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NOTIONS: Blessings and benefits of bestowing that first break

August 11, 2008

Dear Win: I'm writing to say thank you. I'm not sure I've ever adequately done that. I'm not sure I ever can. I'm also not sure I ever quite grasped the gamble you took on me when I was a not-even-graduated college senior 28 years ago-not until the resumes and referral requests started filling my inbox and the risks of hiring rookies sank in.

But this isn't just between you and me. I hope this letter will prompt others to thank the employer who gave them their first break.

I also hope your example will prompt some other employers to see something in that young professional who walks in the door with talent and passion, but without the "minimum qualifications" mandated by H.R.

What's prompting this missive now?

A few weeks ago, a client sent me a job description, hoping I could refer some candidates. She's trying to fill a corporate communications position. The paperwork calls for a "bachelor's degree in journalism, communications or related discipline." It requests a "minimum of 5-7 years of experience in media relations, communications agency or journalism."

Last week, I received another job description-this one from a professional colleague seeking to supplement her corporate PR department. It requires "5-plus years experience in communications and public affairs," plus lots of background in speechwriting, media relations, planning, crisis communications, etc.

And then there's the endless queue of recent and soon-to-be college graduates, and mid-life career-changers, seeking "informational interviews."

A member of my wife's sorority will graduate in December. She wants to discuss opportunities in the local market.

A local business executive's daughter graduated in May. She'd like to work in advertising or PR. A client asks if I'll chat with her.

An Americorps volunteer is wrapping up her post-college internship with a local not-for-profit. She wants to discuss job options. Could I spare 20 minutes?

A local attorney wants to change professions. The PR business might be of interest. Could I explain the ins and outs?

Sure. Because a young mayor did that, and more, for me.

After three decades in the working world, I realize what a brash notion I proposed back then. There I was: 22 years old, with three-and-a-half years of undergraduate English and political science coursework; no degree; two internships and a state high school speech championship. And I proclaim to your chief of staff that I want to be your public information officer and speechwriter. Absurd!

But you rolled the dice. And put me on a team with some of the smartest colleagues and teachers I've ever known. And without the usually mandatory "five years" or "five-to-seven years" experience, we somehow managed in that first term more speechwriting, media relations, community outreach, planning and crisis communications than most folks muster in a career.

In the mail this week, I received my annual "Social Security Statement." You know the one: It shows all the money you've put in, how little you're going to get out, and the cover note that says they'll run out of money by 2041 so your kids and grandkids are screwed unless Congress acts soon.

Anyway, that statement shows how much I earned when we worked together: $11,049 the first year, climbing to $18,711 the fourth, with three promotions in between.

But hey, it wasn't about the money (even though I whined about it at the time).

It was about daily, 24/7 doses of idealism and public service; pettiness and partisanship; cynicism and skepticism; economic development and energy conservation; race relations and gender equity; public safety and human rights; sewers and streets; sludge and storm water; abandoned cars and empty factories; utility rates and sidewalk repairs; neighborhood walks and council meetings; labor relations and state-government lobbying.

And yes, it was about the attempted assassination of a civil rights leader; and a bidding war with thousands of jobs at stake; and a flood with thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars of property at stake; and two presidential visits.

And mostly, it was about 40 city departments and 2,000 employees and 180,000 citizens counting on us every day.

In hindsight, you gave this 22-year-old kid a Ph. D. in experience and paid me for the privilege. And for that, I'll always be grateful.

The other morning, I had breakfast with a young friend who's struggling in the first year of her first job. She's not given access to the CEO of her organization-something I got from you. She works solo, rather than with a team of colleagues-something I got under your leadership. Her ideas are not always encouraged or welcomed by her boss-as you encouraged and welcomed mine. She has no mentor, as you and your team mentored me.

My friend seems wise beyond her yearout-of-college reality. I think I should refer her for one of those jobs requiring "five to seven years" experience. Do you think someone would take a gamble on her?

Sincerely, Bruce



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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