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Job Skills For The 21st Century

The Job Hunter

By Rabbi Mordechai Kruger

Poetry? Wasn’t expecting that one. My client was a twentysomething yeshiva graduate currently working in a junior-level business position. He came to see me because, as he said, “It’s an okay job, but it’s not going anywhere.” So I asked if he had considered any other types of work, and what had drawn him to them. The first was graphic design, which is pretty easy to frame in terms of potential employment. The second was social work, which also has a clear employment path. Then he said, “Do you know what I really enjoy?”

His face lit up in a beautiful smile, and his eyes looked off into the distance. He was feeling warm and happy just thinking about this idea. I was on the edge of my seat, because in career choice, finding something that resonates so deeply is the best possible way to begin. A career that gives expression to something held so dear offers a path to both personal fulfillment and workplace success. So I was ready and eager to hear his thoughts, which I would recast as a job description. My client would soon be on his way to a new and satisfying career.

“Poetry.” He seemed serious. I asked if he had a favorite poet. “Billy Collins!” (Former poet laureate of the United States. Good choice.)

Have you read him recently? “I read him all the time!”

Buy a book of his poems? “I have all of his books!”

So this fellow is clearly not cut from standard cloth, but that doesn’t make him a serious writer, and certainly not a poet. Do you keep a journal? (All serious writers keep a journal with them all the time, in which they record thoughts, interesting words and phrases, and first drafts.) “I always carry a journal. I’ve filled many of them.”

If you have been reading carefully, you noticed that there’s no exclamation point after that last answer. I noticed that, too.

How’s the writing been going? “I haven’t written anything in a long while. People tell me I have to get serious about finding a job, and that poetry is a waste of time.” The smile dimmed and the eyes turned downward.

Arguing with the conventional wisdom is one of my favorite pastimes, but telling this fellow that poetry really does have serious career potential would be malpractice. But saying “You are not going to find a job as a poet” is not the same thing as saying “Writing poetry will not help you find a job.” Actually, it could be a highly practical job skill, definitely needed in the workplace of today. And if you are thinking that you haven’t seen any signs pointing to the poetry department in any successful business, it may be because you don’t know how to look for them.

Everyone knows that the job skills in demand today are in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Efforts to improve “STEM education” are everywhere. Guidance counselors and mentors of all kinds know that STEM students get real jobs, while liberal-arts students pour coffee or pump gas. The “E” in STEM could have stood for English, but it doesn’t. So the message, and the future, is clear. Once upon a time, if a child reached for a crayon with his left hand, a loving parent would remind him to use the correct hand. Nowadays it’s okay for a kid to be left-handed, as long as he’s reaching for a computer.

Or maybe not. What’s really happened in the information age is that we have learned that everything that is repetitive, boilerplate, well, yes, mechanical, can in fact be done by a machine. But the better we get at knowing what functions can be reduced to the lines of funny symbols that computers understand, the more clearly we see that there are many things only humans can do. We see the uniquely creative and insightful expressions and experiences that attract and hold our attention. The words and forms that not only tell us what is, but what is beautiful. These words open our eyes and reach into our souls. No machine can do that. But we humans do even more. We strive to make the beautiful practical, and the practical, beautiful.

Where are these skills used in the marketplace? I found a great website devoted to teaching English majors about the many commercially viable uses of their talents. Its name,, may express a yearning for a world that values beautiful expression for its own sake, but it lists dozens of job descriptions that are real and potentially lucrative. Developing skill with words, no less than numbers, can lead to a good job.

There’s one more point that often gets forgotten in the rush. For this client, connecting to his love of poetry brought out a smile like nothing else. How much is that worth? v

Rabbi Mordechai Kruger is the founder and director of Pathways to Parnassa, an organization providing job-search and career coaching to our community. He can be reached at

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Posted by on May 10, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.