A Conversation with Robert Reich: First Job, Personality Drug, Job Training

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Joint Economic Committee Holds Hearing On Income Inequality In The U.S.
Getty Images Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich at hearings on income inequality in January.

On my radio show Work with Marty Nemko I recently had my second hour-long conversation with Robert Reich. He is former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, senior adviser to the Obama administration, and author of 13 books including Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future.

Most of the discussion was on public policy but the beginning consisted of an exchange of personal stories that offers career lessons.

For space, I've edited but the essence of each exchange is as occurred.

Marty Nemko: When did you get your first important career lesson?

Robert Reich: My first job was as a gofer at a small ad agency and my tasks included scraping my boss's dog's doo-doo from the roof. I had to get used to paying my dues. I think we all have to.

Marty Nemko: My first job was writing bills in a furniture store in Harlem.

Robert Reich:Let me top that. I worked in Robert Kennedy's office. Sounds big but all I was in charge of was the signature machine-making sure the paper went in straight. That's all I did for three months. I got so bored, I would send letters to my friends like, "Dear Mr. Smith, Congratulations on having the biggest nose in New York State. Sincerely, Robert Kennedy." One day the Senator came out and said, "How are you, Bob?" I was the lowest guy there and he knew my name?!-- I was ready to do that signature machine for the next five years.

Marty Nemko: It's amazing the power of recognizing people. Lesson for bosses there... Bob, my daughter has a parallel story. She interned for Hillary Clinton, and at the end of her first day, I called to ask how it went--Her job was to answer letters to the Clinton's cat, Socks. Career counselor that I am, I said, "Amy, how about going to your boss and saying something like, 'I'm willing to pay my dues but people say I'm a pretty good writer and researcher so if you ever need something like that, I'd be pleased to help.' " Three days later, the woman who wrote Hillary's daily briefing went on maternity leave and Amy was given the job.

Later, Reich offered this career warning. I had never heard it before and it makes a lot of sense to me:

Robert Reich:Everyone has a personality drug: you want to be in control, be loved, or others to think you're brilliant. Unless you're willing to spend $100,000 on psychotherapy to change it, you just need to really be aware of it so it doesn't bring you down.

As mentioned, we spent most of the conversation on policy. Our exchange on job training might be of particular interest to AOL Jobs readers:

Marty Nemko: How realistic is it to ask employers to voluntarily do more job training?

Robert Reich:Good employers already do...And they benefit, not just because of the skills developed but because turnover is low, which creates real savings for the company... Besides, simply on a humane level, we need to treat workers as assets, not fungible work units to be paid so little, with no benefits.

Marty Nemko: Do you think companies would be wise to spend some of their marketing budget on better training and support for employees and then, instead of crowing their toilet paper is better, that they treat their workers better? The currency of the realm needs to include humanity, not just cash profit.

Robert Reich: Yes. We need to bring back citizenship education.

Marty Nemko: What do you think about the idea of having common job training like customer service and sales developed nationally by a dream team of the most transformational instructors and made available online to all companies? That way, every employee gets world-class training.

Robert Reich: think that's a good idea. We also need to pay teachers more but we need to make them more accountable. You need to pay them for performance: you do well and you'll be paid quite well.

Marty Nemko: I can't resist asking one political question. It seems cosmically just for political campaigns to be 100% publicly funded but incumbents have a huge edge in fundraising so they'd never pass it.

Robert Reich:Yes. I'd favor that, in major general elections, the taxpayer would fund $2 for every dollar donated by a small donor. Otherwise, a small percentage of wealthy people are polluting and corrupting our political process. The rest of us are silenced. Unless something changes, we are moving toward an oligarchy.

Marty Nemko: What's next for Bob Reich?

Robert Reich: I'm always writing a book and I love teaching. Plus, I'm working on a series of short explainer videos about political reality. The only way to reach millennials is not with fat books. It's with short videos that are clever enough.
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Marty Nemko welcomes your visiting his website: www.martynemko.com where lots of his writings and radio show are archived. And, if you need career help, you can email Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net

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