During last week's Washington town hall meeting about the economy, Ted Brassfield, a recent Indiana University Maurer School of Law graduate asked President Obama point blank: "Is the American dream dead for me?" His question stemmed from the fact that Brassfield is under employed as a newly minted JD, working part-time contract jobs doing research while looking for full-time employment to put his law degree to work. His hopes of starting post graduate life with a career, family, and a home are on hold until he can afford to do so, postponing his vision of the American dream. Brassfield, like thousands of other unemployed or under-employed new graduates, in a variety of academic disciplines, is facing the reality of massive student loan debt repayment and grim job prospects.
Is Camelot Dead?
When I saw Ted Brassfield's recent interviews on TV plus the myriad of blogosphere comments, I knew there was more to this story than what was being told. I had the pleasure of working with Ted during his student tenure at Indiana Law. I can say with conviction that he is a stand-up guy, smart, and articulate. He has been focused on a call to serve since his undergrad days at Princeton which ultimately led him to law school to be part of the new generation of change agents. So why doesn't he have a job? The economy doesn't discriminate and Brassfield represents the model full package candidate who can't get a break in this job market.
Ted and I spoke at length about his town hall experience and the 15 minutes of media fame that followed. This piece was inspired by Ted's message of hope for the future that was not the focus of any of the follow-up coverage from the town hall event. We can all learn a valuable lesson from this young man, who like so many others vying for jobs in a desolate market has every right to be angry and upset. What distinguishes Ted is his ability to remain solution oriented.
Wanted: InspirationTo be clear, Brassfield, who strongly supports President Obama as the best person for a difficult job, was surprised at the President's reaction to his pointed question at the town hall meeting.
Ted Brassfield, like so many new graduates, as well as the seasoned professionals whose careers are casualties of the economy, is yearning for inspiration and direction. When asked about his solution Brassfield commented
"He looked me in the eye and shared my frustration. Perhaps he didn't feel that we empathize with him. Still, I feel like he has been playing it way too safe, a strategy that the other side can frame as a loss; I want the passion back." - says Brassfield.
"The world is complicated and there is no single solution. We need to learn from the attempts that fail and refine our approach. What would inspire me? Bold gestures and not putting all our eggs in a worn out basket."
The Employment Corps
Ever witty, Brassfield suggested a required movie night with the First Family, Congress and staffers on the White House lawn. He suggested inviting the public down to the Mall. "It's been tough before, Hollywood has even made a few movies about America's resilience, innovative approaches, and success on our own terms. Let's watch Rocky, break into groups, and each submit 1 or 2 plans to grow the economy and tackle unemployment." While the movie night idea was told with the proverbial tongue in cheek, Brassfield did have some compelling ideas about forming an Employment Corps Task Force.
With Obama signaling that there is space for new blood and that all options are on the table it might be an ideal time for Brassfield to pitch his idea. His Employment Corps Task Force would be made up of seasoned professionals and new graduates in a variety of academic disciplines and career fields. This think tank would be charged with coming up with ideas and strategies to jump start employment opportunities. Such a group could effectively broaden the options considered by Obama's economic task force at minimal cost: Brassfield envisions utilizing public libraries and offering participants only a modest stipend. It sounds simplistic but the inspiring words of the late cultural Anthropologist, Margaret Mead have never been truer - "Never doubt that a group of small thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Responsibility of the EmployedIf you are employed today you are very lucky but job security is not what it used to be and everybody is at-risk in this economy. Brassfield offers a suggestion for using part-time work to get the unemployed back in the saddle.
"Relaxing certain employment regulations--especially in the public sector--could allow for a new category of part-time paid, part-time unpaid positions. We need to be careful, so that the unscrupulous don't try to get around minimum wage, but with proper whistle-blowing protection and some common sense, it could be a boon to the country and to the underemployed."
The premise is that the unemployed have an opportunity to stay sharp in their skill sets, feel like they are contributing to society, and most of all have some earned money coming in. It's easy to get frustrated and apathetic when valiant efforts in the job search yield no success. Brassfield reflected on the famous JFK question and seriously asked "What can I do for my country?" This is a question for all of us and has nothing to do with what political team we play on.
Take the Employment Challenge
If you are employed and in a position to help, I challenge you to consider how you can reach out to those without work, whether they are new graduates or experienced professionals. The onus is still on the job seeker to network like mad, be at-the-ready for opportunities, and be the well packaged, articulate job candidate at all times. But if you want to lend a helping hand, here are some ideas that will help our unemployed know they have our support.
• Be open to share information, network, and offer job shadow opportunities.
• Offer contract or part-time paid work to the unemployed and under-employed to help them bridge the gap. Special projects are ripe for contracting and may save you time, money, and resources in the end.
• Communicate with those who are job searching to bring them up to speed about openings in your network and cultivate good morale.
• Serve as a mentor and be willing to go to bat for job seekers who have earned your trust and respect.
• If you are a hiring manager, offer constructive feedback about why candidates are not a good fit or how they can improve their candidacy. This extra step takes time but goes a long way to foster positivity for those looking for work. Plus, they may know someone who would be an ideal fit for your opening which will save you search costs in the long run.
Hope Springs Eternal
For Ted Brassfield, the opportunity to ask a question of the President at a televised town hall meeting was an experience he will never forget. This young professional is prepared to do the heavy lifting himself and continues to plug away at launching his full-time legal career. He is prepared to sacrifice, but he is unwilling to give up either his American dream or hope.
His dream has always been to serve in the federal government. As a newly minted JD he wants to put his skills to use pursuing consumer regulatory work looking out for the interests of everyday people, or perhaps to be part of the new financial watch dog efforts. Of course, a seat at the table of his Employment Corps Task Force would be ideal in the meantime. Ted Brassfield, along with so many new grads is eager to be part of the solution.
Caroline Dowd-Higgins pens a career transition blog called "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" (www.notthecareeriordered.com). She is also the Director of Career & Professional Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.