Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Comparing the Value of Degrees

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

In today’s Wall Street Journal article, The Alternative M.B.A.: One-Year Master’s Degrees, students are faced with a dilemma:

  1. Get a degree that is time-consuming, expensive, broad in scope, and widely-recognized.
  2. Get a degree that is faster, less expensive, narrow in scope, and untrusted in the marketplace.

You may not be in the market for an MBA, but these same choices face anyone seeking to continue his or her education, or even, to some extent, when selecting job openings for which to apply. As I mentioned in Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications, there are credentials you can acquire in a very short amount of time, but often for very specific skills that are not transferable to a wide variety of jobs, and that may or may not be highly regarded within your industry. The same is true, of course, for degrees.

At a recent industry event, I saw representatives from a local university promoting some of their degree programs:

  • MS in Computer Science
  • MEng (Information Engineering and Management)
  • MBA

Each program is interesting to me, but each one has certain limitations. For example, the MS in computer science is in a well-established and rigorous program. It would be a time-consuming degree, and once obtained, it would qualify me for a wide variety of technical positions. The MBA is also a widely recognized degree, which would qualify me for a wide variety of managerial positions. The MEng degree is a much newer program and the degree is not widely recognized; however, the program is designed for working professionals and can be completed while working full time. It would qualify me for managerial positions in IT.

Venn Diagram: Degree Programs and Skills

The MEng degree represents a much smaller area than either of the other 2 options. Specialization has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that if a position is available that requires the intersection of those 2 skill sets, your qualifications will put you above candidates with only one or the other. The disadvantage is that such positions are far more rare, and that your qualifications for more general positions (in this example, in either IT or management) are not as strong.

Acquiring a more specific qualification in an in-demand field will be an excellent short-term strategy, but as a long-term strategy it is riskier: it is hard to predict today what skills will be in demand tomorrow. In either case, a degree (or an additional degree) will certainly put you above the competition.

An Overview of Professional Certifications

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Certification or licensure may be required for a variety of fields, ranging from hair styling to welding to teaching to actuarial accounting. Covering the breadth of certifications available is impossible, so I’m going to focus on a variety of IT-related certifications, go over 3 in-demand professional certifications outside the IT field, and then review a couple interesting certification programs offered by Ivy League universities.

Technical Certifications

There are a few reasons why I think technical certifications are particularly interesting right now. The biggest reason is that I think many technical certifications are relatively easy to acquire. They do not require a lot of prior knowledge, and with diligent self-study or a single training course, certification is within the reach of many. Another good reason? Even in this job market, there is still a high demand for IT jobs. The best reason? Technical certifications can often increase your salary substantially.

Computer Support

CompTIA offers A+ certification for computer support technicians.


  • Exam ($168)


Microsoft Server Administration

Microsoft has a plethora of certifications, including several variations of the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) such as the MCITP Server Administrator.


  • 3 exams, 2 of which qualify you as a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), so you can earn lesser certifications while working towards a larger goal. Each exam is $125, based on the testing site I selected; prices may vary, as the tests are offered through 3rd-parties and not directly by Microsoft.


Novell Networking

Novell networking, the example I used in Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications, may not be in demand as much as it was 10 years ago, but certifications are still available. Novell offers 11 certification programs, such as Certified Novell Administrator (CNA)–the very same program that catapulted my colleagues into more lucrative positions.


  • One exam ($125)


  • 5-day training course ($2495, offered by various training partners)
  • $495 self-study guide

It appears that Novell is on the decline, so picking up Novell certification may not seem like a great idea. However, many companies are still using older, legacy systems and there may be less competition for jobs like these. Check your local job listings to see if any employers in your area are still in need of Novell administrators.

Oracle Databases

Oracle offers various database administration certifications. For example, an Oracle Database 11g Administrator Certified Associate:


  • 2 exams (Oracle database SQL expert and Oracle database 11g administration, $125 each)


Why is Oracle’s self-study CD-ROM so expensive? Well, I suppose it is actually cheap relative to $6000 worth of in-class training, but it seems the 3rd-party exam guide would be worth a shot to me. You can retake the exam after 14 days, and the retake is score independently (i.e. your scores are not averaged).

Java Programming

Sun offers certifications such as Sun Certified Java Associate. If you are already a Java programmer with years of experience, you probably don’t need to become a certified associate, although they offer more advanced certificates as well, such as Sun Certified Java Programmer and Sun Certified Enterprise Architect.


  • Exam ($300)


Adobe Software

Adobe offers ACE (Adobe Certified Expert) certification for their specific software titles, such as Flash CS4 or Dreamweaver CS4.


  • Exam ($150 per software title)


  • Access to an online training library ($200)
  • A copy of the software title in question (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver CS4, $400; Adobe Flash Pro CS4, $700). Substantial educational discounts exist if you are a student enrolled at a university.
  • Books about the software title (there are not, to my knowledge, titles specific to the Adobe certification exams).

Is Adobe certification for a specific software title valuable? I have not seen many job listings that specifically request Adobe certification. For specific software titles, demonstrating your ability to a potential employer through work experience or a portfolio of work examples may be enough. Certifications may be more helpful when you are competing in a broader field with more competition.

Notes on Technical Certifications

As you may have noticed, there is a certain genius on the part of many of these software companies: They create the software, they make you pay to learn how to use it, and then they make you pay to prove that you know how to use it. Don’t forget they will probably release new versions of the software that will soon make your certification look quaint an outdated, like a certified Lotus 1-2-3 professional. However, if you can pass the exam with an inexpensive self-study guide, it can certainly help you break in to a new field.

Now let’s take a look at some professional certifications outside of IT.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

This is one of the most intensive professional certifications available, requiring 5 years of college education. Most people pursuing it are already working as accountants and have accounting degrees, and therefore already meet most, if not all, the education requirements. Why would someone already working as an accountant want to become a CPA? Many accounting positions require the certification and pay a premium over accounting positions that don’t. Although requirements vary from state to state, the following gives you a rough idea.


A 4-year college degree, including 150 college-level course hours, with specific coursework required in accounting and other business topics. The specific coursework requirements may be waived if the applicant also has a graduate degree in accounting. The undergraduate degree may not need to be in accounting if the applicant has work experience as an accountant. After passing the exam (which costs about $100 to take), CPAs are required to stay current by completing Continuing Education (CE) credits.

Project Management Professional (PMP)

Project management is a hot field at the moment, and one organization–the Project Management Institute–certifies Project Management Professionals. A project manager is basically the point person between the client and the production team, and gathers the project requirements and makes sure that the project stays on track to completion on time and on budget. Why become a certified PMP? Many government agencies require contractors to have at least one PMP, which can lead to substantially higher salaries.


  • Experience: 3 years project management experience + bachelors degree, or 5 years project management experience. Experience is self-documented, but requires substantial detail.
  • Education: 35 contact hours of approved project management education. One hour spent in a classroom (or an online class) is a contact hour, so it is very different than a course hour. It can often be completed with a weekly class over the course of a semester, or in a 5-day intensive class.
  • Audit: the organization randomly selects applicants for detailed audits to verify their experience and education.
  • Exam: 4-hour, computer-based, multiple choice exam.
  • Fee: $555
  • Continuing Education: PMPs are required to obtain Professional Development Units (PDUs). I personally have attended a couple of presentations that have qualified for PDUs, and I can say that the content varied from a waste of time to interesting and relevant. It appears that the quality of your PDUs is largely irrelevant, though–the quantity is what is important.

Non-Profit Management

Anyone who has ever volunteered for any length of time has probably seen first-hand how much non-profits could benefit from first-class management. In particular, when budgets are tight, non-profits looking to make the most of their resources will favor candidates with such credentials.

  • Duke University offers a nonprofit management certificate. It requires 50 classroom hours, although there are no admission requirements and no exams or grades.
  • University of Virginia offers a non-credit certificate in non-profit management. It requires 35 contact hours and has no required classes (you select classes that best relate to your organization).
  • Capella University, a for-profit university, offers an online certification in the management of non-profit agencies. It requires 16 quarter credits (4 courses), at a total cost of $6768.

As you can see, the requirements for these programs are quite different, and there does not appear to be a standard non-profit management certificate. Employers may look upon certificate holders favorably, but may not understand the value of your particular credential. If that’s the case–play it up! Be sure to let them know what you learned that you can bring to the organization.

Ivy League Credentials

If you’re at a point in your career where technical certifications won’t help you, you could always consider adding some prestige with a little Ivy League. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and eCornell, a subsidiary of Cornell University, both offer business certificates in a variety of disciplines.

The Wharton Program for Working Professionals offers a variety of business certificates that range from 12 to 18 credit hours (4 to 6 courses) from the prestigious Wharton School. The tuition for each course is approximately $3000, so the total cost may range from $12,000 to $18,000 and may take over a year to complete. The courses are held on the Wharton campus in Philadelphia, so it is definitely not accessible to everyone. Even so, some students travel from Washington D.C. and New York City to attend.

eCornell offers 22 certificate programs in leadership, management, human resources, and hospitality & foodservice management. A representative example is a certificate in Project Leadership, which consists of 6 courses (each course is two weeks and 6 hours “learning time”), at a cost of $3750. Although the courses can be taken online, the certificate is awarded from Cornell University’s College of Engineering.

Do you have experience with a professional certification that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments.

Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

When I worked for TechTeam a number of years ago, many of my colleagues were frustrated by the slow pace of their career advancement. Several of them decided to study for a Novell Networking certification exam, and were regularly seen toting around hefty red-and-gray hardcover books. Once they passed and were certified as CNAs (Certified Novell Administrators), they quickly left the company to work elsewhere. They increased their salaries by at least 45%, and sometimes much more. Not a bad return for an investment of studying and a $125 test!

Certification programs cover more than just technical fields, and can range from relatively straightforward and inexpensive to fairly time-consuming and pricey. In almost every case it give you an opportunity to learn skills–or validate existing skills–to give yourself an edge in the job market without the cost and commitment of a degree program.

How is certification different than a degree?

Degree programs tend to range from 2-4 years, depending on the degree, and require a substantial amount of coursework, accompanied by substantial expense. Certification programs may have required training classes, which tend to be concentrated (e.g. a 5-day course with 8 hours of instruction per day). A frequent alternative to training classes is self-paced self-study. Either course of study is followed by a certification exam. The exam is typically the only required component to a certification program, and the tests are typically pass-fail. Many of the exams are quite difficult, and are designed so that only about half of the hopeful students will succeed on their first try.

Degree programs are offered through accredited colleges and universities, whereas certification programs are typically offered by for-profit organizations. Sometimes the certifying agency is affiliated with a professional organization (e.g. the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants certifies CPAs), and sometimes with a software developer (e.g. Sun certifies Java developers).

Some colleges and universities offer certificate programs in addition to degrees, particularly online and/or for-profit universities such as Capella University. University-offered certificate programs frequently require substantial coursework (and expense), but not a final pass-fail certification exam.

When should I consider certification?

Certification is most often useful if you are trying to demonstrate your expertise in an area where you do not have a lot of (or any) professional experience. For example, if you had been a COBOL programmer but are now applying for jobs as an Oracle database administrator, then becoming an Oracle Database Administrator Certified Professional would be helpful.

Certification is also useful in a crowded marketplace. If you are a systems administrator, you may find that becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) helps set you apart from your competition. All other credentials and experience being equal, the candidate with the certification will be more attractive to a hiring manager.

A certificate may also get you a higher salary from your current employer. Some larger companies automatically award employees salary increases for acquiring job-related certifications. If not, a certificate is a good bargaining chip to use to justify your own request for a salary increase, and if that doesn’t work, it can always help you land a higher paying job elsewhere.

Lastly, some contractors and employers require certifications. For example, a law enforcement agency may require a Certified Computer Examiner for certain computer forensics positions.

Hurdles to certification

Training and exams are frequently located only in major metropolitan areas, which could be an issue if you live off the beaten path. In addition to the often steep prices for a 5-day training course (~$2500), you may also have to factor in travel and accommodations, not to mention rearranging your schedule.

Fortunately, many certification programs do offer distance learning, or, if you are disciplined enough to stick to a self-imposed study schedule, many offer self-study guides (either books, or computer-based learning). The latter can offer a huge savings.

Caveat Emptor

Because certifications are often sought by people who do not have a lot of relevant experience, some people in the industry may be skeptical of their value. Experience without certification is usually preferred to certification without experience. However, acquiring certification shows a fair amount of dedication and desire to break into the industry, and should be looked upon favorably. Although it is probably best to ignore the skeptics–there will always be skeptics, after all–it is important to keep in mind that not all certifications are created equal. Be sure to find out if the certification you are considering is in demand before you pay a lot of money for training courses and exams. Check job listings to see if the certification is mentioned in the required or desired qualifications, and talk to other people with the certification and ask if it helped their careers.

A broad range of certifications

Check back Monday for An Overview of Professional Certifications, where I’ll discuss some specific certification options currently available. The offerings lean heavily towards IT, but I will be sure to explore a few other options as well.

Adding Leadership to your Resume

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

How to make yourself the de facto leader on any project has a few tips for taking on leadership roles at work. However, if you are out-of-work at the moment, suggestions like “Offer an Agenda” don’t seem particularly relevant. How do you add leadership experience to your resume when you are between jobs?

My advice is to find a local professional or networking organization, and start taking an active role. I have been particularly impressed with the individuals I have met who have organized, or who have taken on additional responsibilities for, groups like the Philadelphia Standards Organization, WordCamp Birmingham, and TechMixer University. These three organizations/events really display a broad range: from small, informal meetings with occasional lectures, to large conferences with 400+ participants and corporate sponsors.

If there aren’t any organizations that suit your profession, consider starting an orgnaization. It can be as simple as setting up monthly meetings at a coffee house or even a (preferably quiet) bar. Sites like can help you organize a group, Upcoming can help you publicize events, Eventbrite can help you manage registration (if you can accommodate a limited number of guests), and Google Groups can provide an online discussion forum to keep communication open between meetings.

Leadership roles are not restricted to your profession: you can pick up leadership experience anywhere. I know a lot of people who have gained valuable experience through religious groups or social organizations. A couple other examples from my experience:

  • In 1998, a friend and I organized Quick Novel, an event at which a handful of authors collaborated to produce a novel in a single day. Although the result was not high literature, the ability to pull it off at all required organization, team-building, scheduling, and finding and securing a location with sufficient computer workstations for all the authors.
  • In 2002, 2 friends of mine organized an art show at a local gallery space, titled Immedia Des Refuses. Again, my friends had to secure a space, curate the show, publicize the event, and provide hors d’oeuvres and beverages. The event was a great success, thanks to their great efforts, and as a result they were seen as leaders in the local art community.
  • Just last week, the neighborhood association in my community sponsored a showing of The Little Shop of Horrors in a local park. The organizers had to secure permits, raise funds, contract with a company that could provide the required screen, projection equipment, and sound system, publicize the event.

I think 2 things become clear from these examples:

  1. You can develop your leadership skills in almost any area you can imagine
  2. Leadership is primarily initiative and effort, with a strong dose of coalition-building

Think about it from an employer’s perspective: do you want to hire a complacent employee who waits to follow others into action, or do you want someone dynamic who will initiate action?

Beware of Job Scams

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I just saw an online ad that said, “Make $63 an hour–All you need is a computer!” Obviously, I’m not falling for that. If you could really make $63 an hour with nothing more than a computer, I know a lot of people who would quit their day-jobs.

Scams related to job searches are on the rise, though, and they aren’t always so easy to identify. There are more telecommuting positions open today for which you might never meet your employer in-person. If they ask you to fax a copy of your social security card and driver’s license for verification and tax purposes, how do you know if they are legit? They say they want to set up direct deposit because their payroll has phased out paper checks, but should you really provide a stranger with your bank account number?

Time Magazine’s recent article, Job-Search Scams on the Rise in the Recession, has some tips (e.g. be wary of ads written in poor English or that use a address). also has tips for avoiding identity theft employment scams.

Other scams include requiring a payment for a credit or background check, or payment for (usually nonexistent) training or certifications. I would be skeptical of any job that requires any of those things but is unwilling foot the bill themselves, but one option is to offer to pay for the credit check or background check directly to the providing agency, a 3rd party, and send the results to the prospective employer. A scammer will probably make excuses as to why that isn’t acceptable (i.e. because they won’t receive the money).

It takes a low sort of person to scam the unemployed, but we are living in an age of low people. When in doubt, doubt! A healthy dose of skepticism should keep you safe.

Deal Like a Man

Monday, October 26th, 2009

5 years ago, I ran across a xeroxed handout about salary negotiation. It said that if a salary range for a given job was $30,000-$35,000, women would tend to ask for $32,000.

Men, on the other hand, would ask for $37,000.

Ten Things Companies – and Women – Can Do To Get Ahead provides 2 top-10 lists. The #3 item on the second top-10 list, “10 Ways Michigan Women Can Rev Up Their Careers,” is Dare to Apply. It turns out, when it comes to applying for jobs, women will apply for a job only if they meet nearly all of the listed requirements of the job posting.

Men? They’ll apply if they meet just over half the requirements.

As someone who has reviewed stacks of resumes for position openings, let me say that I am not encouraging unqualified job hunters to send yet more resumes destined for the shredder. When creating a job posting (particularly online, where you’re not paying by the word), you list everything you would like to see in an ideal candidate. But the ideal candidate rarely, if ever exists. Meeting 80% of the qualifications isn’t bad, and in some cases, 60% might be worth a shot.

You don’t have time to apply to every job for which you meet 60% of the posted job requirements. But don’t let a couple details stop you from putting your resume and cover letter in front of a hiring manager. You might just be the best candidate they have.

Too Much Experience?

Year ago, I interviewed a woman who had virtually all of the qualifications posted for the job opening. In fact, she already held a similar position elsewhere. This raised all sorts of questions:

  • Will she be disappointed at the lack of opportunity for career development?
  • Does she have the desire to expand her roles and skills?
  • Does she have a personality conflict with her present employers?

Her answers as to why she was applying for virtually the same role were ambiguous at best: she said she wanted to “keep her options open.” Does that sound like someone you want on your team?

Overqualified candidates often demand higher salaries and have higher turnover. Or, they may not be the dynamic team member you are looking for. If you are applying for a job where the requirements are in easy reach, make sure you know why you want the job and how hiring you will benefit both you and the company.

Picking a Second Career

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Last week in Real-Estate Pros Go Moonlighting, we discovered that real estate agents have been hit hard by the economic downturn. One agent turned to law enforcement, sacrificing 53% of his former pay. Others are turning to part-time consulting work to supplement their incomes, while others are opening retail shops, either on their own or in partnerships.

Patent-Leather Bootstraps

I have to say, I have a hard time sympathizing with one of the real estate agents mentioned, Jill Galloway, who said her income would drop 60% from the usual $200,000-250,000, forcing her to seek other sources of income. Imagine, having to eke by on a mere $80,000-$100,000 a year! But I do admire her can-do spirit: she opened a retail store, rent-free, because the landlord didn’t want too many vacant storefronts in his building. She sells showroom overruns and pays cost when the item sells. It’s a lost-cost, low-risk enterprise. She’s a savvy entrepreneur. (If you want to follow her route, check out our earlier post, No Job? Create Some.)

When should you consider a second career?

Although I don’t expect the economic downturn to last forever, certain sectors of the economy will bounce back more than others. Check out the 30 fastest declining occupations on, and if your profession is listed, it might be time to think about a second career. (#6 on their list, bookbinders & bindery workers is something I did for a couple years.) It’s not all manufacturing, either: telemarketers, data entry operators, and even radio and television announcers are all seeing jobs disappear due to automation and consolidation.

Never fear, it’s not all bad news: also provides us with the 30 fastest-growing jobs. You’ll see that most of these are health care related, with a good number of technology jobs.

Health Care or Technology?

Although health care jobs are a good bet, the training is often very specific: a physician assistant is not a nurse is not a physical therapist is not a dental hygienist. Technology, on the other hand, is more flexible: the knowledge and experience are more easily transferrable. A systems analyst may not be a database administrator or a software engineer, but making the switch may not require as much additional training and certification.

Additionally, as my wife puts it, we don’t need any more people working in the health care profession who are there because they couldn’t find any other work! Not everyone is cut out for working directly with patients on a daily basis.

I lean towards technology. Mind you, my background is in technology, so I’m biased. Picking a second career is about both what is marketable and what suits you best. If your strengths are working with people, rather than staring at a computer screen, don’t let my opinion sway you! Although I haven’t read it–shame on me, I know–the classic book on the subject is What Color Is Your Parachute?. It might be a good read if you are considering a career change. 

Business Cards

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Even if you are unemployed, you should have business cards and carry them with you. You never know when you are going to run into someone who is in your line of work, or who might be interested in hiring someone with your skills. Jotting your info down on a scrap piece of paper is awkward and time-consuming, and the promise of beaming our data via IR or wireless from one smartphone to another fails on a variety of levels. Even the trendy (and goofy) Poken don’t have a critical mass in most circles to replace a classic business card.

The subject of business cards always makes me think of the film American Psycho and the scene where Christian Bale’s character starts to burn with quiet hatred for a fellow Wall Streeter who, although a clearly inferior person, has a business card that is even more elegant and understated, yet demonstrating more confidence and refinement, than his own.

Yet, the business cards I see rarely look anything like the classic dark text on white or ivory card-stock. Real estate agents almost invariably have glossy business cards that contain a full-color headshot of themselves, along with their agency logo. Some printed on both sides with, frankly, more information than I care to read in such tiny type.

Elements of a good business card include your name, your professional position (or desired professional position, if you are between jobs) and contact info. Contact info can range from simple phone & e-mail address, to phone, address, e-mail address, portfolio and/or resume website URL, and even a twitter username, e.g. @foxsuit (assuming that social media is important to your line of work, you are a frequent twitter user, and you tweet things that are professionally relevant).

A Great Business Card

I recently came across what I think is a particularly great business card. A few weekends ago, I was at the local farmers market and overheard a woman ask one of the sellers if they had their website up yet. She mentioned she’d be happy to help them build it. Since I am in a very similar line of work, I introduced myself, and she had with her a business card.

Shirley’s business card is well-designed (particularly important for her since she does design work) and is not overly busy. It uses 4 colors: black, white, a pale orange, and a pale brown. It lists her full contact information, and on the back it lists some of her professional specialities. But the best part, in my opinion, is that it features a stylized image of a bicycle. That, combined with a bicycle-themed web address,, gave me a pretty good clue that she is a cyclist. I asked her about cycling and we had a conversation about that as well.

That extra design element provided me an opening to ask her about something other than her professional interests, and gave me a chance to connect with her on a more personal level. You may not have the design skills to come up with such a concept, but you might be able to sneak something interesting and intriguing in a word or two: “Electrical Engineer & Pinball Wizard” might spark someone’s interest.

A Less-than-Great Business Card

I met a fellow at a recent conference who I think is a great guy, but his business card needs help! It is simply too busy to easily discern what it is he actually does. It contains 6 full-color logos, one for his company and several for software packages, and one for a professional organization. Everything about the card suggests that he is a software developer or provides software support, but underneath his name it says writer and blogger. I suppose I could find out more about him by visiting his web site, but he hasn’t provided me with a compelling reason to do so.

It also features a full-color photo of himself, which I would generally discourage. Sure, it puts a face to the name, but you want associates and potential employers or business partners to remember what you do more than what you look like. I think real estate agents put their pictures on their business cards to try to establish trust with their clients and future clients, but honestly–some of them have “faces for radio.”

Getting Business Cards

Most shops with print services, like FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) or OfficeMax, will print business cards. Online services like will also print business cards and ship them to you, generally for 6-7 cents if you order 250. (You may get a better rate, but I have yet to go through 250 business cards with my most up-to-date information).

Other Ideas

I received a business card that was hand-stamped, which is clear from the variation of the ink. This is a nice touch–it feels more personal, although it clearly requires getting a custom rubber stamp made and spending the time to cut and stamp card-stock. That extra effort isn’t going to help, for example, a mortgage loan officer, but it may give an edge to someone in a crafty line of work such as cake decorating. I’ve also seen cards in irregular shapes and sizes, which may stand out among a stack of other business cards, but may also get lost by because they can’t be filed with traditional-sized cards.

I’ve read a variety of articles lately heralding the death of the paper business card, but I think they are wrong. It’s a simple, easy, and inexpensive solution to passing on your contact information to an associate.

How not to apply for a job

Monday, October 12th, 2009

A little humor for a Monday morning:

In Phillies Fan Flees Game With World Series Rings, we discover that Matthew Mervine, the alleged crook, was caught because, in addition to being caught on tape, he stole the rings from an office after he had filled out a job application with his actual contact information.

Add that to your list of ways not to apply for a job: don’t steal from your future employer!

401(k) – Rollover, or Cash Out?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

If you recently lost your job, you may be wondering what to do with your 401(k) account. Even if you haven’t lost your job, you may still be wondering what to do with it, as many employers have stopped offering to match contributions or have eliminated the program entirely.

In most cases, you have 2 options:

  1. Rollover your account to an IRA
  2. Cash out your account

Cashing out may be tempting in the face of reduced income, an uncertain future, but all the usual bills. You should avoid cashing out if at all possible, though–when you cash out you will pay:

You may end up seeing only $650 for every $1000 in your account. Ouch!

Nearly all banks and credit unions offer IRA accounts. You can also get an IRA account through an investment management company like Vanguard, although their minimum investments may be substantially higher. A 401(k) rollover to a traditional IRA will incur no penalties, and you won’t pay taxes until you start taking distributions in retirement.

Other advantages of an IRA? You can take distributions without penalty (though you still have to pay taxes) for qualifying medical expenses, higher education expenses, and a first home purchase. It is also not at risk in the event that you have to declare bankruptcy (which is unlikely, since you are, without a doubt, a clever job hunter).

There are a few cases where it may make sense to cash it out. For example, if the penalty+tax is 25% and you have credit card debt with a 32% interest rate, it makes sense to cash out and pay off the debt.

(Remember that the value of your retirement account should be going up–if you expect a 7% return, then you are losing that return plus the 25% in penalties and taxes–which makes paying off that high-interest credit card seem like an even exchange. I would still lean towards an IRA rollover, though, because the IRA probably has a longer time horizon than your credit card bill.)

Also, if you don’t have a lot of savings and are not eligible for unemployment compensation, it may make sense to cash out your retirement account so that you are not immediately faced with the prospect of late payments and other financial mishaps. If you have a substantial 401(k) balance, you should be able to cash out just a portion of it, while rolling the remainder over to an IRA.

Hang on to that retirement account if you can!