Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp

During her homeless year, Brianna Karp chronicled her homeless experience on the blog The Girl's Guide to Homelessness. She was young, educated and according to her own account, had worked for over a decade, even as a teenager, at a variety of jobs that left her with plenty of marketable skills. When she was suddenly laid off from a job that she loved, she was forced to move back in with her parents, though coming back into the household with her abusive mother would not make this a long stay. However, Brianna was resourceful: she was able to use the unexpected inheritance of a trailer and move onto a local Walmart parking lot, find a place to shower and soon a job--though she did remain homeless, she was able to enter a community of homeless activists.

And she also met the man she thought she would marry. A significant portion of the book is devoted to her romance with a man from Scotland who would ultimately abandon her, and in the cruelest of ironies for a homeless activist, abandon her to the elements in the middle of winter. (Yeah, asshole is not quite the word...)

Brianna is remarkably resilient, turning a string of misfortunes into a job, a blog, a book deal and finally finding a stable job, at least at the time of the epilogue, and a place in the homeless activist community.

Caveat emptor: If you have any association with the Jehovah's Witnesses, you may not be happy with Brianna's depiction of the church or their position on several issues, or how she categorizes the group as a "cult"; however, she is basing her description on her experience with the church. I would also like to give a fair warning for the brief depictions of child sexual and physical abuse. These warnings should not scare readers off from the book, especially since I think it is an important book for librarians who have no or limited experience with homelessness, to read, since many homeless people use libraries for places to job search, research and rest, and Brianna's book does put a youthful, educated, female face on homelessness after the recent recession.

Friday, August 5, 2011

4 entry level jobs at University of Iowa

This came through a tweet from @wendyrlibrarian: 4 entry level jobs at University of Iowa

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Malled by Caitlin Kelly

In 2007, Kelly, at that time a freelance journalist, decided to take a part time job in retail so that she would always have some dependable funds in her account for living expenses. When she heard about a new North Face store opening up in a suburban mall, she decided to apply there and despite her lack of experience in retail, but plenty of life and travel experience, as well as fluency in two other languages than English, the management at the new store decided to hire her. According to Kelly, she was a consistent top-seller at her store, and the store that she was employed at was one of the top performing stores for that company.

Kelly's account as a retail salesperson and her examination of the industry focuses on two areas: how poorly retail salespeople are paid and how poorly they are treated by the customers that they are there to help, despite how essential they are to the company and the lipservice that companies pay to the quality of their customer service. She talks about the makeup of the staff at her store: usually minorities (though, minority to who and where? I always wonder), but well educated and ambitious, some with college degrees, others are former military, some are single parents, but they all seemed to be trapped on the retail roller coaster, moving on or up only if they can escape retail. Retail sales is not a career, Kelly argues, you can barely make a living at it, the physical demands are enormous, there is no concern for perfecting a professional salesforce, and the staff just doesn't seem to care--but they would do anything to get out of their retail jobs.

Kelly describes how the corporate focus on the bottom line means that frontline sales staff will remain poorly paid--supposedly shareholders don't want to pay salespeople more, but shareholders are always the villains--and not given adequate tools to perform their jobs. Indeed, the fact that many corporations are apparently clueless about sales, ergonomics, customers and products, is a recurrent theme in the book. The corporate mindset appears as inexplicable and implacable as Kafka's Castle.

A different generation?

I think it may be a generational difference, but I am surprised that she was shocked by how retail salespeople are treated, mainly because almost every person I know has had some experience working in retail as a teenager or young adult. This was Kelly's first experience on the other side of the till (or cash wrap, as she prefers) and at times she appears a little naive at how craptastic a job in retail can be.

She is right about one thing: it is not going to get better for retail workers unless customers stop shopping at stores with crummy service, and who become know for treating their sales associates poorly, as well as for crummy products. And though I liked the book and the immersive journalism, Kelly could have gotten that response from any teenager on their first job--and I would have liked to hear more about how teenagers and young adults can be exploited by this industry, in addition to the few glimpses of mature workers who, after the economic downturn, found themselves working in retail.

I might have enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed more, but I still think that Malled is an important part of the immersive journalism literature on workplaces.