Elections: Voting Day

  • The phone banks are growing quiet.
  • Red, white and blue signs are plastered on any and all inanimate objects.
  • Lawns are staked.
  • Helium tanks are scarce.

Have you ever volunteered for a political campaign? If you have, what tipped you into action?

  1. Policy: You’re passionate about a specific issue(s).
  2. Affiliation: You’re a member of the same party…or maybe it’s your dad who is running.
  3. Networking: It’s an opportunity—a resume builder or a possible gateway to a future job.
  4. Social: It’s a place to meet like-minded people.

What would make you go that extra step and not just vote, but volunteer?

Volunteering Yourself into a Job

Several years ago, I was helping re-roof a girls’ dormitory at an orphanage in Guatemala when, in mid-hammer swing, I was offered a job working in humanitarian logistics. My shock was quickly followed by a gasp of pain from flattening my finger rather than the nail. With my finger in my mouth, (Why do we do that anyway? It’s not like it helps), I nodded. Didn’t plan it, but it proved a great opportunity. You just never know when or where it can happen.

Have you ever volunteered yourself into a job?