White Collar Reset: How far are you willing to go to get a job?

If you think the Great Recession has been tough on middle-aged workers, just try being in your 20s. According to the latest data, adults 25-34 have an unemployment rate of 10.8%, nearly a full point higher than the all-age average. For 20- to 24-year-olds, the figure spikes to a staggering 15.6%.

For every hyper-educated, super-technologically-evolved twenty- or early-thirty-something with a stranglehold on a coveted information-economy job, there are at least as many millennials who risk being marginalized in the lowest-wage tiers of the service sector.

As The New York Times (NYT) recently pointed out, with hundreds of thousands of young men being forced to move in with their parents or take in extra roommates, even the bachelor pad has come under assault. Bye-bye black leather sofa. Hello twin bed and little league trophies.

But just as some Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers are taking extraordinary measures to claim their stake in the neo-Mad Max recovery, it seems Y'ers are going to equally historic lengths. And Kevin Lee, 27, may hold the record.

A Wormhole to Paradise

Lee, an Irish Catholic product of Yonkers, N.Y., with a B.A. in political science from Marymount University, could be tending bar or wallpapering cyberspace with his resume or vying for the ever-diminishing number of teaching jobs (he also has a teacher's certificate). Instead, he's identified a wormhole in the dessicated jobscape that will allow him to earn a comfortable living working as a full professor teaching business writing to eager college students in the most paradisiacal of settings.

Ok, so the job is in Indonesia, but to Lee that's a plus. "One of the main reasons I got my teacher's certificate in the first place was to see the world," he says. "I just like to move to a completely strange country, learn the language and everything I can about the place, and see where the opportunities take me."

Lee ferreted out the opportunity at Andalas University in Padang on the southern shore of Sumatra while traveling through Indonesia this fall after two years teaching fifth grade in Suzhou, China. Recent 7.6 earthquake aside, "it's absolutely beautiful," he said of Padang. "The weather is 80 degrees all year round. In fifteen minutes you're at some of the most amazing beaches you've ever seen. And the people are so friendly." It also doesn't hurt that a meal at some of the city's best restaurants runs about 70 cents and "they're just dying for foreigners with any business experience who speak English."

Padang as His Oyster

First, though, Lee had to figure out a way to capitalize his move. He was due in Yonkers for Christmas ("I haven't missed one yet"), which meant he needed enough money for more airline tickets and to help fund his still-indeterminate adventures. Fortunately, he had a plan taking shape, the seeds of which had been planted when he'd befriended several of the cultured pearl dealers in Suzhou. Already awaiting him back in Yonkers were two enormous boxes of freshwater cultured pearl bracelets, necklaces, earrings and brooches in every color, shape and size imaginable. Lee had run the numbers and even at the rock-bottom prices he planned to charge, the return was astronomical. Sell all 500-plus pieces by January, and Padang would literally be his oyster.

But where to sell 500 items of Chinese freshwater-pearl jewelry during the second-slowest Christmas shopping season in recent memory? Lee quickly realized that while he needed a Web presence (K2pearls.com), most of its activity would likely involve repeat customers and referrals. "Would you buy pearls off the Internet if you'd never heard of the company before?"

Through a friend he got a bead on a table in the holiday bazaar at the Cross County Mall in Yonkers. The suburban retail malaise being what it is, though, it soon became clear that to meet his sales projections he'd need to break into the big leagues of New York area guerrilla retailing: a sidewalk stand in Soho.


But this is where Lee encountered his last, and perhaps highest, hurdle. New York City has some of the most antiquated and tortured sidewalk vending regulations on earth. For the average citizen applying for a permit to ply his wares on Manhattan's teeming sidewalks, the estimated wait time is somewhere between 65 and 70 years. Lee didn't have that long.

There is, however, one exception to the Jarndycean permitting process. If you're a veteran of the armed services, you're jumped to the front of the line. The loophole, a relic of a late-19-century ordinance intended as a kind of stimulus bill for disabled Civil War veterans, has created the rather bizarre scenario in which many sidewalk vendors in New York City "rent" a veteran with an official permit to work beside them at their stand. To abide by the letter of the law, the veteran must quote all prices to customers and handle all exchange of money. The going rate for this rent-a-vet service: $80 to $100 per vet per day, depending on location.

Lee was directed to the best corner for finding his veteran and given instructions on separating the reliable wingmen from the grifters and junkies, and finally his plan was complete: To find a job in the new post-financial meltdown economy, all he had to do was set up a table in Soho and rent a veteran to sell the cultured pearls he bought in China so he could raise enough money to relocate to Indonesia.

And who said the American spirit of ingenuity is dead?

If You Sell It, They Will Come

Last week, I stopped by Lee's table on Prince Street to visit with him and his vet, Eddie Washington, a lanky African-American Vietnam-era former Army corporal who served in Germany from 1966-68. ("I lucked out," he said. "Those would've been bad years to be in Vietnam.") As of 2 P.M., Lee had yet to sell any pearls. "Give it time," Washington said, looking up from his New York Post. "Things usually pick up right about now."

Sure enough, as if he'd waved a wand, a gaggle of customers formed at the table. Montana Triplett, marketing director for Tremor Media, scooped up a thin pearl necklace for $25, a three-strand perfect pearl bracelet for $20 and a pair of teardrop earrings with sterling silver backing for another $20. "I'm going to a Mad Men party tonight," she explained. "These are perfect!"

A German couple lingered in furtive discussion at the end of the table warily eying the $10 price tag on the cuff-style pearl and magnet bracelets. "The young man may want to think about raising his prices the next time out," noted Washington. "He's new, so people look at these low prices, and they're not sure yet he's legit."

Only in New York

As the afternoon wore on, traffic continued to build, but not everyone was in a buying mood. One fashionably dressed young woman popped out of the Club Monaco store across their patch of sidewalk and strode purposefully to the table, only to look up and ask Lee and Washington, "Do you know where the Burberry store is?"

After she'd headed off in the direction of Broadway, Washington turned to Lee: "Well, I guess the recession isn't hurting everybody, is it?"

Kevin Lee and Eddie Washington will be manning their booth on Prince Street between Greene and Wooster streets on Monday and Tuesday December 14-15 from 11 A.M. to 6 P.M. You can also visit K2 Pearls this weekend at Cross County Mall or at K2pearls.com.

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