The Internet: Making my life miserable?

I remember when I had hope for the Internet. As a freelance writer, I pictured a whole new world of writing opportunities.

Little did I realize, though, that these opportunities would pay humiliatingly low rates. Just yesterday, I encountered an online “entrepreneur” who wanted to pay me a whopping $5 to write a 1,000-word story for his Web site. What would I do with that $5? Hit McDonald’s? Invest it in Countrywide Home Loans stock?

Thing is, this isn’t unique. The Internet has brought out a whole new generation of con artist and scammer, of course. But it’s also brought out the cheapos, those folks who think they can get something for nothing. Unfortunately, when it comes to writers, these folks are often correct. Many newer writers, or hobby writers, are glad to write for such ridiculous wages.

But what about other industries? Has the Internet helped you find work in your industry? Or has it merely served as a home for people looking to pay you insultingly low rates for a lot of work?

Unemployment slows down the housing market

For years, I’ve covered the housing industry for newspapers such as the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. I also edit a real estate trade magazine. It’ve seen, then, just how hard it is for most people to come up with a downpayment of 20 percent when they want to buy a home.

If you don’t know, mortgage lenders for years asked borrowers to scrape together a downpayment equal to 20 percent of a home’s purchase price. That can be a ton of money. If you buy a modest house for $220,000, a downpayment of 20 percent equals $44,000. I don’t know a lot of people who have that kind of cash sitting around.

During the housing boom, though, lenders relaxed their standards. They began requiring far more doable downpayments of 5 percent, 3 percent or, in some cases, zero percent. That made it easier for people to buy homes. Of course, it also helped push the housing industry into the chaos it’s suffering through now with record foreclosures and plummeting housing values.

So the lenders have changed. Most have done away with no-down programs. Many others have even left behind the 5-percent-down programs. Many borrowers are now going with FHA loans, which require downpayments of just 3-and-a-half percent.

What does all this have to do with careers and jobs? Plenty, as it turns out.

Each year, the National Association of Realtors releases a study gauging the thoughts of the public regarding homeownership and housing affordability. This year’s study said that getting enough money for a downpayment was a stumbling block for 82 percent of survey respondents. And why is it so hard to get a downpayment? Partially because of the economy.

According to the Realtors survey, two-thirds of respondents cited layoffs and unemployment as serious problems today. A total of eight out of every 10 survey participants pointed to these problems as barriers to purchasing a home.

The housing market and the nation’s economy are linked together. And when they’re both performing as miserably as they are today, it makes life exceedingly difficult for most of us.

Murders, suicides rise along with inflation

Maybe the unemployment rate will finally go down once enough out-of-work people off themselves.

That’s crass, I know. But sometimes you need some gallows humor when facing down an economy that’s still spinning out of control.

There’s some truth behind the dark humor, though. According to a Bloomberg story, both murders and suicides increase as unemployment rises.

This doesn’t exactly rank as the scientific find of the century, I suppose. Few things are as stressful as being out of work, especially in a society in which people tend to define themselves as what they do for a living. It’s no fun saying you’re an out-of-work account executive, is it?

With stress levels so high — and with people struggling to pay their mortgage bills — it’s little surprise, I suppose, that suicides and murders would rise.

The increase isn’t huge, of course. Basically, a 1 percent increase in joblessness results in a 0.8 percent jump in suicide and murder rates, according to a study by Oxford University.

Fewer file claims for unemployment. But why?

Is it good news or just a fluke?

The number of U.S. residents filing initial unemployment claims fell dramatically last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The department reported 565,000 initial jobless claims during the week ended July 4, according to a story on That figure represents a drop of 52,000 from the 617,000 U.S. residents who filed initial jobless claims the week prior.

In fact, the number of people filing for their first claims stood at its lowest since January.

So, fluke or trend? Unfortunately, this news probably falls into the “fluke” category. In the CNN story, economists credit much of the filing drop to a change in the way the automotive industry has handled layoffs this year.

In most years, automakers traditionally idle manufacturing plants in July. This year, though, more plant closures took place earlier, according to experts quoted in the CNN story. This has skewed the numbers fairly significantly.

The bad news, then, is that the number of folks filing for their first unemployment checks will probably jump up again soon. Of course, you’d expect nothing else in this economy, would you?

Economic silver lining? Commute times fall thanks to economy

Talk about good news/bad news: The amount of time people spend sitting in traffic is dropping. Unfortunately, this is largely because so many people are out of work.

A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that rush-hour travel times declined for the second straight year, according to a story by the Associated Press. Researchers, though, said this decline wasn’t caused by anything positive such as an increase in the reliability of public transportation. Once the economy improves, they said, you can expect to spend every bit as much time stuck in rush-hour traffic jams.

Of course, the way this economy is going, it might be a long time before your commute inches back up to that intolerable level. Odd world, isn’t it? We’re now reduced to hoping for more rush-hour congestion because that’ll be one more sign that the economy is recovering.

Emotions can betray you at work

These are stressful times in the workplace. No one feels secure in their jobs. There’s a gloom hanging over most offices. More workers are being forced to take unpaid days off.

It’s easy, then, to let your emotions get the better of you. Maybe the boss asks you to do one more unpaid job. You’re already swamped. So you snap, and tell your boss exactly what you think of this one extra duty.

That may feel good in the moment. It won’t feel quite as good, though, when you’re searching the classifieds for a new job.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story on the perils of letting your emotions get the better of you at work. The author talks about the days when she would cry at the office, openly. She wisely advises against doing this now. No one, after all, wants to work with a weeper.

It’s natural to be ticked off at work. Who isn’t these days? You may want to feel like crying, too. I know I do whenever a mandatory meeting takes up an entire afternoon.

But keep those emotions bottled up. I know therapists — and, often, spouses — say this is a bad thing. But at work, it can save your job.

Do job retraining programs work?

Whenever we talk about a new economy or creating new high-tech jobs, we tend to focus on job retraining programs. Often funded by the government, these programs take people laid off from shrinking industries — say, auto workers — and retrain them for new careers, often in computer or technology-related fields.

It seems like a good idea. The problem is, no one’s sure if these job retraining programs actually work. No one knows if the people trained at them actually find new careers.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday that looked at the failures of job retraining programs. This is a serious issue, especially considering that Pres. Barack Obama’s stimulus plan sends $1.4 billion more toward these programs.

A study by the Labor Department, cited in the New York Times story, says that the biggest government-sponsored job retraining programs brought either no or little benefit to laid-off workers. The study showed little difference in salaries and the chance to be hired for new jobs between those who had taken retraining and those who had not.

Yes, that is pretty depressing. Imagine all the people who eagerly sign up for these retraining sessions only to discover that they’re little or no help when they’re trying to find a new job. It’s discouraging because we’re supposed to be proactive when we’re fired or laid off. We’re supposed to do everything in our power to find a new job.

And then we discover, unfortunately, that there is actually very little we can do to increase our chances when the economy is this bad. The sad truth is, when the economy tanks, the best way to land a new job is by knowing someone or getting lucky. We don’t like to believe this, but I challenge anyone to tell me that it’s not true.

The unpaid furlough strikes again

A friend of mine took a job with the city of Chicago late last year. He loves his new job. He likes the people he works with. And he’s thrilled that his commute each morning takes about 15 minutes.

He’s not thrilled, though, that tomorrow, the 4th of July, he’ll be taking his first of many unpaid holidays.

My friend is like many other workers out there: He’s being forced to take unpaid days off — furloughs — to help his employer, in this case, the city of Chicago, balance its books. My friend has to take 15 days off without pay by the end of the year.

He’s of two minds on this: First, he’s glad he has a job when so many others don’t. Secondly, he’s ticked that the rules of his employment have suddenly changed. It’s not his fault, after all, that the city of Chicago can’t manage its money.

He’s not too unusual, I suppose. There are so many people being forced to take unpaid days off now. I know it’s a better alternative than firings or layoffs. But, still, it always seems that the employees get screwed whenver there’s a financial crisis. I guess it’s true what they say: You’ll never make a fortune by working for someone else.

Some careers are still growing

It only seems that every career is struggling during this recession. That’s not necessarily the case, though. There are several careers that are doing well, even as the economy continues to struggle.

I know this because I just turned in a newspaper story talking about these careers. See, there are some advantages — not many, but some — to being a freelance writer.

Some of today’s growing careers are not much of a surprise: There is a need for registered nurses, for instance. We’re living longer these days, so we need more medical care. Police officers and security personnel are in demand, too. You might expect that as the economy worsens, crime actually increases. People are desperate.

Then there are the computer analysts, financial advisers and court recorders. These careers are steady.

I was intrigued, though, to see that translators and interpreters are greatly in demand. It makes sense, though, if you think about it. Businesses, governments and non-profits are all seeking global business today. They need people who can speak the language — whatever language it happens to be — to help them nab this business.

The best place to learn about in-demand careers is by visiting the Web site of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Be warned, though: Don’t just enter a career because it’s hot. You have to like, or at least have the potential to like, what you’re doing if you really want to succeed at it. (At least that’s what I’ve heard, though I know a number of successful accountants and insurance salesmen who don’t seem to enjoy what they’re doing all that much.)

If you’re working, you’re in demand. If you’re not? Well …

The news just keeps getting worse for the nation’s unemployed. First, the national unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent in May, and shows no signs of dropping.

Now comes the news, courtesy of a Wall Street Journal story, that those companies who are hiring aren’t always looking at unemployed to fill their positions. No, instead they’re going after workers who already have jobs.

The reasoning goes like this: Those employees who are still working must be top-of-the-line workers, otherwise they’d already be out of a job. So companies that are hiring are frequently trying to poach these workers.

If that’s not enough to make a hard-working, smart unemployed person puke, I don’t know what is. There seem to be absolutely no breaks for today’s unemployed.