Friday, December 04, 2015

Keep the unemployment line moving

Picture the number of construction workers. The workforce includes about as many involuntary part-timers.

Looking for confidence in the year ahead? Take heart in unemployment holding at 5 percent. Still, as statistics skeptic Ken Harrelson says, "Don't stop now, boys."

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress yesterday to expect "further improvement in the labor market." The unemployment report this morning doesn't quite back up CNBC's Fedspeak translation, "close to full employment."

One in 4 unemployed people have been searching for more than six months. For each of the nearly 8 million stories in the unemployment office, there are another 8 million tales of hanging onto the edge of the job market, settling for part-time work or abandoning the search entirely.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Lessons from a neighborhood dairy

The Leona's restaurant at 1938 W. Augusta Blvd. is due to be razed, and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks today recommended that the city allow the demolition.

A staff presentation suggested the 1920s dairy did not fit the East Village district, showing slides of my Victorian block as proof. The building's piecemeal construction also counted against it.

I've lived for 17 years in East Village, but I grew up in Milwaukee, and my grade school was a converted dairy. Like this building, it was built in sections over time. The dairy was actually the school gym: I played basketball there, I had band practice, I tried to learn the foxtrot. It served well as a school, and taught me something about city history.

This building is remarkably similar in structure. It stands as a lesson in Eastern European settlement of the West Town community and the commerce that kept it running. When I go to Leona's I look at the bones of the building and I see more than a restaurant. To my to mind it contributes greatly to the East Village landmark district, and I encouraged the commission (in just these words) to keep it in place.

Our new alderman, Brian Hopkins, also spoke for preserving the building. He'll have another chance in the City Council to defend a local landmark.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Woodstripper's Ball [and Chain]

Jazz Age musician Bix Beiderbecke, patron saint of woodshedders and woodstrippers (Cliff Wirth / Chicago Sun-Times)

At the Chicago Sun-Times, I talked myself into taking over the remodeling column. After coming into the office every Monday morning with stories about hanging doors and patching concrete, my boss thought I should put my research to better use.

I followed the great Les Hausner's first-person format, plus the frequent dashes and paragraph breaks. This Around the House installment is a sentimental favorite. It's for serious rehabbers: An out-of-town friend read the piece and asked me, "What was that all about?" But I still giggle over Cliff Wirth's illustration.

It's back to Sundays with Bix.

Bix Beiderbecke, the young man with a horn, on the radio. Bix woodstripper slowly melting the plastic tuning knob.

Like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra cornetist, this stuff could just about cut through brass.

On and off for a year, I would get fidgety feet long before the first downbeat of Dick Buckley's Sunday afternoon as program on WBEZ (91.5 FM). I'd be off the davenport and scraping paint off the woodwork in our pre-Beiderbecke rowhouse.

The stripper calls again this summer, like the trumpet trio in "San." A clothes chute that we liberated from behind a wall needs to go naked. Same for the white sheets of paint behind our bedroom doors, and the weathered green window frames that look like an alligator's backside.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Let them tweet cake: 'Marie Antoinette' at Steppenwolf

Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas in "Marie Antoinette" (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" is just another meme in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Marie Antoinette." We're invited to think of the Enlightenment as the start of our unenlightened age. Seems like a daft notion, but then again how can rebels still see beheadings as all the rage?

The production starts with the Capet queen and her ladies-in-waiting decked out in wide-contour crinoline, but engaged in the idle girl talk of reality television: Marie Antoinette as Kim Kardashian. Alana Arendas has the task of reigning over a Moulin Rouge court, a pastiche that makes Antoinette only 1% aristocrat, or places her in the aristocracy of the 1%.

David Adjmi's play sets her in a tourist Versailles, a hall of scratched mirrors. It's not a vast palace but a small jewel box of family and friends, with not much to the lot of them beyond their aloof, over-the-top image. Louis XVI is not playing a delicate game of empire and reform. Tim Hopper's king is mostly distracted, the inheritor of the family business; his fall, a few convocation missteps. Axel von Fersen (Ariel Shafir) is a flirtatious count on his grand tour, not Rochambeau's aide in the march on Yorktown. There's not much revolution in this rarefied air.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Jobs report: A forest of unicorns

"The Unicorn in Captivity," tapestry circa 1500 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The economy's rebuilding, but without a blueprint. Today's drop in unemployment comes with unexpected growth in payrolls: 295,000 last month, 239,000 in January and 329,000 in December. But that hasn't given much relief to underemployed or longtime jobless workers.

Hiring managers now talk about hunting unicorns without irony: To navigate changing terrain, they seek rarities with creative and technical abilities. Yet they're reluctant to scout in a forest of unicorns: career changers with relatable skills and new ideas.

Let's go hunting: Not much separates the winners and losers in job creation:

Net job gainsNet job losses
Online and specialty storesElectronics and department stores
Car dealersAppliance dealers
Home contractorsHome builders
InsuranceCommercial banking

Unemployment by occupation (in thousands)

Unemployment has backed down steadily from 2010 highs across most categories, yet nearly every occupation still has more people looking for work than a decade ago. The rate among construction workers shot up to 21.3 percent, as oil and gas companies abandon suddenly unprofitable rigs. In a service economy, nearly 2 million unemployed workers come from service fields, with some of the highest unemployment in leisure and hospitality.

Employment by age (in thousands)

The workforce is graying. Teenage unemployment is falling, but it's the highest of any age group. The steady increase in new jobs has relatively few opening up for workers in their teens and twenties. Even as companies use early retirement to trim their work ranks, jobs for people 55 and older hold near a record high.

Average hourly earnings barely changed. And there's no letup in part-time hiring. A quarter of all workers are part-timers, many not by choice. A steady 4.9 percent hold multiple jobs. The 5.5 percent unemployment rate doubles doubles when adding people who look for work off and on, or who settle for part-time jobs. We're all doing what we can, yet we're not doing all we're capable of.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mentors inspect, adapt Agile approach

"The Agile Mentor" introduced Project Management Institute Chicagoland Chapter members to the idea of using work teams as an opportunity for mentoring and growth.

The continuing-education session at DePaul University was part of a long-running chapter program to match project managers with students of the discipline. In this case, professionals adopted a scrum team's self-organizing principles to “lead without the title” and look for mentors in their own practice.

Corporate event planner Mark J. Carter opened the Saturday session. He said his contacts and clients all have mentors; people who've helped them solve problems.

"Everybody has some type of genius," Carter said. "You can learn from a 20 year old. People with no experience in project management may know someone with an answer."

Participants also shared their thoughts on mentoring. "What a great listener my mentor was," said Sana Mahmood. "It’s that level of attention we don’t get anymore."

Friday, January 16, 2015

A measured approach to youth programs

Once the program's over, leaders ask: What just happened?

Project managers call it monitoring and control. We gather data to measure progress toward our goals. Nonprofit funders may require it. When children are research subjects, sponsors may set ground rules. In any case, youth program leaders admit the challenges of collecting and presenting the data.

At the Hive Chicago Buzz hackathon, members of a data working group dubbed the Think Tank pledged to create a self-evaluation tool, plus professional development to help members conduct their own analysis or work with outside consultants. I'm a journalist fellow in a member group, The News Literacy Project.

We started by listing own data challenges: tracking the reach of our programs, surveying young participants and presenting the results. Many of us have similar goals – to teach critical thinking, raise engagement or encourage careers – so common benchmarks could help us compare outcomes. Not all of us have resources at hand to create or analyze a database.

Brainstorming sessions were led by Jeremy Dunn of the Chicago Public Library and Eve Gaus of the Field Museum. Stephanie Levi of Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative presented a starting point for self-evaluation, a checklist based on Harvard research on after-school programs. Tene Gray of Digital Youth Network advocated digital badges as way to demonstrate and track what students have accomplished.

During a lunch break, I chatted with with Christie Thomas of the University of Chicago about Lawrence Lessig's lectures on "institutional corruption." (For the news media, that means forces undermining their public-interest mission.) After that ethics appetizer, Thomas led the group in exploring the issues of working with children.

Research rules are well established, dating to the government's 1979 Belmont Report. But parents can find them intimidating when they're outlined on a consent form. Are students giving informed consent when blogging or posting their cellphone selfies, and are their parents on the same page? Does putting children in a control group deny them benefits? Would a program for high school students be more effective in middle schools?

The group wrapped up by documenting their thoughts on an evaluation toolbox for Hive members. Future training could cover survey construction and emerging standards for connected learning. Work will continue in monthly meetups at the Harold Washington Library Center.

This article also appears at Civic Artworks.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Facebook reflects on year in review

Facebook thought you'd celebrate the new year. Now it knows better.

It's apologized for upsetting users with its "year in review" feature. Members got a collection of photos in which they were tagged, plus more from their timeline. They were prompted to share the gallery, a popup page with New Year's themes. 

But not everyone had a great year. A product manager apologized to web designer Eric Meyer, whose gallery featured his daughter. She'd died of brain cancer, on her 6th birthday.

Many Facebook users didn't share their own galleries, and they're private by default. If you track yours down you'll see a choice of themes to use, some more somber than the New Year's party page. You decide whether you had a year worth sharing.

Actually, it was a good idea. Journalists need review features (here's one of mine) to get through a slow December. Why can't Facebook users get a boost for their feeds?

What was forgotten is that we use our pages to muse, not just celebrate. Friends rush to leave tributes on their friends' pages on on their passing. I've gone to Facebook friends' pages to cheer them in their illness, and returned sadly to toast a few in death.

Chicago author Larry Santoro, has an active page months after his July death. Perhaps that's fitting for a gothic fantasy writer. Critic Roger Ebert still has active personal and fan pages. Families maintain pages as memorials. Facebook easily could develop features to challenge obituary sites like and, if it paid more attention to these enduring connections.

Facebook made an adept about-face on its year in review, changing its default sharing message (“It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”) and presenting more neutral graphics.

My year wasn't great. Challenging, yes. I tried new things, met new people and learned a lot about myself. Still, I wouldn't have chosen the circumstances.

But it's good to reflect, and Facebook's smart to encourage it. Many days, I look at my news feed and wish my Facebook friends could give their day a bit more thought.