Off the Cuff with Kathleen DeBoer, “Gotta Job Yet?!” Panelist

Kathleen DeBoer, deputy head and sales/marketing manager at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, came to Oberlin yesterday to be a panelist on “Gotta Job Yet?! A Forum on Youth Unemployment.” DeBoer works specifically with clients in the U.S. who utilize OECD data and reports, including the Executive Office of the President and the Senate Finance Committee. Since the OECD’s creation after WWII, the organization has evolved to become one of the largest economic publishers in the world.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

The OECD has a long and interesting history, starting with the overseeing of the Marshall Plan after WWII. Can you explain its purpose then and how it’s evolved until now?

If you’re familiar with George Marshall’s speech, you know that Europe needed to be rebuilt after WWII. I overheard someone at the State Department say that, “Well, if we hadn’t helped them rebuild, we would’ve been supporting them.” I’d never really heard that in school, but if you think about it it’s true. The U.S. and Canada were the funders of the Marshall plan, and they needed to have an organization to actually disperse the money properly, so that was the [Organisation for European Economic Cooperation]. During the Eisenhower presidency, the initial plans for becoming the OECD [were created], and then Kennedy signed it into law in 1961. At that time, there were 18 European countries plus the United States and Canada. The idea was that there were things they could cooperate on that would facilitate global trade. If you’re going to be trading things you have to know what they are and that still applies today. If the state of Washington is exporting apples to China, the Chinese need to know the difference between a granny smith and a mackintosh and a delicious apple. Anything that facilitates trade and economies growing is an area that initially we would get involved in. And to a certain extent that’s still true today. But I think our program of work has expanded to include all kind of things, [such as] governments [wanting] to handle [trade] from a multilateral perspective. We employ a thousand or so socio-economists in Paris, so we actually have a think tank of people that can be deployed to work on a whole range of problems, and that’s very useful. That’s what we do now. We participate in the G8 and the G20 processes and since those organizations do not have their own secretariat or staff to do all this work, they will actually give tasks to the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank. We’ve also grown from 20 countries to 34 countries. I think everyone still finds our work to be useful, different countries for different reasons, and my expectation is that we will continue to grow.

How has the OECD helped the U.S. triple its national wealth, in terms of GDP, over the five decades since its development?

If you look at the growth of the U.S. economy post-WWII, we still are the largest manufacturer. We exported all kinds of things and we still do. Obviously one of [our primary trade partners] was Europe, so while all of those countries were rebuilding their economies, they were able to buy things from us. I also think that some of the soft law that the OECD promulgates, such as the model tax convention and the anti-bribery conventions, are instruments that facilitate trade and facilitate multi-national corporations. The OECD also does a lot of work on tax compliance to identify tax havens and people who are trying to offshore and not pay the income tax. A country like Germany has a lot of people who have tried to hide money in Switzerland, so that body of work is really important to them. It’s really important to us, too. The U.S. has benefited from having standards and cooperation. If you look at where some of the biggest multi-national companies are headquartered, a lot of them are headquartered in the United States.

In OECD countries, including the U.S., youth unemployment has increased two times as much as that of adults. What does that mean for college seniors who are about to enter the job market?

Actually, that’s the average. In some countries it’s much worse. One of the things that I think is overlooked by college graduates today is becoming an entrepreneur. I think partially because of the households they’re raised in, they’re raised with the expectation they’d go to college and then they’d get a job, not [that] they’d go to college and they start their own business. But, if you look at some of the really successful people in this country like a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they dropped out of college and they started their own businesses. This generation has tremendous opportunities in the areas of alternative energy, health care; [recent graduates should be] taking advantage of some of the demographic trends and trying to identify niches. Temporary services are a really good place for recent college graduates to go. They might not think about that, but a temporary job can turn into a permanent job, and also, at least you get some experience on your résumé. My personal advice to people is: “Do anything, don’t do nothing.” Even if you think the job is beneath you, what employers look for is the work habits, being polite, being efficient and learning how to work in a team. Those are experiences you can gain in just about any environment. And if you do have the option to live at home for free and stay on your parent’s health insurance for a couple more years. If you think about it, that’s an ideal setting to do something entrepreneurial. If you can stand it and your parents can stand having you there, it may allow people to have a couple of years of rent-free life to maybe take some risks that they may not be able to take later on in their lives.

How does the recent economic downturn affect the job market, especially for youth seeking employment?

It has hit youth harder because they tend to be the most recent hires, and the most recent hires can be the first fires. Also, youth tend to be in more temporary jobs, and they don’t necessarily have contracts. Another way is that people with really great qualifications are willing to work for less money. So you’re not just competing with your fellow college graduates, you’re competing with people with five, 10 years of experience, maybe even with a Master’s degree, who are going after the same jobs you’re going after.

Where does the U.S. stand on youth unemployment rates in comparison to other OECD countries?

We’re interesting in a couple of different ways. Historically, we have the tradition of having young people work while they’re in school in the United States, and that is not true in a lot of other OECD countries. In that sense, we are always going to have more youth employed than in some of those other countries. We used to, before the economic downturn, have 59 percent [of youth — ages 18 to 24 — employed, compared to 51 percent now].

What advice can you give to graduating students to help them be more attractive to employers?

Certain jobs you need to have an additional credential, but I think a lot of graduate schools, such as business schools, like to have students who have had a couple years of work experience before they even take them into business school. I am real believer in doing something, trying to find a job that you like, but, really, finding any job that you can do and developing good work habits, building your resume, getting your boss to say “you’re great,” so that when you go for your first reference you have a great reference, and sticking with something for at least 18 months. You want them to see some commitment and some stability and some willingness to do a job even if it isn’t a great job, but because you respect the fact that it’s a job and someone is paying you to do it. In terms of actually getting a job, you need to really let an employer know that you want to work for them, if you do. Don’t be cool about it; without being ridiculously over-enthusiastic, but what we say in sales: “Ask for the order.” If you get the interview, or even if you don’t, send your résumé in and if you haven’t heard back from them in a certain period of time — follow up. Anything that you can do to make your résumé jump out of the pile is really good.